Platform(s): Android, Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, iOS
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Night School Studio
Release Date: Jan. 15, 2016

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


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Xbox One Review - 'Oxenfree'

by Brian Dumlao on Jan. 25, 2016 @ 12:15 a.m. PST

Inspired by classic cult films like Stand by Me and Poltergeist, Oxenfree is a supernatural adventure game about a group of friends who unwittingly open a ghostly rift.

Buy Oxenfree

Last year gave players something unexpected: two great adventure games that starred teenagers. The first was Life is Strange, an episodic game about a girl who could manipulate time but was a powerful title due to the tough decisions it forced the player to make. The other was Until Dawn, which seemed like unfortunate shovelware at first glance but turned out to be a great horror game that played with the idea of an ensemble teen slasher film. Those two titles were signs that the gaming public was ready to move away from the standard hero template. This year, we have another entry in the teen adventure genre in the form of Oxenfree. The title has already sparked enough intrigue that Skybound Entertainment, the people behind The Walking Dead, are also trying to use it for other media, including a movie. The game needs to stand on its own as a good piece of entertainment, and with a few caveats, it does just that.

You play the role of Alex, a senior in a sleepy Northwestern town who just met her stepbrother Jonas for the first time. Along with her best friend, Ren, the trio head off to Edwards Island, a tourist trap where the plan is to have a wild beach party with the high school class. Upon landing via the last ferry of the day, they discover that the only people there are Clarissa, the ex-girlfriend of Alex's long-deceased brother Michael, and her friend Nona, who Ren has a crush on. Finding nothing better to do, you use your radio to disprove the theory that there are mysterious radio signals that can only be received on the island. Once you discover that the signals do exist, things take a turn and you find yourself separated from everyone else. Fearful of what can happen next, you try to reunite everyone and get off the island before the sun rises.

Adventure games, especially in the modern era, tend to live or die based on their story alone. To that end, the tale in Oxenfree simply fascinates. The supernatural elements lead to intrigue and unease as opposed to outright fear. This is especially true when the time traveling game mechanic appears. Seemingly benign at first, the things you see and experience ramp up at just the right pace, so what you see later can be shocking, especially since the game doesn't use gore and viscera to accomplish that. If it were to be compared to a film, the pacing is similar to "Super 8" or one of the early films from the likes of Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis.

Part of the story's appeal comes from the characters, all of whom have set personalities when you meet them but quickly prove to be much deeper. Jonas, for example, may have that tough guy exterior, but it rarely shows up despite mentions of him being imprisoned years ago. Clarissa's anger seems to be her coping mechanism for dealing with Michael's passing, and Ren is a humorous and talkative soul who indulges in special edibles once in a while. The fully realized cast plays against type, and it is refreshing to see that depicted in a teen ensemble cast.

The other part of the story's appeal is in the dialogue. Sticking with the film analogy, you get the sense that the script was inspired by someone like Kevin Williamson or Diablo Cody. It can be a little fast in places and have a few references that modern teens may not know. However, it doesn't go too far into unnatural territory, and aside from the lack of cursing, there aren't instances where slang or colloquialisms are used awkwardly. You'll get the "ums" and "whatevers" thrown in but nothing too excessive. There are spots where the dialogue is meaningful, but it doesn't feel manufactured, as things like loss and the afterlife are brought up. It sounds more real than scripted, and the game experience is better for it.

You'll notice that the review alluded to this being a modern adventure title, which some gamers might call a walking simulator. Regardless of whether you think this is a derogatory term, exploration really is a big part of the game. You walk down predetermined paths, climb rock faces, and even make a jump or two. You can examine a few objects, most of which serve a purpose, and generally soak up the environment. What you won't do is engage in combat, as there's nothing to fight and there aren't any Quick Time Events to worry about. Dexterity isn't being tested, and there's no opportunity for death. This is the kind of game where the designers want you to finish it without too much difficulty, something that comes in handy if you choose to finish it multiple times to access all of the possible conclusions.

The dialogue system also plays a huge part in the gameplay department. As in the titles from Telltale Games, you're given several dialogue options. Each answer has a specific mood, and even silence is a viable answer. As expected, each answer affects characters and their decisions and relationship toward you, and that also affects the game's ending.

There are a few things that make this dialogue system stand out above others. The first is that it is constant. There are barely any moments of silence, as characters talk all the time and the game makes it a point to give you dialogue options at almost all times. The flow of dialogue goes for something more organic instead of scripted, so the characters don't stop and wait for a response as you decide on what to say — almost like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones but without a visible timer. There is also no time for you to formulate something, so your decisions are always subject to spur-of-the-moment thinking. Your answers can also interrupt their train of thought, and sometimes, they'll naturally find a way to return to their topic of discussion.

The other thing that makes the dialogue system stand out is that there are no clear indicators as to what your choices will do to the overall tale. With the exception of a few key moments near the end of the game, you won't learn the consequences until you hear the other character's reaction. There are times when an icon of yourself pops up in another character's speech bubble, but the meaning behind it is ambiguous enough that it might as well mean nothing at all. Even though some may find that kind of ambiguity annoying, it is nice to see that you have to use your own conversational instincts to ensure that you get the desired conclusion or try and fix the situation so you can get to that desired ending at the last minute.

To that end, puzzles aren't really a significant part of Oxenfree. This isn't to say that they don't exist, but the ones you encounter have a low level of difficulty. Most of the time, you're given large hints, like color intensity and violent controller vibration to let you know you're on the right path, so the answers become fairly obvious, and roadblocks are easily overcome. There are two exceptions to this, both presented in a quiz format, but they don't seem to affect much if you don't answer correctly.

That being said, the game makes great use of the radio. Its primary function is to act as a key for certain doors and a conduit for contacting the island's supernatural elements. However, since you can pull it out at any time, you have access to a few other things. For example, using it at designated spots gives you information about the island, such as the importance of nearby structures and monuments. You can also use it at any spot to dial in to random frequencies. Some give you classical music snippets while others sound like faded radio broadcasts. There's even an instance where you get a WWII propaganda song with a character that sounds suspiciously like Bugs Bunny. Those are some of the fun little things you can do that make the radio a nice diversion instead of just a puzzle-solving tool.

When put together, the game crafts a world that you want to explore. Though most of the things you do are related to story progression, the game gives you a few instances of getting auxiliary info from items around the world. Stone markings also give you a chance to use your radio and tune in to special broadcasts that might not give much info but are unsettling due to their mysterious nature. They're fun activities, and some of the spots are well hidden, giving you something else to look for as you traverse the map.

Graphically, Oxenfree is quite beautiful. The game uses a watercolor and charcoal combination that makes everything look like it came from a modern storybook, and great use of lighting and shadow help accentuate the environment. The camera is pulled back enough to bring these locales into focus, and each place looks like a well-done modern painting, beautiful even when things are going bad. This has the effect of making your characters rather small by comparison, but they're still easily identifiable. With round heads but angular in most areas, they have smooth movements and expressive actions. Overall, you've got something that looks rather timeless since the style will look fresh years from now.

Likewise, the sound is near-perfect. Musical artist SCNTFC has put together a soundtrack that expertly teeters between relative calm to dread and back again with a signature synth sound that feels like it was meant for an indie film. It is amazing and is one of the few soundtracks you'd want to listen to outside of the game. Meanwhile, the voice acting is very well done, a requirement since the game talks to you almost all the time. Though the cast is small, all of the characters sound perfect, and their performances make the dialogue sound very normal for teenagers.

It has to be noted, though, that the game suffers from quite a few bugs. Some are minor, such as the subtitled dialogue missing words or proper punctuation. Some are a little bit more serious, such as when your partner won't move to the correct spot, sometimes requiring you to reset the game to get things working properly. The more serious issue is in the game's tendency to crash. Throughout the first playthrough, we encountered at least five crashes. Two of them occurred as the game got through the initial company logos, and the other three happened during loading screens when you transitioned into a new area. The checkpoints are favorable enough that you only lost a little bit of progress or none at all, but their frequency can be annoying considering that the game can be finished in slightly more than an afternoon (and only if you're adamant about finding all of the extras). For a modern adventure game with some replay value, these flaws keep it from being a top-tier entry in the genre.

If you can live with that, Oxenfree ends up being a great experience for modern adventure fans. It may have a lot more dialogue than puzzles, but it is so well written that you miss it in the silent moments. The interesting story is backed up by likeable characters, and the whole thing is wrapped up with a presentation that bleeds style. Unless you want to wait to see if the issues are addressed in a future patch, Oxenfree is worth checking out now.

Score: 8.0/10

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