Some years ago, in a magical land known as the internet, people cried out for the return of adventure games. Determined and nourished by tears of nostalgia, a tiny seedling answered their call and sprouted into a mighty oak, bearing fruit of adventure ripe for the picking by anyone willing to reach…for their wallet. Ok, ok…so maybe I’m being a little dramatic. In reality, adventure games never really went away (and I’m not entirely certain acorns can be classified as proper fruit for that matter) but, for a time, they did take a back seat to newer, hipper genres. Today the internet is once again littered with the damn things, and I for one couldn’t be happier.
In fact, I’ve been on somewhat of an adventure game binge. Over the past year or so I’ve revisited old classics like the Broken Sword series, dabbled in Deponia and even took a trip Back…to the Future, taking a DeLorian ride to the days of old, before TellTale switched from inventory based puzzles (put tomato in toaster and summon Santa Claus) to the cinematic, choice driven story progression they are known for today. Although this change brought the studio much acclaim, I was never completely sold on this transition, still preferring to McGyver my way out of dilemmas. What does any of this have to do with Oxenfree, you might ask? Night School Studios, the team behind said title, just so happen to be made up of ex-TellTale and Disney employees. It’s no surprise then, that their first project would be a narrative driven adventure game.
Oxenfree, surprisingly enough, has nothing to do with bovine liberation. Instead, it follows a group of teenagers who travel to a now-defunct military complex-turned tourist attraction, known as Edwards Island. Why do they go there? To party, why else? I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice to say, things go south and the group soon find themselves trying to get off said island as quickly as their animated legs can take them. We take control of Alex, (expertly voiced by Erin Yvette) and experience the game from her perspective. Other major characters include childhood friend Ren (Aaron Kuban), step brother Jonas (Gavin Hammon) as well as the duo of Clarissa (Avital Ash) and her pal Nona (Britanni Johnson). Straight away, the game does a decent job of establishing some initial character traits and relations that only deepen and evolve as the game progresses: Clarissa has a beef with Alex, Ren has a crush on Nona and Jonas tries to fit in. Alex comes with an established story and plenty of her own emotional baggage, but most of her choices and how she handles conversations is left up to us.
Being a narrative driven adventure, Oxenfree relies on immersion and engagement with the player. Despite simplistic presentation, it delivers on both fronts, though not without some flaws. Voice acting is spot on for the most part, fluctuating between good and great while never dipping into bad dub territory. Night School Studios went the extra mile to cast some very talented individuals, and it definitely paid off. Music is mostly subtle and at times even quirky, but always serves to augment the scene without ever feeling out of place. Sound design plays a big role in Oxenfree’s sense of immersion, and I’m happy to say this task was handled very well.
Visuals may be a little more polarizing: The game is presented through a slightly isometric side-view that one would sooner associate with a platformer rather than a narrative adventure. Cartoonish presentation is nothing new for the genre, but visuals are very simplistic and, in comparison to the rest of the game, may come across as one of the weaker elements that Oxenfree has to offer. Personally, I have no problem with the presentation, but did notice a few shortcomings, like climbing animations that aren’t synced up to steps on ladders or stairs. This may seem like a nitpick, but it does stand out when compared to the care and attention that went into crafting the script and sound design.
Progress is made by navigating the island and interacting with both Alex’s surroundings and the other characters. There’s no inventory puzzles; a wireless radio serves as the only tool at our disposal. This radio is introduced at the very beginning of our adventure and plays a major role throughout the entire game. It’s a key item, and you’ll constantly find yourself scanning the airwaves in order to find clues, solve puzzles and, if you’re feeling frisky, partake in some easy listening.
Character interaction is handled through speech bubbles that pop up over Alex, allowing you to choose a reply or even include her in an ongoing conversation. In most cases, saying nothing is also an option as, unless the game requires a mandatory choice, these bubbles will eventually disappear on their own. Unfortunately, there were instances where I ended up picking the silent option involuntarily, as some bubbles only popped up for a brief moment, giving me very little time to choose. As usual, this sort of mechanic comes with the pitfalls of misinterpretation. Every so often I found myself choosing an option, only to find that it wasn’t quite what I expected. This is further augmented by the bubbles themselves, that tend to be quite small and only offer a brief description of what Alex might say. Depending on the circumstances, this can either be insignificant or meaningful, as the game tracks some of your choices which ultimately impact how the epilogue plays out. Saving is done automatically, usually every time Alex transitions between areas. This means that it may be possible to repeat some scenes if you feel compelled to quit and reload, but leaving the area sets what you’ve done in stone (at least until your next playthrough). Load times are surprisingly lengthy, taking several seconds to transition between each area. This was hardly a dealbreaker, but somewhat unexpected considering Oxenfree’s seemingly simple presentation.
My first run took roughly 5 hours and was mostly bug free. There was a single instance where Alex got stuck and couldn’t move, forcing me to reload and repeat that particular section of the game. My biggest complaint concerns movement speed. Alex will run or walk as she sees fit, and climbing, which you’ll be doing a lot of, is a lengthy task. Often, the game will offer an event or conversation while you move, so it’s not as noticeable, but it can be frustrating when you’re just trying to get from A to B with nothing to keep you occupied in between. This may tie into the immersion factor that I mentioned before, but in this particular case I feel Night School could have found a compromise to make traversal a little faster.
Oxenfree offers an engaging, though sometimes confusing, narrative filled with plot twists and reveals that keep things interesting throughout the adventure. Gore and jump scares are kept to a minimum, but that didn’t stop Oxenfree from giving me the creeps whenever it felt like it. That, coupled with excellent voice acting and great sound design make this a standout among indie titles.
A great first outing by a group of very talented people.