I enjoy the evolution adventure games have gone under. The LucasArts style adventure game with quirky puzzles still exist, and while I appreciate those, I much prefer the Telltale style. No real puzzles, just aiming to tell a good story with interesting characters and branching dialogue. Oxenfree is an adventure game, and the first game from Night School Studio, that focuses on character and story, with some interesting tweaks to the usual dialogue mechanic. Does it turn the genre upside down? Let’s jump in.
In Oxenfree you are controlling Alex, who is bringing her new stepbrother Jonas to a party on a local island. This is apparently the thing to do for the local high school students, and what starts out as a typical teen party soon evolves into a supernatural mystery that takes the characters across the island in search of answers. Since story is so essential to this style of game, I am not going to say much more about it, and even the screenshots in the review are from pretty early in the game. I will just say for the most part the story worked. It kept me interested, even if I was not entirely certain what was happening all the time.
One thing I do appreciate in this game is the art style. The beautifully rendered landscapes make it look like you are gazing at a painting. The characters tend to be pretty small against the background, but the way they move and interact is still wonderfully emotive. While I am sure others would disagree, how the art was presented often made me think of Broken Age if the camera had been pulled out. Adding to the sense of presence is a wonderful soundtrack. Throughout the game you carry a radio which you can adjust the tuning on and the mix of stations you can find is eclectic,though sparse. The score stays out of the way most of the game, but makes itself known at key moments. This careful way music is utilized means it is always appreciated and adds the appropriate emotional tones at the proper places. How I was feeling while playing was always supported by the music.
Oxenfree gives you numerous dialogue choices throughout the game, and by merely selecting a button, you can choose how Alex will respond. Thankfully, the choices are always clear. In some adventure games the dialogue choices can be a bit confusing. Sometimes you will select a line of dialogue, and the way the character responds just feels different than what you intended. Either the tone is off, sarcasm is added, or maybe what they say just does not seem to fit the option you selected. That never happened when I played Oxenfree. When Alex responded, it always fit what I intended. In certain cases, Alex would have three options that were almost identical, but the use of punctuation meant I could easily differentiate which dialogue choice I was looking for.
In addition, silence is a very real option. You can, theoretically, play the entire game without responding to any prompts, and the game will still progress. I did, on occasion, choose silence, but that was often because I did not have enough time to read all of my options. Each set of dialogue choices has a limited amount of time they are available before they start to fade away. A few times I was tasked with the either quickly picking something I had not read all of, or just being silent. While I am ok with different amounts of time to respond, I felt like I did not always know how long I would have to choose my option, so I sometimes just ran out of time.
Another interesting part of the dialogue is you can interrupt other characters. Most dialogue options happen as soon as you select them, meaning you may interrupt an NPC who was talking, and that NPC would just end their dialogue. It seemed like when there was key, main-story information being discussed your responses would wait. However, if one of your companions was chatting about a class project, you could choose to interrupt them to keep things moving along. I thought this was interesting as it made the interactions feel more organic and less like my responses were thrown in a hopper waiting for the appropriate time to be recited.
A game like this is often made or broken by the dialogue, and the writing here is strong. Combine that with excellent voice acting and you have some pretty great storytelling. The characters seemed to ooze with personality, and even though you cannot see their facial expressions in the game, you are left with no doubts about how they are feeling. A strong cast of notable voice actors was selected for this game (including Erin Yvette who played Snow in The Wolf Among Us and Gavin Hammon who played Kenny in The Walking Dead) and they definitely deliver.
The controls work well enough. There were a couple times where I would try to move a certain direction, but I hadn’t quite gotten to the right area to be able to, even though from an art standpoint it looked like moving the direction I wanted was an option. With a game like this though, that is not a huge deal. The only other small gripe I have is I wish the walking speed had been a bit faster. Not much, just a hair. I know this probably sounds nit-picky, but when a game has collectibles as a part of it, and you have to do some backtracking to get them, it can be a bummer that you cannot pick up the pace of your character.
Overall, Oxenfree is a solid entry into the adventure game genre. The story might be a bit hard to follow for some, but the characters are engaging, the voice acting is solid, and the art direction is wonderful making this a nice 4 hour (or so) adventure. There are multiple endings, and a platinum trophy, so I may go back and replay. For now though, I am happy with my Oxenfree experience.