Review: Oxenfree (PS4)

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Title: Oxenfree
Format: PlayStation Network Download (3.28 GB)
Release Date: May 31, 2016
Publisher: Night School Studio
Developer: Night School Studio
Original MSRP: $19.99
ESRB Rating: T
Oxenfree is also available on Xbox One, PC, Mac, and Linux.
The PlayStation 4 download version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Gameplay:
Oxenfree is a coming-of-age tale about five friends having one last party together before they head off to college. The party they are heading to is an all nighter on an island that also is home to an abandoned military base which of course means spooky stuff is bound to happen.

The story centers around Alex, her stepbrother Jonas, her friends Ren, Clarissa, and Mona and the many dramas within the group. While having a somewhat tense argument the group splits apart with Alex and Jonas deciding to explore a cave only to accidentally trigger the spirits trapped on the island.

From a gameplay standpoint Oxenfree is rather simple. The player controls Alex, and with the use of a handheld radio, interacts with the world and solves puzzles. Alex must tune the radio to the correct frequency to hear the cryptic messages from the spirits of the island or do simple tasks like opening doors.

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Throughout the game Alex can pick up all sorts of sounds on the radio from music to old war propaganda and receive creepy broken messages from the island ghosts. The radio is vital to the story and it’s the game’s vehicle for delivering a scary and intriguing story.

Story is king in Oxenfree. The relationships of the characters take a front seat while actual gameplay mechanics are kept to simple interactions. Story takes precedence with players choosing every line of dialogue for Alex, picking different dialogue choices from word bubbles that pop over her head.

… I felt like I missed some important bits of character development …
Each line affects the relationships of the characters and appears to have a major impact on where the story goes in terms of the various endings. Yes, there are multiple endings and players are encouraged to replay the game a couple times to see how things change.

I did find some issues with the game and though they are slight, they are worth mentioning. The first was with the dialogue because it takes some time to learn the pacing of the conversations. I felt the dialogue stepped on itself from time to time.

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Some of the word bubbles came and went quickly which lead to silences or if I picked too quickly it caused Alex to cut off the others mid-sentence. When other characters are cut off this way they either answer Alex and skip what they were talking about or continue their last thought and jump to an answer.

This often made me feel like I was playing Alex as if she was a self centered teen (aren’t they all) and that is not how I wanted Alex to be. I eventually learned the timing and pacing of the other characters and was able to adjust, but initially I felt like I missed some important bits of character development or lore for the island.

… Oxenfree finds a solid balance and pulls off a good story …
And finally, what might be an issue for others is the game’s lack of depth in the gameplay department. Oxenfree does not offer any deep gameplay mechanics and most of the time is spent walking and talking. Major conflicts and puzzles are solved by tuning the radio and there did not appear to be any major fail states or the game does not punish failure too harshly.

Regardless of mechanics the story touches on some dark subject matter with great success. It can be tough to tackle the struggles of teenagers dealing with growing up, relationships, and death through a video game, especially a game that borders on horror, but Oxenfree finds a solid balance and pulls off a good story.

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Visuals:
This is an atmospheric 3D side-scroller with some rather unique visual effects that make it stand out. The game takes place mostly at night with great lighting effects making it seem like it could veer into the horror genre at anytime.

I often expected the game to try to go for cheap scares because of the audio/visual design, but instead it chooses to go the atmospheric route and stay in the eerie realm to great effect.

… its visual tricks can be stunning …
Everything from the actual world to the neat VHS-like overlays that pop up on the screen as if watching a worn out tape with scanlines and flickering looks beautiful. The artists did a great job establishing a style and executing on all fronts. It looks pretty different from other games on the market and while it might look odd in motion at first, once it begins to show all of its visual tricks it can be stunning.

Audio:
If the story is king then the audio design needs to be done well to make it work and the audio does not fail. The voice acting is fantastic with the actors delivering realistic performances and working with a script that helps make dialogue flow naturally. I grew attached to the characters throughout the story and I could not do that without the work of the voice actors and the solid writing working together cohesively.

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A major part of the creepy atmosphere and the lightning rod for tension is the group of radio stations which are used to great effect. The signals are absolutely chilling with a range of sounds from an old jazz song to war news clips and I think I heard some Bugs Bunny war propaganda at one point too.

Plus there is a fantastic 1980s inspired synth soundtrack reminiscent of the bands Chromatics or Symmetry. I cannot praise the audio design enough for how good it is and how important it is to the whole game.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is singleplayer only with no online component.

… compelled me to give it a second try …
Conclusion:
Oxenfree is unique and despite being a tad light in the gameplay department I fully enjoyed the experience. Storytelling has always been important to me and I don’t mind when gameplay takes a backseat as long as the story holds up which in this case it does. The characters feel grounded and real with relationships that feel layered and fragile based on my actions.

There game even got me to play it twice because it features multiple endings and it does some smart and interesting things that compelled me to give it a second try.

The visual and audio presentations are top notch for an “indie” title and I look forward to seeing what the team at Night School Studio do next.

Score:
8.0

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Written by Michael Cwick

Michael Cwick

Just a nerd from the Windy City. I’m actually really bad at describing myself because I get all self-critical and self-conscious. Follow me on Twitter, @The1stMJC, to see my borderline insane rants on tv shows and other non important subjects. If I’m not tweeting I’m probably just watching Buffy or Firefly for the millionth time.

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  • Loved this game! Finished it three times already! The PS4 version debuts Oxenfree’s equivalent of a ‘new game+’ It plays mostly the same as before, but has a some new dialogue options and responses sprinkled throughout and it flashes more messed imagery throughout the game to keep you guessing that things will not play out exactly the same.