Night School Studio’s Oxenfree is a narrative adventure game that can be described as a combination of The X-Files, The Goonies and My So-Called Life. You play as Alex, a teenager who takes an overnight camping trip to a nearby island with her new step-brother and a few of her friends. Beginning with the ferry ride to the island, the game does a great job of pulling the player right into the story. With no introductory text or cutscene, all of the story is uncovered in real time as you progress through the game. What is set to be a typical teen getaway complete with flirting, drinking, and reminiscing turns out to become a supernatural experience for the five friends. Upon exploring a mysterious cave, Alex and her friends cause a temporal rift of some kind that sets off a series of paranormal occurrences.
Oxenfree is centered around the friends’ dialogue, which is very engaging and well-acted.
The conversations occur consistently throughout the game while you are moving Alex around to explore the island. Additionally, you chime into the exchanges by selecting dialogue options similar to the mechanics seen in Telltale games. This will feel very familiar as Night School Studio was founded by former Telltale employees. However, the dialogue runs noticeably smoother in Oxenfree due to the “active” nature of the conversations.
During these conversations, you are free to walk around, explore and interact with the environment which makes the game feel very natural. While conversing, Alex can tend to the campfire, throw rocks into the ocean, and even rudely interrupt her companions. This freedom is effective because it eliminates the “stop and talk” sequences that slow down the gameplay of many adventure games. Unfortunately, the dialogue choices that you make do not seem to have a huge effect on the overall outcome of the story, though they do affect your relationships with your companions. The options you are given are not as drastic, difficult, or impacting as you might see in a Telltale game. After getting through the majority of Oxenfree’s 4-5 hour lifespan, I found myself getting a little exhausted with the dialogue options and started to feel like they weren’t making much of a difference.
Gameplay is always smooth and does not feel clunky in any way though it does lack some variety. The only item that Alex holds in her inventory is a portable radio, which is essentially the only tool you can use to progress the game forward. While I didn’t find myself hating the dynamic of the radio, I certainly felt that it was overused. This game is reminiscent of old school LucasArts and Sierra point-and-click adventure games, but without any of the difficult puzzles. As a result, it hardly requires any problem-solving skills and is a bit too easy to coast through in one sitting. The continuous dialogue keeps you engaged for most of the time though there are some pacing issues. Often times it will feel like forever until you actually make a significant change in the story. For example, I grew tired of searching for a certain person and just wanted to get the story moving again.
Alex is a very likeable lead character and one that you can certainly sympathise with. Her relationship with her best friend, Ren, is very playful and fun. Their cool dynamic will give you the feeling that they have an unbreakable bond and you’ll be smiling at their constant bickering. The script is fantastic, full of quirky lines and heartwarming exchanges. Playing as Alex, you’ll decide fairly early on how you want to respond to each person’s statements and questions. While Ren and Alex already have an established relationship, Jonas and Alex are building theirs throughout Oxenfree. As newly step-siblings with traumatic familial pasts, they are weary of each other. Throughout the game, they are exploring each other’s personalities and making an effort to become friends. Clarissa is also a significant character who fulfils the role of the stuck-up, nasty popular girl. She and Alex often butt heads, which is later revealed to be the result of meaningful past events.
Apart from dialogue, exploration is the other big part of Oxenfree. The island is fairly large and filled with areas you’ll want to investigate and explore. Getting to the next area is always exciting. The game looks absolutely beautiful. You’ll certainly remember things as you progress through the game since each environment has distinct characteristics. The art direction is very immersive and works well to set the tone for each scene. The backgrounds and landscapes look hand-painted giving the game a loose storybook feel. The camera is pulled back pretty far, giving you a large scope of your surroundings as you walk along. While you can freely roam around the island, your character follows branching linear paths with posted signs pointing the way to the next area. At times, you will climb rock walls and hop across ledges with great animation.
The eerie atmosphere in Oxenfree is present throughout most of the game, which is one of its strongest attributes. Ambient sounds accompany the stunning visuals, fully immersing you in this supernatural mystery tale. The music is sparse but appropriately dreary and curious. I found some of the best parts of this game to be the temporal rift sections. The audiovisual is incredible here as the screen distorts, the radio signal becomes a harsh crackly static, and terrifying inhuman voices are heard calling for you. The first few times these sequences occur are genuinely haunting though their effect wears a bit with overuse.
Other than a few slow sections, the storytelling is dynamic and interesting.
The events on the island are just as interesting as the backstory illustrated by the character conversations. Throughout the game, we learn about past events in the characters’ lives which add context to the overall experience. This is ultimately a coming-of-age tale with the characters being the main driving force of the story. With that being said, the drama between the teens is far more interesting than the mysteries of the island. Each character is well-established and you’ll want to spend time with them throughout the experience.
Despite Oxenfree’ promising beginning, its charm begins to wear off towards the end. The climax and conclusion of the island’s mystery prove to be ultimately unsatisfying. There is little payoff at the end especially considering the unsettling and frightening build-up during the initial supernatural events. The ending feels strangely rushed, which is odd considering that so much time was spent developing the first and second “acts” of the story. When the final parts of Oxenfree’s story are revealed, I can’t help but feel the same dissatisfaction I got with The Dig’s ending. There is a lot of great wonder and mystery which begins to lose momentum during the final act.
Oxenfree may merit a second playthrough if you really want to see how much you can alter the relationships of these friends. The engaging characters, cool aesthetic, and polished dialogue would be better accompanied by some witty puzzles and added challenge. As an adventure game it leaves a lot to be desired, but as an interactive storytelling game, it should certainly be recommended. Night School Studio are off to a great start with this game but have some growing to do as a development team.
• Great dialogue system
• Well-written characters
• Excellent audiovisual and atmosphere
• Beautiful art style
• Polished gameplay
• Lack of overall challenge
• Rushed ending
• Inconsistent pacing