The lights are on
What new ideas the game brings to the table and how well old ideas are presented.
How good a game looks, taking into account any flaws such as bad collision or pop-up.
Does the game’s music and sound effects get you involved or do they make you resolve to always play with the volume down?
Basically, the controller to human interface. The less you think about the hunk of plastic in your hands, the better the playability.
Flat out, just how fun the game is to play. The most important factor in rating a game.
What if you combined a John Hughes movie with a Wes Craven
film? This is the essence of Oxenfree. The complex relationships of ragtag
teens mixed with supernatural elements reminds me of scary movies from the
'80s, but Oxenfree also tries to be a narrative game that reacts to your
decisions. It is a dialogue-heavy experience, and a lot of its success depends
on that. The character interactions are the best part of the journey, but like
a lot of games that delve into choice, the results of your decisions aren't
Oxenfree follows a group of unlikely companions on an island
for a night of partying. It was supposed to be a huge rager, but only five
people show up and they all have strained relationships. You play as Alex, who
is dealing with accepting her new stepbrother, Jonas (who she brings along).
You also encounter the resident mean girl, her quieter sidekick, and the
happy-go-lucky best friend. Seeing these characters grapple with complex and
relatable issues is a highlight; you may think you have their archetypes
pegged, but the characters' family and romantic lives come to the forefront and
demonstrate that not everyone is so easily classified.
While this is definitely a coming-of-age tale, it's just as
much as a ghost story. The group accidentally opens a rift, causing spirits to
infringe on their weekend of fun. Getting off the island becomes the priority,
and your interactions are all framed by that goal. This means you spend a lot
of time exploring, but I like how it feels like a performance. The stage and
scenes are set, but you choose your lines and actions. As Alex, you select
different dialogue options that pop up frequently, but you can also interact
with the environment how you choose. For instance, in one scene by a campfire
on the beach, you can stoke the fire, sit by it, throw rocks in the water, and
more. These small actions don't impact the plot at all, but they help set the
mood and give you a sense of control. I enjoyed the freedom of acting out these
scenes according to my interpretation of Alex.
The most important aspect of the gameplay is choosing Alex's
responses. Unlike most peripheral actions, your dialogue can alter the game and
change your relationships, what information you learn, and how your ending
turns out. The story keeps trucking along, and doesn't stop to let you know
your next words are about to have a big impact on the game. That's one of the
main problems in Oxenfree: You never know when you're making an important
choice or just selecting dialogue to keep Alex a participant in the story,
which can have some unintended consequences.
Your different selections factor into some branching paths,
and I was excited to see the outcome of my actions - until I got to the end and
didn't understand how I arrived at the outcomes. I'm a fan of unpredictable
choices and things not always turning out how you expect, but something feels
fundamentally wrong when players think they're influencing events in one
direction, and the exact opposite happens instead.
At the very least, the dialogue choices are varied, almost
always giving you something interesting to say - and that's a big feat for a
game with this much communication. Conversations tackle a slew of decisions,
like choosing between different characters to talk to and assist. You have
limited time to make your selections, so you're discouraged from agonizing over
the "correct" option. Also, while
Oxenfree tackles some serious issues, it has a great sense of humor with
memorable lines. The dialogue comes off as authentic and genuine, providing
some of the best exchanges I've encountered.
Outside of these main beats, you use a radio to converse
with the spirit world and navigate the island by climbing and jumping through
its wooded areas. The gameplay is more like performing the motions and focusing
on the discussions at hand. However, a lot of scenes and expectations are
turned on their head when Night School Studio taps into the spiritual world and
its impact on the characters; these are the most creative and thrilling
sequences in Oxenfree. Still, as a longtime fan of spooky movies, I felt the actual
plot and explanation for the weird occurrences could have been more cohesive.
To Oxenfree's credit, it kept me engaged the whole way
constantly wanted to see where it was going and where my choices would lead.
Night School Studio clearly wasn't afraid to experiment and try some different
and interesting things with presentation in regards to a narrative-based,
choice-driven game. As much as I loved parts of the overall experience, others
let me down. Even so, I enjoyed learning about these characters and seeing them
grow through my actions.
Email the author Kimberley Wallace, or follow on Twitter, and Game Informer.