Also On: PC
Publisher: Night School Studio
Developer: Night School Studio
I'm going to apologize right now for any vagueness this review contains. I know I'm normally pretty vague as it is, but in the case of Oxenfree I have twice as many reasons as usual to be a little vague: not only do I not want to spoil it, I'm also not entirely sure I totally understood the game.
That said, by the end of it I was feeling a little let down by the game, which means some degree of spoilage is inevitable. So: you've been warned.
Ready? Last chance to back out. If you don't want to even skim a vague spoiler, you can know that I gave Oxenfree a B and you don't have to scroll any further.
My problem with Oxenfree is that it spends a couple of hours building a really interesting ghost story. (I think — it may have been aliens. Either way, there was some excellent plot-building going on for about the first 95% of the game.) Then you reach the climax, you prepare to confront the game’s antagonists…and, suddenly, you wake up on a boat and find that you've skipped over whatever drove away said aliens/ghosts, and you've won. Maybe. Possibly. The game is a little ambiguous on that point.
It all feels as if developers Night School Studios went into their game hoping to come up with a satisfactory ending sometime before they finished it, then as deadlines drew near and they realized they still didn't have anything, they went with an ending that's one step above “It was all a dream…or was it?!” (And, truth be told, they even manage to work that fate in, at least with the ending I got.) It feels like a massive sellout of everything that’s come before it, since up to that point, they've done a phenomenal job of doing everything almost perfectly.
The dialogue, for example, is exceptional. Very, very few games know how to make their characters sound believable. Fewer still are able to craft believable dialogue coming out of the mouths of teenagers. Yet Oxenfree pretty much nails it. The rhythms sound realistic, there’s little in the way of infodumps, and the Altmanesque way they talk over each other sounds true to life. If there’s a flaw, it’s in the way your opportunity to chime in and respond is usually time-limited, but that’s a small price to pay for having conversations that flow naturally.
Similarly, the game looks gorgeous, with 2.5D visuals that pop off the screen. No one is ever going to mistake it for real life obviously, but as with the dialogue, the game mostly feels true-to-life — except when the aliens/ghosts make an appearance and make everything go screwy, at which point everything becomes appropriately discombobulated. Considering they don’t have a full three dimensions to work with, Night School needed to be inventive to make those off-kilter moments seem appropriately spooky; their solution — to mimic the way old VHS tapes looked when the tracking went off — is engaging and ingenious, and it adds to the creepy atmosphere perfectly.
Above all else, though, there’s the gameplay. Oxenfree is an adventure game, but there’s no “combine random object A with random object E to get random tool M” in sight. Instead, the game pushes you to explore its mysterious island at your own place. Helpfully highlighting most of the key features while at the same time hiding just enough that it rewards exploration and experimentation, Oxenfree works for both hardened adventure gamers and those that just want to play through and enjoy the story.
Or, at least, it works up until that awful, confusing ending. I mean, maybe I’m just missing something important, or maybe I just played the game the wrong way and missed out on the true (and satisfactory) ending. I have a hard time believing that, though; up until it abruptly jumped over the actual climax, it felt like things were kind of progressing in an understandable fashion, and when it picked up again it didn’t feel like I’d skipped over a crucial part of what I was supposed to do. No, it feels, as I said, like Oxenfree’s writers had written themselves into a corner, and figured a mostly unexplained offscreen resolution was the only way to get out of it. If you’re able to overlook that and focus on the first 95% or so that’s highly satisfying, you should still go for it, since the journey up to that point is extremely well-done, but if you want any sort of closure, be aware before you go into it that this game’s ending is going to drive you nuts.