Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Oxenfree - Review

Developer: Night School Studios
Publisher: Night School Studios 
Platforms: PC (version played), Xbox One, PS4 (TBA)

I suppose when you say that a game was developed by former Telltale and Disney employees, you have a preconceived notion of what to expect. And in this case you'd be right; Oxenfree is a charming, story-driven game with branching dialogue options and some admittedly gorgeous animation.

In fact, Night School Studios are so confident in their writing and visuals that they comprise almost all of the game. It's game design stripped back to its barest essentials, focusing on the emotional connections of its main characters to carry you through to the end credits.

The story follows Alex and her group of friends as they visit an island somewhere off the coast of the USA. Formerly a bustling tourist spot, it's now desolate, making it the perfect place for teens to escape to, and, in this case, plan an overnight party.

Night School Studios sets up a very specific tone right from the get go, carefully nabbing traditional horror movie elements with the group of five being pretty much the standard slasher movie quintet; you've got the stoner, the final girl, the prom queen and so on. Where Oxenfree tries to throw a curve ball into this predictability is in how the characters are written.

Everything about Oxenfree is low-key, characters mumble on about various topics as you guide Alex along trails or have her clamber over cliffs. Dialogue options will pop up every now and then but the game never stops in order to have you respond. Don't click anything and Alex will simply remain silent.

It makes for a remarkably realistic flow to conversations, making the dialogue in, say, a Telltale game or a modern Bioware title look robotic by comparison. Click on a topic early and you'll even interrupt whoever was talking.

The fact that Night School Studios manage to achieve this all whilst maintaining a chilled, laid back approach is genuinely fascinating. Oxenfree, much like its protagonists, is carefree and doesn't want to be tangled down with ridged rules or structure and its gameplay reflects this, this isn't a game bursting with puzzles or collectibles. It's there to be immersed in.

Naturally, things go wrong for Alex, and, after a brief introductory section, she unwittingly unleashes some kind of entity onto the island. It's a novel monster concept too. For once it's not zombies and neither is it some generic monster. Instead, it's some strange entity that creepily warbles and wails into the radio, or ominously appears in an otherwise innocuous photo as a pair or glowing red eyes…

From then on Oxenfree works effectively as an adventure game, as you navigate the island trying to find Alex's friends and stop whatever is now haunting the group. Areas are interconnected and the level design makes the whole place feel like a real place rather than just a game level. Gameplay itself is pared down to basically navigating Alex around the screen, occasionally using her radio to tune into a particular frequency, and talking to other characters.

It's here where my opinion of Oxenfree is conflicted. On the one hand, it's approach to the genre is commendable and its execution is impressive. Trips to and from locations are used as character moments, with Alex accompanied by one of her friends (who it is typically coming down to earlier dialogue choices).

There's a genuine attempt to really invest in the characters here. As they're put under increasing pressure, backstories get revealed.  One of the group has been to juvenile prison, another resorts to getting stoned whenever he's under any stress. And the way Alex responds is entirely up to you, all whilst having a genuine impact on the outcome of the story.

Likewise, the whoozy 'synth score sounds like something out of a John Carpenter movie. There's concerted effort here to evoke a particular time and mood whilst paying homage to the classic horror films off the past decades. The bright, almost neon-infused colour scheme, also plays heavily with the 1980s retrowave vibe. In short, this is a game where there's a great deal of craft going on, and it's impressive to simply sit there, play, and soak it all in.

Ironically, its Oxenfree's horror elements that seem the least fleshed out. Even by the end of the game the threat is weirdly abstract and under explained. Eventually, the creepy ghosts give way to time travel and a vague sense of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. Yet, even then, the threat goes nowhere and struggles to build into anything tangible.

Likewise, the game's slow-paced, almost mumblecore attitude, whilst perfectly capturing the everyday life for your average teen, almost goes overboard once the monsters begin to make themselves known. Characters continue to spit out quips, react with confusion and questions rather than fear. You can't help but want to shake some of these characters and go “fucking ghosts!” as they continue to wander around with vague unease before dropping another joke.

It leads to a frustrating disconnect with the characters. For all the quality voice-acting and solid dialogue I never felt connected to Alex and her friends the same way I did the casts in Persona 3 & 4. Just like Oxenfree, the Persona games contrast everyday life with the supernatural but there I felt a much greater investment with the characters. Alex and her friends almost seem too clever for their own good, too sure of themselves. This crops up in a lot of modern writing I feel, and not necessarily just video games, either. The need to present every teen character as some smart, world-weary soul inevitably backfires and robs them of some of their realism.

The pacing suffers from an imbalance too, after a stodgy middle section that has the group wandering around looking for each other, there's a sudden rush to conclude things as the ghosts change from being a vague threat to some impending doom in the space of a few minutes. It shunts the game into its climax forcefully, and, for a game that's otherwise been languid and slow-paced, it only highlights this fact all the more. There's a vagueness to the threat in Oxenfree that doesn't always help it, we're never quite sure of the stakes are here, what could really go wrong, and so it can make it difficult to care.

These issues don't make Oxenfree a bad game. Far from from it. In fact, what is does right it really nails down, it's rather that its focus seems to be on the wrong points. It has a supernatural plot but that's also the weakest part. It has strong characters, but undermines them by having them react rather poorly to the horror that they encounter.

Of all the games that I've reviewed recently Oxenfree definitely seems like the one that various people will respond to differently. No doubt some people will find its approach refreshing and its plot satisfying rather than hazy. And that's certainly fitting, after all, there's a number of different ways that things can resolve and no doubt everyone will respond differently to each conversation.

For me though, the whole game is great to look at, impressively made, but also weirdly shallow and inconsequential. There's a nagging sense that Night School Studios didn't actually want to tell a supernatural story, but simply a drama about high school kids. After playing Oxenfree, I can't help but think that was the case.


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