- Format: Xbox One (version reviewed), PC, PS4
- Unleashed: Out Now (Xbox One/PC), TBC (PS4)
- Publisher: Night School Studio
- Developer: Night School Studio
- Players: 1
- Site: http://nightschoolstudio.com/oxenfree/
- Game code shared from freelance work
In this industry, “indie” usually seemed to mean “game that looks like a NES platformer” – and sometimes, it still does. Here in the space year 2016 however, we live in a world where indie games have proven to be some of the most exciting and even influential titles out there. Oxenfree’s distant camera may send console gamers’ eyes glazing over, but don’t be fooled; this is no cookie-cutter project.
You are put into the digital shoes of blue-haired teen Alex. The game opens with her and a few friends on a ferry which is taking them to a nearby island, where they’re due to meet up with more rapscallions so that they can get up to various teenage things that their parents wouldn’t approve of if they knew where they all were and what they were really doing. There are less people than expected but, pretty soon, they all have much bigger problems to worry about.
The aesthetics might fool you into expecting some sort of platform-puzzler, but that description rarely – if ever – applies here. Oxenfree is in fact much closer to a Telltale-style adventure, but with more thoughtfully-planned consequences and with much greater freedom of movement. Your compadres will babble on to you on a regular basis, and you’ll have countless opportunities to ask or answer questions or comment on your situation. You’ll feel compelled to thrown in your ten cents worth (or about seven pence worth at current exchange rates) because it’s an intriguing story that the game subtly allows you to steer (to an extent), with characters that come alive and some genuinely creepy moments.
The writing is excellent inside and out. The overarching tale is one of young American teens forced to deal with powers they don’t understand that they themselves have accidentally released. It’s a tired and over-familiar concept, but the devil’s in the detail, isn’t it? And the detail here is exquisite. There’s no shortage of surprises, pretty much all of which melt beautifully into gameplay to ensure that neither your brain nor your fingers can be completely sure of what’s around the next corner. There is however, best we could tell, no way of making a mistake which shatters the atmosphere by sending you back to a checkpoint and pretending the last ten minutes or so didn’t happen. More and more games are becoming confident enough to do this, and that can only be seen as a good thing.
The dynamics between the teens, and the language used, combine with some outstanding acting to prove that you don’t need a character to fill the screen in order to make them human. At times, the actor behind Alex’s friend Ren arguably tries a little too hard with his lines, but perhaps that’s covered off by the fact that when it comes to drugs, Ren’s interested in more than just tobacco and alcohol.
As much as we love Oxenfree – and love it we do – there are technical issues at time of writing which simply can not be ignored. One point of interest here that will be a deal breaker for some and completely irrelevant to others regards the subtitles. We found that on the TV we used, when we enabled subtitles they were displayed far too low down on the screen, and almost every single line was only half visible. If you find that you sometimes need to adjust screen size in your games, beware; there’s no such option here.
Of wider consequence is the fact that the game crashed on us several times. The saving grace here is that we never lost any progress, as the crash always occurred on a loading screen after the game had saved. Four times or so the game imploded and kicked us out to the Xbox One dashboard, and a few times on top of that an endless loading loop forced us to quit to dashboard ourselves. What we also found (more of a design issue than a bug) is that when we needlessly doubled back to an area due to misinterpreting the vague map, interacting with an object kicked off dialogue for entirely the wrong character, because we ‘should’ have found and investigated this earlier with a different companion. We also had a few instances of an NPC being reluctant to follow us when they were supposed to, but they always did eventually.
A few undesirable issues then but, as you can see, nothing game-breaking (unless you’re hearing impaired with the wrong sort of TV). We’re not going to go into any more detail regarding specific events or plot points, as that would weaken the experience for you, and we’re not that cruel. There are a few occasions where the storytelling style of having details ripple out from your character is awkward; some important details at the beginning, such as something regarding Alex’s brother, are casually dropped into conversation options meaning that Alex is fully aware of something while the player choosing her dialogue is not. They’re mere pebbles on what is overall a luxuriously smooth road to story’s end, though. By the end you’ll have more questions than answers and, while forums and a second playthrough may answer some, we suspect that others are purposefully being shut in a box for the already confirmed tie-in movie.