Review: Oxenfree

Branching dialogue has become a popular feature in many recent video games, but none have managed to capture the essence of conversation quite like Oxenfree. Night School Studio’s debut effort is built entirely around the nuance and impact of our verbal interactions with others, and the agency afforded to the player to shape and shift their relationship with the game’s characters is staggering. Oxenfree is about choices, and living with their inherent and often unpleasant consequences. It’s a beautiful, if imperfect adventure told through the relatable eyes of a teenager, and one of the year’s first remarkable releases.

Oxenfree casts players as Alex, a blue-haired high school girl who just met her new step-brother, Jonas. They’re accompanied by Ren, Alex’s long-standing best friend, Nona, Ren’s crush, and Clarissa, Nona’s best friend and a mighty snark-slinger. Their dynamic is strained from the start, tested by all sorts of awkward teenage drama and emotional uncertainty, but they’ve all traveled to the local island for a casual keggar and try to put their differences aside in the name of getting drunk on the beach. While exploring a nearby cave, Alex and Jonas spot a strange, floating object, and, not expecting any results, Alex attempts to tune into it with her pocket radio. Indulging her curiosity sets some grave events in motion, however, and transforms a casual high school beach bash into an eerie, mysterious adventure.

In order to get home — hopefully alongside all of your friends — you’ll have to explore the island, playing by its supernatural rules and sleuthing for the truth behind the area’s suddenly strange happenings. Don’t expect exciting chase sequences, zombie shooting ranges, or head-scratching puzzles; in the end, the adventure amounts to little more than walking and talking.

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That’s the beauty of Oxenfree, though. You’re talking with your friends almost constantly, and your relationships will change depending on which dialogue options you choose. The game allows players to craft conversations however they like; do you want to be confrontational? Feign interest? Infect the group with your enthusiasm? Whatever you choose, the other characters will remember your actions and likely treat you differently as a result. These consequences aren’t always immediately apparent, but building or burning rapport in some way is nearly guaranteed in each and every interaction, and the opportunities to impose your own personality on Alex are frequent.

Because of this, Oxenfree is a brilliant representation of human relationships. It revels in the small, seemingly insignificant remarks and decisions we make in the heat of the moment, exploring how they affect our relationships with others. The significance of this system might not be truly apparent until your second play-through, but once you start making small tweaks to your demeanor towards each individual, you’ll begin to see how powerful your words can be; bravely opening up about a difficult moment in your past can help others do the same, but guiding the conversation away from dark memories may keep morale high. I appreciated being able to inject levity into otherwise dreary circumstances, or pry deeper into the emotional baggage a friend was carrying.

While you’re conversing, you’ll also be trekking through the beautiful and mysterious wilderness of the pacific northwestern island setting, home to an abandoned mining community and some strange, malevolent forces. The environments are mostly still, painterly backdrops, filling the screen with stretching trees and flecks of luminous color. The static, zoomed-out presentation lets you take in each tiny detail as you come across it, but it also means that whenever something does move, you notice. Oxenfree utilizes this juxtaposition to great effect, bringing the world to life to with minimal animation and instilling the atmosphere with a sense of beautiful, unnerving solitude.

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gets a little spooky, especially in its P.T.-esque “time loops” that send players back to places and conversations they just left, and as Alex and her friends delve deeper into the mystery of the forces behind the strange distortions, they’ll be subjected to some cruel and harrowing experiences. Oxenfree‘s mystique is thick, but players curious enough to stray off the obligatory path and connect the dots will discover captivating clues that ultimately lead to a tragic, heartbreaking truth. The pacing occasionally stumbles, however, forcing you to tediously trudge between areas with little more to do than banter with your buddies. Oxenfree‘s propensity for the unexpected helps abate this slightly, but it can only do so much to excite sights you’ve seen before.

The zoomed-out presentation of Oxenfree means it can’t count on facial reactions to communicate its characters’ emotions. Instead, it relies on gesticulation and vocal intonation to realize their feelings and opinions. The former carries its weight admirably, thanks to the variety of realistic animations afforded to each character, but the vocal performances often sound flat and dry. They rarely pack the emotional punch a moment deserves, and their  un-affected tones often left me wondering if the characters were even fazed by the events unfolding around them. It broke my immersion far too often, and stopped me from connecting with the characters to the degree Night School Studio clearly intended.

Even so, Oxenfree certainly has its poignant moments. They come unexpectedly, and they hit hard. Night School Studio’s game broaches a number of important, difficult, and relatable subjects, and I really enjoyed drawing parallels between my own worries and regrets and those of Oxenfree‘s characters. Those individuals can finish the game in a number of states both emotional and physical, and once I reached my ending I jumped right back in to see what sort of changes my words and actions could have on them. That’s a luxury we don’t get in our everyday lives, and one I felt all the more compelled to explore.

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Closing Comments:

Despite its affinity for the supernatural, Oxenfree‘s soul is firmly planted in reality. It asks big questions, challenging you to consider how you interact with others and what you hold dear in life. Its vocal performances don’t always do it justice, but the underlying emotions of the characters shine through, spinning a deeply resonant narrative that begs to be replayed thanks to the branching dialogue options and multiple endings. Night School Studio’s debut release is spooky, touching, and beautiful, and an adventure absolutely worth experiencing.

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