After the first 30 minutes of Oxenfree, if you're not surprised by how much the characters talk, you will be by how they never really stop.
That's essentially the hook for Night School Studio's (comprised of former Disney and Telltale developers) debut adventure game: Outside of its rare quiet moments, it features a nearly non-stop stream of conversation during its four-hour running time. Of course, it helps that you're an active participant rather than just the audience. Roughly every 15-20 seconds, you're prompted to chime in with one of three responses—though you can say nothing—which gently nudge character relationships in specific directions. Unlike the more traditional dialogue in something like a Telltale game, Oxenfree goes for a more naturalistic approach: Characters stammer, stumble, interrupt, and often talk over each other in a game built entirely around the art of conversation—a real achievement given the often-stilted nature of pre-recorded dialogue.
But maybe I should back up a bit contextualize just why all these conversations are happening. Oxenfree tells the story of five teens, heading out to a local island (once a WWII military outpost) in the dead of night for the annual tradition of beachfront binge-drinking. Given that the entirety of Oxenfree's story is told entirely through their conversations, it takes a quite a few exchanges to figure out just where everyone stands with each other: Most of the fun comes from watching their various relationships evolve, or, in some cases, unravel as supernatural events cause facades to fade away. And Oxenfree shows a lot of self-control by not putting all the important details out and up front. Since we can't see or hear what the various characters think, some especially important details don't come out until things get especially tense. (Since we're dealing with teens, here, that tends to happen more often than you'd think.)
For the most part, Oxenfree leads you along fairly linear paths as you follow along and keep up with conversations. And that's really all you do: Puzzles pop up here and there, but most of them can be solved by tuning the protagonist's radio to a specific frequency—think of it as an easier version of Fallout's safe-cracking. I normally come down on adventure games that deemphasize puzzles, but in Oxenfree, the non-talky parts keep themselves brief to maintain the narrative's momentum. And even if you're not solving puzzles, Oxenfree has a way of keeping you engaged: The various interactions come with plenty of nuance, and character dynamics rarely change with singular "[X] will remember that" Telltale-style Big Moments. The five-or-so seconds you're given to respond don't allow for much pondering, so in many cases you'll have to go with the least awkward answer and hope for the best.
The biggest bummer about reviewing a game like Oxenfree is the fact that going on about its story could potentially ruin some surprises. But I can at least say Night School Studio's weaves an interesting supernatural mystery once [redacted] happens and its cast of teens finds itself separated and dealing with some pretty unusual circumstances. And, based on the stats about player choices that appear at the end of the game, Oxenfree's story can flow in some pretty different ways—though going outside of the options I chose seemingly leads to some pretty depressing fates. But no matter what end befalls the characters, Oxenfree tells its story with a surprising amount of confidence, never letting on too much about what's going on, even by the finale. Some optional collectibles pop up late in the game to help explain certain events, but I skipped finding these entirely and rarely veered from the critical path—figuring things out alongside the characters made for a much more surprising experience.
Oxenfree's reliance on conversation is especially impressive when you realize we never really see any character's face: The camera remains forever zoomed out, transforming the cast into figures no more than a few inches tall. Yet through a clever use of color, shape, and body language, each teen cuts a unique profile, and communicates a wide spectrum of emotions effectively. It also helps that they really pop against the absolutely gorgeous backgrounds, which evoke a mix of Disney artist Mary Blair's paintings and the art of Superbrothers: Sword and Scorcery. Even in the few times you're forced to retrace your steps, new (and beautiful) details emerge that you never really noticed before.
Though its developers didn't exactly spring out of nowhere, Oxenfree stands as a fine debut from Night School Studio. The Telltale influences definitely show, but Oxenfree deviates from this established format enough to create an entirely new style of adventure—one that I hope they make again in the future. Even if the prospect of hanging out with a group of teens doesn't immediately grab you, once Oxenfree start working its magic, it's nearly impossible to tear yourself away.
The Nitty Gritty
- Interface: Simple and efficient. Plus, an in-game map helps maintain the pacing by pointing out your next destination.
- Lasting appeal: Given its relatively short running time, jumping back into the Oxenfree to explore alternate narrative paths stands as a reasonable proposition.
- Sound: An excellent, moody soundtrack and some great voice acting help sell Oxenfree's story of personal relationships set against creepy circumstances.
- Visuals: The gorgeous, stylized backgrounds envelop the island setting in atmosphere and make for some of the best in-game art I've seen in ages.
Gorgeous, gripping, and well-paced, Oxenfree cuts a new path for adventure games, and is an excellent debut from Night School Studio. Do yourself a favor: Skip movie night and play this one alongside a friend.
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