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Oxenfree – PlayStation 4

Oxenfree – PlayStation 4

Oxenfree [Box Art]Platform: PlayStation 4

Developer: Night School Studio

Publisher: Night School Studio

Genre: RPG, Adventure

Release Date: May 31st, 2016

Nerd Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Five high schoolers sneak off to an island for a weekend of teenage debauchery and trouble-making. Only, things aren’t quite what they seem on the surface. Join me today as I review the creative title Oxenfree for the PlayStation 4!

Oxenfree [Night School Studio Logo]

Oxenfree was developed by Night School, comprised of various alumni from Telltale Games and Disney. Interested in exploring the “intersection of story and interactivity,” their mission statement with Oxenfree was in “applying their extensive experience to create a game filled with wonder, danger, and humor.” Did they accomplish this mission with Oxenfree? Let’s find out!

So what is Oxenfree? An RPG? A horror game? One of those walking simulators? A social interaction game like Life is Strange? Well, it’s kind of hard to pin Oxenfree down to just one genre, since it borrows elements from quite a few. Role playing as the main character, Alex, the player will participate in tricky social situations, navigate a vast island, and try to save the day through willpower and decision making.

Oxenfree [Ferry]

Oxenfree starts the player aboard an island-bound ferry. Alex, the protagonist, is with her friend Ren and her step-brother Jonas, excited about their weekend of drinking and merry-making. Immediately, the central gameplay elements present themselves: While talking, a character will have a speech bubble that floats above their head, and when Alex has a chance to say something, three speech bubbles will pop up that give the player a variety of things they can say.

Button prompts are rather minimal, since each speech bubble is color-coded to cue you into which buttons to press. This is perhaps one of the most flawless gameplay tutorials that I’ve ever seen, working quickly to make me feel immersed in Oxenfree’s world as I began to figure out the dynamics of how conversations work. I interacted with Ren and Jonas for a bit and tested out my new wings, marveling at how seamless and immersive it felt to interact with these characters.

Before long, things start getting real, and it is up to Alex and the gang to save the day. As should be expected, the conversation sections of Oxenfree are really fun. They are sometimes lighthearted and jovial, and sometimes downright vicious and stressful. The fully-acted dialogue is very well-done, and each individual character is programmed to collaborate for a seamless and immersive experience, giving you the feeling that you’re navigating a real-life conversation, complete with moral ambiguity and the like.

Oxenfree [Conversations]

A cool thing about the in-game conversations is you don’t have to say anything. If you let your speech bubbles go for long enough, they just vanish. In this way, Oxenfree adds an extra dynamic to the conversations; if you want, you can let the conversations of other characters play out, or you can jump in with your own ten cents. This is a great addition, helping the social interactions to feel much more fluid and natural.

But, this mechanic isn’t perfect. There were plenty of times where I wanted to say something but waited too long, but, at the same time, if I chose an option too fast, I would interrupt whatever the other characters were saying, even if I was interested in hearing what they had to say. The worst part of it is it seems really random. Sometimes your choices will interrupt conversation flow and sometimes they won’t, and I can’t figure out why. I wish that the developers had opted for more consistency here, as it would have made Oxenfree a lot more seamless. As it stands, I often found myself waiting…until…the very…last…second before saying any thing so as to avoid interrupting people too fast.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the way the conversation works is the way that it can seamlessly weave in bits of lore. For instance, while having a conversation with one of the characters early on, a group of bubbles popped up over my head. Two of them were really benign, and one of them was like “so your mom’s dead?”

Oxenfree [Conversations 3]

Like. Damn.

So every now and then, the choices that you can make during a conversation will deliver a straight gut-punch to your expectations, quietly telling you surprising things about the world that you never would have guessed. You can act on them or you can choose not to, but the ideas get planted nonetheless, as if you are Alex, and these speech bubbles are cropping up as part of your thought pattern. This is one of the coolest ways that I’ve ever seen background information and lore delivered in a video game, since it avoids the typical “beat you over the head” formula and even imitates the act of thinking pretty convincingly. Out of all the nice things I say about this game, this one is perhaps my favorite and I would love to see more of this in future games.

Oxenfree [Level Navigation]

Since the events of Oxenfree take place on an island, you and the other characters will spend a lot of time navigating its terrain in order to accomplish various objectives. This part is kind of…boring, with a touch of clunkiness as well. There’s nothing particularly interesting about navigating each individual screen, so long as you know how to point the joystick in a direction and press the X button every now and then.

That said, there are two redeeming aspects about the traveling sections. The first is that you get to talk to people along the way. Conversations are Oxenfree’s bread and butter, so having a companion follow you around greatly reduces the annoyance of having to navigate its world.

The second redeeming element would have to be the overall level layout. Each little area is separated by a load screen, and there’s a pretty decent feeling of permanence to the level design. As the story progresses, you are tasked with navigating your way to the various sections. This isn’t very hard, since you have a little handy map that accompanies you. But I really like the map in this game, and I’ll explain why.

Oftentimes in “walking simulator” games, maps are included as a neat little accessory to the game, stylizing the levels and locations for you so that you get a general sense of where things are in relation to each other. But they do precious little, and are often merely cosmetic. This is painfully obvious in games like Virginia, where you literally can’t decide where you’re going next anyway. So why need a map?

Oxenfree, on the other hand, makes great use of its map, asking you to get to various places without really pointing you there in any obvious way, which replicated for me the orienteering portions of Firewatch. there are even little handy notes that will be written around the map’s edges, which remind you and chronicle for you the tasks you’ve done as well as the ones you still need to do. Awesome!

Oxenfree [Conversations 4]

Combining the conversation and world navigation sections, Oxenfree features a rather good story. It has a great progression, with highs and lows, a concrete beginning-middle-end structure, as well as rising and falling actions for a very classically-arranged story. Almost as if these guys know what they’re doing. There are a couple of pretty gnarly mind-fucks along the way that’ll make you go Whoa!

The best part about the story is the way your words and decisions alter it. Say the wrong thing to the wrong person too many times, and you’ll affect the way their part of the story ends. Go to the wrong place at the wrong time, and you’ll affect the way the story ends. Not only that, but your ending will change in more than just one way. Similar to Until Dawn (except better), Oxenfree combines several variables along the way, resulting in a unique, custom ending for your posse. There’s even this cool little thing where a pie chart will show up that tells you what percentage of players reached your endings for the different characters. That’s really awesome, greatly adding to Oxenfree’s replay value while taking advantage of online capabilities.

The graphics are kind of cool. For just about the entirety of the game the characters are really far away, so it’s hard to make any details out. The surrounding environment is extremely well-done. It looks like it may be painted in a traditional cartoon animation fashion, with kind of a weird German Expressionism-style slantyness to the pathways and trees that deepen the foreboding atmosphere of Oxenfree.

On top of that, the soundtrack is also pretty good. Mainly it consists of subdued electronic tracks with a bit of a post-rock vibe. Sound effects are great, the sound mixing is great, the voice acting is great. No complaints really in Oxenfree’s handling of sound.

Oxenfree [Ending]

Hopefully by now you’ve come with an answer to the question “What is Oxenfree?” Oxenfree is part walking simulator, part conversation simulator, and part adventure. The roster of characters is well-developed, thanks in large part to the dynamic and immersive conversation system that lets you interact with the other characters in very fluid and natural ways. As the story progresses, shit gets real, with a great story arc that will keep you engaged throughout. Topping it all off, Oxenfree’s narrative has a bit of a free-form structure, resulting in a ridiculous number of unique ending combinations. Based on my first playthrough, it gets a 7.5, held back by some clunky controls that served only to distract.

Nonetheless, I had a truly great time with Oxenfree, and I’m sure you’ll have the same experience.

Written by Nips


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