As we roll into the gaming landscape of 2016, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there isn’t much going on in the wake of the annual Christmas blowout. But thankfully, you couldn’t be much more wrong.
We’ve recently discussed the amazing array of downloadable games to enjoy this month, and the latest indie darling to come crashing down our broadband cables is Oxenfree from Night School Studio.
Oxenfree is a good ol’ fashioned adventure game. It’s almost point ‘n’ click in the way it has you interacting with the world, but where classics like Broken Sword had you smashing random objects together to complete illogical puzzles, Oxenfree is almost entirely dialogue and narrative based.
An intriguing tale
It tells the story of a group of friends who travel to remote tourist trap Edwards Island for a spot of drunken seaside night-reveling. When they get there, they find the place deserted (as expected) and decide to explore the rumours of the island’s strange goings on.
You play as Alex, a turquoise haired girl who unwittingly unleashes a ghoulish presence through the wonders of her pocket radio. It’s then up to you to keep the band of friends together as best as possible while trying to escape the island once and for all.
Night School Studio has Telltale Games alumni among its number, so you can get a pretty good idea of the kind of adaptive narrative you’re in for when you play Oxenfree; events unfold and characters react depending on your choices, and no two playthroughs are the same.
It’s 2016’s first and most interesting must-play title, and here are our reasons why…
It’s a love letter to retro formats
Gaming has always been a digital medium. Even loading things from floppy discs in the good ol’ days was an inherently digital experience once everything had been condensed into your particular system’s temporary memory.
As such, we’ve never played an analogue video game, but Oxenfree imagines what one may be like.
Narrative beats are often progressed through the manual tuning of an FM radio, strange time loops are framed with the familiar distortion of a knackered VHS, and even Magnetophons make an appearance to deliver the best mechanic of the game (spin your thumbstick at the right speed to emulate the pitch of the eerie incidental music).
It gives everything a distinct style, and we think every video game from here on out should come with a ‘VHS fuzz’ option for added retro schtick.
The adaptive story actually feels natural
There are plenty of titles out there with narratives that differ depending on actions you take in the game, or certain paths of conversation that you decide to go down.
When done correctly, it can feel perfectly natural, and almost as if the story you are taking was perfectly tailored for you. When done badly, characters can react in the same way to totally different events, often guiding you down a certain path regardless of whether or not you want to go down it.
Thankfully, Oxenfree falls in to the former category, and you really feel like your choices actually matter.
Dialogue feels like a real conversation
Rarely does the chat between the onscreen characters fall silent in Oxenfree.
There they are, chuntering away, and you are free to interject at certain opportune moments. Or you can just ignore them and let the colourful speech prompts fade away, remaining the strong, silent type if you so wish.
But even when you do choose to make your voice heard, often cutting other character’s lines of dialogue short, it never feels jarring or unnatural. The fact that you’re given a limited amount of time to make your vocal choices is also good too, as it means you’re more likely to answer in a way in which you actually would were you to ever find yourself in a similarly creepy situation.
Too often in other games something important will be put to your character, only for them to remain silent – looping eyeball animations the only thing telling you they’re still alive – while you deliberate over which choice would be more heroic. We’re looking at you LA Noire.
Not so in Oxenfree, where you answer with your gut.
The teen characters are, like, hella believable
Oxenfree is drawing obvious comparisons to last year’s indie smash Life Is Strange through its teens-in-the-Twilight–Zone thematic qualities, and the choose-your-own-adventure structure of its story.
But one area where Oxenfree really holds its own is in the dialogue. Life Is Strange was so obviously not written by a teenager that the dialogue became laughable, as it tried to convince the player that everyone says “hella” these days, and all the kool kids spell every hard-C with a K.
Oxenfree avoids this pitfall by having its characters talk like actual human beings.
This has a lot to do with the amazing voice acting, which is on point throughout. Characters are clearly defined during the whole playthrough, and while it may be a little obvious as to which ones we’re supposed to like more than others, you can never be quite sure of everyone’s true intentions.
The art style is a beauty to behold
An indie game with a beautiful art style? Pull the other one!
Yes, it’s something we hear about every time a small, independent title is made available for our digital downloading needs, but the same is totally true here.
Backgrounds are delicately painted in an almost watercolour style, while the character’s 3D models are distinctly no-frills and all the more stylistic for it.
It all adds to the overall atmosphere when coupled with the excellent sound design (see below), and you’re left feeling like you’re actually living an episode of The Twilight Zone or some 80s teen slasher flick. It’s ten times scarier than any gory, triple-A effort.
The sound design is simply amazing
Sound design in gaming is a criminally overlooked discipline, and my reasons for my thinking it more important than graphics could make a whole blog unto themselves.
Oxenfree excels in its audio delivery, whether it’s the moody, electronic strains of the atmospheric soundtrack (which you can listen to/buy from HERE – and you really should, it’s ace), or the ghostly apparitions that communicate to you only in clips from grainy radio reports. The cut and paste nature of some of the sound effects really is something to be admired.
I struggled for a comparison, but settled on triple-A gaming’s Arkham series as a pretty close point of reference, specifically the glitchy way in which The Riddler delivers his brain teasers.
I’m not sure if this is a platform specific problem, but on at least three occasions with my time with Oxenfree, the game crashed completely and forced me back to my Xbox One’s home screen.
At one time this happened during the very final scene of the game, and I had to replay from a checkpoint at least ten minutes prior.
It’s a small gripe, and one that can hopefully be patched in a future update, but it’s a shame to see such an otherwise well-crafted game fall foul to technical grumbles.
Still, Oxenfree truly is 2016’s first must-play title. There’s nothing better to tide you along for a few, mesmerising hours.