Oxenfree review

Game Info
Platform Win, Mac, Xbox One
Publisher Night School Studio
Developer Night School Studio
Release Date Jan 15, 2015

There are few games in recent memory that I've wanted to like as badly as Oxenfree.

Night School Studios' first game hits all of my sweet spots: teen protagonists and branching dialogue options, all wrapped up in a beautiful, painterly art style. Yet despite my appreciation for these individual components, I finished Oxenfree with my mouth agape, feeling wholly unsatisfied.

teen protagonists and branching dialogue options are wrapped up in a beautiful, painterly art style

The beginning of Oxenfree is promising enough. It follows a group of Pacific Northwestern teenagers who are forced to face their greatest fears (and unresolved grief) during a weekend getaway that takes a turn for the worst. You play as blue-haired, unassumingly cool Alex, who's trying to reconcile her feelings about the death of her beloved brother, Michael. At the same time, she's trying to get to know her new stepbrother, Jonas.

oxenfree review screen 1

Accompanying Alex and Jonas are her best friend Ren (an affable stoner), Ren's crush Nona (quintessential ditz) and Clarissa, Michael's ex-girlfriend with whom Alex frequently butts heads. The group's plans to drink and chill out on the beach are quickly dashed when they happen across some supernatural weirdness that exposes their vulnerabilities — oh, and their bodies to ghastly possession. Throw in some annoying temporal anomalies, and there's a whole mess of issues to sort out.

It's Alex's, and by extension the player's, relationships with each of these characters that really drives Oxenfree, more than the narrative's creepy undercurrent. That's in large part thanks to an enormous number of dialogue trees. Night School boasts some former Telltale Games designers in its cohort, and its first release wears the influence of that story-driven studio unapologetically.

oxenfree review image tall 1

It feels great to be given the sheer level of control over the protagonist that Oxenfree offers. Yet many of Alex's dialogue choices seem to have an incremental influence on the overarching story. For every decision you make that has an impact on the narrative, there's a choice between how, precisely, you want to say "no" to someone.

Regardless of whether those conversations lead somewhere, Oxenfree subjects you to a lot of talking. Though it stars a group of teens, Oxenfree doesn't fall back on lazy, cliched "young person" speech. The characters are more earnest than the typical video game teenager, and the bulk of their conversations aren't boring or painful to sit through. For a game as chatty as this one, it's a definite plus that Alex, Jonas and the group tend to have interesting, revealing discussions instead of groan-inducing ones, even if the voice acting isn't exceptional.

The most common conversation topic: what, exactly, is going on. The way Oxenfree subjects the characters and player to these mysterious happenings is inventive. To solve puzzles, Alex uses her pocket radio to access certain signals that eke out information, unlock doors and help her investigate the mystical powers at play.

This sound-driven method is an interesting conceit, but one that boasts style over substance. The dial is severely limited for the first half of the game, and while it eventually expands, the game always nudges you in the right direction so that you'll never be stuck.The radio mechanic might be a bit of a dud, as is the manner in which repetitive time loops are manually rewound and reset.

The best part of the puzzles is honestly just seeing how the graphics adapt and distort under duress. Oxenfree features subtly cartoon-like characters atop backdrops which only grow more stylized when manipulated by the disembodied villains inhabiting the island. When Alex and her friends are knocked back in time a few moments, the screen fuzzes out like an old VHS tape to exaggerate the time skip.

These glitches, which also send things topsy-turvy or completely blur out the field of vision, intensify during creepier situations, like possessions. The scariest moments come at the expense of the player — I won't spoil them here, but there are instances that recognize your own involvement with the game in some surprising, bizarre ways.

oxenfree review screen 3 Night School Studios

Employing the game's strongest quality, its look, to create these effects is perhaps Oxenfree's most important asset. Its accompanying storyline, just doesn't quite match up. You can breeze through it at an almost astonishing pace; on my second time through, I was able to reach an ending in just under three hours. That doesn't afford much time for the story to properly unfold or to really get to know the characters.

I say "an ending" because there are several conclusions you can land upon. Despite the leeway given to shape Alex's responses, the repetitive plot points and short runtime robbed my ending of some of its effect. I tried my hardest to choose different paths the second time around, and my adventure ended up similar, with just a few notable differences.

Dialogue balloons suggest three deviating plotlines based on their color, and Alex's friends will sometimes react to something you or another person says with a thought bubble bearing someone's face on it. The meaning of those thought bubbles is never made overtly apparent. Did they like how Alex answered? Did it upset them? Because the story follows the same general beats, it sometimes feels like these labored decisions are ultimately irrelevant.

Though the events leading up to them don't change too much, the endings offered do vary to a fair degree. It's just that when you land upon them, they're wrapped up fairly quickly. Even scoring a "good" ending didn't feel satisfying. For a game that seems to want to give the player so much agency, I regularly felt powerless, unable to alter my own course.

Wrap Up:

Oxenfree doesn't live up to its potential, but has a story worth telling

Oxenfree exhibits a lot of potential that it doesn't always live up to. Its length is disappointing, and it seems to favor quantity over quality when it comes to the all-important speech bubbles. And that art style and character design is held at a distance; the camera is so zoomed out that the (very limited) overworld never quite feels like home.

But somehow, I'm still fascinated by all of the possibilities afforded by the swath of talking points and conclusions to uncover, however minute the changes are. As is, this coming-of-age tale is one worth telling. It just doesn't quite match the heights of its influences.

Oxenfree was reviewed using a pre-release Steam key provided by Night School Studio. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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