Coming of age adventures are my jam. From movies like Stand By Me and The Kings of Summer to games like Life Is Strange and Pokémon, there's something about tales of growing up set against a backdrop of drama, adventure or high jinks that strikes the right note for me. So it came as no surprise that Night School Studios' Oxenfree was right up my alley.
The set-up is simple: a group of teens travel to an abandoned island to drink, explore and party, but in doing so discover a mysterious presence that warps their reality and threatens their lives. It's a fairly rote horror set-up, but the game breaks free of cliché effortlessly – subverting expectations and taking turns once things start going pear-shaped. Before long Oxenfree feels much smarter and more unique than its opening half hour might lead you to believe.
In using simple mechanics to tell its story, Oxenfree never offers a great challenge, but makes up for that with an engaging story and well-realised characters. You play as Alex, a blue-haired teen, who at the start of the game is being taken to the island by boat, alongside her annoying friend Ren and new stepbrother Jonas. Before long the three meet up with the abrasive Clarissa and her friend Nona, who Ren has a crush on. He fancies her, but these characters are far from the rowdy, horny teenagers of the crowded slasher movie genre.
These are young people who have proper conversations. Some are light and jokey, others probe at each other's flaws, motivations and problems. Throughout the game the player is offered dialogue options that appear above Alex's head and correspond to face-buttons on the controller. Players can choose whatever they want to say, or say nothing at all.
Players can also interrupt other characters, which lends the dialogue a level of authenticity it wouldn't otherwise have. However, the game picks and chooses where this can be done, and sometimes your options are just three variations of the same basic point. Overlapping dialogue can also be a serious problem – with other characters not always reacting to your interruption or another character beginning to speak before Alex is done speaking.
Regardless, Night School's script treats young people with respect and doesn't punish players for saying something that might be considered rude or bitchy. It's organic, and as the game forgives you for yelling at Ren or taking the pee out of Jonas, it also feels like the characters have forgiven Alex as well.
For the most part, conversations seem natural – often in spite of some middling voice work (Ren is annoying throughout). These chats gently establish the characters and their relationships both through the necessity of the script and through what the player chooses to say. What Alex says does influence the game's outcome to a point, but not in major ways. This isn't to say the system feels pointless – far from it. Its intention is to help engage players with what's going on, and it entirely succeeds.
It also helps make travelling across the island less of a chore. There's no skill required in getting from point A to point B – you move freely, but only along restrictive paths – but for most of these lengthy segments the dialogue pulls you through. There are items to collect or unlock across the island, but collecting them all means back-tracking without any character conversations, which only exposes how slow the movement is.
Back-tracking does however offer you the chance to enjoy the wonderful art which provides Oxenfree's backdrops. The painterly look elevates the game immeasurably, offering it a sense of style bolstered by its characterisation and creepy plot.
That story is at its best in its lengthy second act, during which the game builds its atmosphere slowly with a creeping dread instilled by the island's otherworldly mysteries. When Oxenfree aims to unsettle it's not through standard tropes like gore, but through strange occurrences and design flourishes that play on the game's theme of radio frequencies, transmission static and distorted messages.
All this should be the set up for a wonderful game, so it's a shame that Oxenfree doesn't stick the landing come its ending, which is rushed to the point of confusion. The game bobs along at a fairly slow pace, which suits it perfectly, so the rapidness of its conclusion comes as a jolting surprise. The opening could have been longer as well, making use of the dialogue mechanic to give us a bit more time with the characters and enjoy the more innocuous parts of the game before the real story starts to unfold.
In Oxenfree, Night School Studios has used simple mechanics to great effect establishing and building on its small cast of characters, and keeping players engaged with its creepy tale of paranormal dread. It's a shame then that it doesn't quite stick the landing, seeming to rush to its conclusion without offering a sufficient pay-off. A small number of minor (dialogue for the wrong character playing) and major (two complete crashes) glitches also hold it back. It's undoubtedly a stylish and unique game however, that we hope does its part to usher in a wave of games that take a similar approach to storytelling.