Night School Studio is an indie game developer, founded by Telltale and Disney alumni, that aims to “create entertainment filled with wonder, danger and humor.” After playing Oxenfree, the studio’s debut title, I can safely say they succeeded in their mission. It’s a game with a wondrous and intriguing story, filled with moments of real danger and dialog that can be both emotional and humorous. But first and foremost, Oxenfree is a mystery.
Actually, Oxenfree feels more like a mystery within a mystery. What starts off as a rather simple story about a group of friends spending a night of beer and juvenile pranks on a small island, quickly turns into an introspective journey of terrifying discovery. It is the kind of story where the more you uncover and the more you learn – the more questions you have, and the harder it becomes to balance two of the most basic and powerful urges – curiosity and survival. The story is definitely where Oxenfree’s strength lies, so I won’t mention the specifics in order to avoid spoilers. However, it is important to note that although the premise is immediately familiar, it is executed in a completely unique way.
What drives this journey forward is mostly the dialog between protagonist Alex and the various members of her group, specifically her step-brother Jonas. It is through this dialog that we learn more about Alex, her past, and her relationships with her friends. Alex is a deep and interesting character, and every line of dialog teaches us something new about her. It is rare that in such a dialog-heavy game you never feel the need to skip ahead. I even found myself waiting before moving on to a new area, just to finish a conversation with my current companion. Unfortunately, every other character in the game simply serves to highlight a different aspect of Alex, and doesn’t seem to have a lot going on beneath its archetype veneer. Ran, Alex’s best friend, is there to show her silly and nerdy side, while Clarissa’s only purpose is to reveal more about Alex’s family history. It would have been nice to have a cast of rounded characters, since there are so few of them, but this is Alex’s story after all.
The dialog is not only a tool to deliver the game’s narrative; it is also the basis for most of Oxefree’s gameplay mechanics. Each dialog choice has the potential to affect the way one character perceives another. Making fun of your friends can result in them hating you later, and provoking a violent response from someone might cause the rest of the group to avoid them. The results of a certain choice aren’t immediately obvious, as they are very subtle. In fact, they are so subtle, that a lot of the time you’re not quite sure if something happened because it is part of the overall story, or because of something you said earlier. This is actually a point in favor of the game’s writing, as it manages to make any possible outcome fit perfectly into the story.
The other game mechanic that makes up Oxenfree is the radio. Alex carries around a small portable radio she can use to do almost anything. This radio can play music, open doors and even tune into sounds from beyond time and space. To tell the truth, the fact that the radio is the only tool available throughout the game is a bit disappointing. It makes every puzzle and every encounter play out in mostly the same way – just mess with the dial until you find the right frequency. In a game that’s already a bit slow, that’s not something that can be overlooked.
As with a lot of indie games these days, Oxenfree sports a minimalistic, yet oddly charming visual style. Each area on the island has its own look, and they all look pretty darn good. The character animations are a bit exaggerated at times, but it fits well with their almost puppet-like movements. From time to time, one character will snap a quick photo during the game, a photo that will later appear in one of the loading screens. These hand-drawn images give you a closer look at the characters, and can even be slightly creepy at times, but they don’t quite fit in with the rest of the visuals and end up feeling a bit out of place. The music is the complete opposite, though, as it fits right in and helps build up an atmosphere of both adventure and irresistible mystery.
You can feel the influence of both Telltale Games and Disney when you play Oxenfree, but it still feel like its own experience. It’s here to tell a story and it does so well, without letting the gameplay get in the way. A little more emphasis on creating engaging gameplay could have gone a long way, as the game feels slow at times. Luckily, the excellent dialog steps up to fill the void. Oxenfree is an adventure game that tries to go its own way, something somewhat rare these days. Also, who doesn’t love a good mystery?Some of our posts include links to online retail stores. We get a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Don't worry, it doesn't cost you anything extra.