A horror adventure you should definitely seek out
Oxenfree makes it quickly apparent it was developed by ex-Telltale employees. Night School Studio’s first game is very much a product of its creators’ previous work experience. It would be in error to simply label it as a Telltale game in all but name though, as Oxenfree at minimum represents the kind of evolution in game design Telltale has been sorely needing for the past few years.
Oxenfree tells the tale of five high school kids who are attending an annual beach party on a small island. The cast consists of the main character Alex, her new step-brother Jonas, her best friend Ren, her brother’s ex-girlfriend Clarissa, and the relative newcomer to the group, Nona. Their plans soon go awry though when supernatural occurrences begin, and it’s up to Alex to try to solve the mysteries of the island while trying to keep her friends alive through the night.
Much of the gameplay in Oxenfree is similar to the “select one of two to three dialogue choices” system Telltale employs. Where Oxenfree improves over Telltale’s works is its innovative and more natural free-flowing dialogue system. Rather than having the camera refocus and dialogue choices being displayed on the bottom half of the screen, text bubbles are floated just above Alex’s head. Instead of displaying a timer, characters continue to converse while you choose your response. If you don’t reply within a certain time limit, the conversation will typically continue with either a default response from Alex or simply act as if she did not respond.
While it might not sound like a drastic departure from what Telltale does, the system works brilliantly in practice. Because your eyes are typically concentrating on the character you’re controlling, and because the game doesn’t take control away from you during conversations, your eyes are already focusing on Alex and where the dialogue options will be presented. In addition, the developers don’t attempt to cram extraneous words into these text bubbles. Typically, there will be no more than four to six words in any particular bubble, and the responses will be distinctive enough you won’t need much time to process how you want to respond. While it does get hectic on occasion, it is a compromise I was more than willing to accept for how superior the flow of conversations felt compared to most modern adventure games.
When not conversing with others, Oxenfree controls much like a standard point-and-click adventure. While there is some amount of minimal puzzle-solving, it’s nothing terribly complex. Alex carries a small portable radio with her which she uses to tune in to radio signals throughout the island. Some of the game’s collectibles are found using this gameplay device as well.
I found Oxenfree’s cast to be immensely enjoyable. Even with the cast being comprised of teenagers largely concerned with partying, drugs, alcohol, and sex, they didn’t entirely fall into the stereotypes one might expect from the horror genre. Yes, Ren tries way too hard to the point of annoyance to impress girls, and yes Clarissa is a about as approachable as a porcupine, but by the end of the game you’ll come to understand these characters. And if you don’t like someone, well, you’ll get your opportunity throughout the game to have Alex tell them to go piss off.
The game’s minimal cast and branching gameplay allows for each character to be fully developed. Throughout the game, you’ll have the opportunity to choose which characters to spend more time with along with who to side with when inevitably tension forms within the group. You won’t get to know every character intimately within one playthrough, which might be off-putting to players who like to only play a game once to completion. However, the benefit of this is each character is able to be fully fleshed out while not impacting the overall pacing of the narrative, which would otherwise have to be longer to accommodate these added scenes.
If anything, the overall pacing of the game is a bit odd. The first two-thirds of the game fly by almost too quickly, while the final third of the game is bogged down by introducing a scavenger hunt. While this is entirely optional, it is necessary to complete this section if you want to fully understand what is going on in the narrative. In addition, there is no fast-travel system, so it does mean retracing your footsteps through almost the entire length of the game. The actual mechanics and clues of the scavenger hunt are fairly easy and bland. In the end, it plays out more as an excuse to extend the game rather than serving as interesting gameplay.
The scavenger hunt section also reveals how awful your AI party member’s pathfinding can be at times. The character accompanying you will often get caught on scenery. While you typically can advance to the next screen without them, there are a handful of times you need them to be with you to continue. While going through the end game scavenger hunt, there was one screen on which Jonas got caught on the scenery every time no matter how many attempts I made to reload the game or zone him in and out of the area. Eventually, I had to give up and go all the way around the entire island to get to where I needed to go from the opposite side.
The game’s painterly art-style is gorgeous. Even though the characters take up minimal screen space, they are extremely expressive. There’s just something otherworldly about the score, whether it is trying to be anywhere from serene to eerie. It feels like the type of electronica score from an 80s horror movie.
Oxenfree very much feels like the step forward Telltale developers would like to make if they weren’t trapped in the rapid release cycle the company demands. While it is a bit rough around the edges and suffers from some issues in its third act, it is still an easy game to recommend to adventure game fans. If nothing else, you’re likely to want to see about every choice-base adventure game adopt its dialogue system.