BY KIRAN PENMAN ’19
Ever since I had seen the trailers for “Oxenfree,” Night School Studio’s first release, I had been excited to play it. From what I had seen, it seemed pretty ambitious. In “Oxenfree,” you play as Alex, a teenager in her junior year of high school who takes her stepbrother, Jonas, to an overnight beach party. After some exploring, Alex and her friends manage to accidentally open a rift, unleashing a strange ghostly force onto the island. The player follows the friends’ journey to escape the island while slowly uncovering its mysteries. Overall, it all seemed pretty promising. So, with Night School Studio’s latest project, “Afterparty,” set for release later this year, I decided it was time to finally give “Oxenfree” a go.
“Oxenfree” certainly delivers on its visuals. The look of the game is wonderfully unique. The environments are breathtaking, giving a strong sense of the majesty of the island and its forests, despite being almost entirely 2D. The game incorporates 3D character models into these locations, but always keeps the “camera” at a considerable distance, giving the environments a sense of massive scale while also hiding the fact that the models are relatively low quality. The overall effect is very impressive because “Oxenfree” is made by an independent development team, while still managing to feel big-budget. This is accomplished partly through its gorgeous design and attention to detail — even the way the dialogue options are presented to the player, in neat little speech bubbles, has its own beauty to it — but also through the game’s extensive voice acting.
The game features talent from a variety of wellknown games, such as Telltale’s “The Walking Dead” and “Borderlands.” The cast offers consistently strong performances, deftly bringing the central characters of “Oxenfree” to life, each with their own distinct personalities. The voice acting is an absolutely vital part of the game, as the dialogue tends to be the most entertaining aspect of gameplay. Moving around the environment is slow and can be tedious, while the radio mechanic gets pretty repetitive.
Though the game’s actual cast is strong, it’s also with the voice acting and characterization that we run into the first issue with “Oxenfree.” While the performances are mostly believable, I found that the way characters reacted to the events of the story to be weirdly understated. They’re bizarrely quick to accept the reality of ghosts and possession, as well as the occasional time loop. They don’t even seem that bothered when other characters perish, or at least appear to, and are pretty nonchalant about the possibility of not surviving themselves. It’s a little distracting to say the least. It’s difficult to be invested in the stakes of the game when the characters themselves don’t seem to be.
The game’s attempts at naturalist dialogue can also be a little questionable. The abundant use of speech filler — “um,” “uhh” and “like” — are quite effective in creating a youthful feel for the dialogue. But in a few parts, mainly through Alex’s friend, Ren, some of the dialogue flatlines. A lot of it comes off like a slightly cringy misunderstanding of how teenagers talk, which isn’t helped by the fact that the voice actors are clearly a lot older than the characters they play.
The developers describe the game as a “coming-of-age” tale, but often it seems less to be told through the perspective of actual kids and more through a hazy lens of nostalgia. Many have remarked on the distinctly ’80s feel of “Oxenfree,” with its teen-focused plot and synth-leaning score, which only enhances the nostalgic feel.
As tired of a comparison as it is, “Oxenfree” does have a slightly “Stranger Things” vibe, mainly due to its story. It creates a strong sense of mystery by reveling in the unknown and being immensely frugal in the revealing of its secrets. This can also leave players feeling a little lost in the sheer amount of unknowns there are. “Oxenfree” is complicated, containing everything from family loss and teen romance to radiocontrolled time rifts and the ghosts of World War II marines. While all of these elements are compelling in themselves, the process of introducing all these parts in combination quickly starts to feel like overkill. There’s simply too much going on. It often feels like the obstacles Alex faces aren’t given the chance to be properly explored.
Ultimately, “Oxenfree” is far from perfect. Its characters and dialogue would seem more fitting in a setting that doesn’t take itself too seriously. In contrast, the studio’s upcoming release, “After Party” appears to be perfect for this. It follows the story of two best friends who are sent to the underworld, and soon set out on a mission to get out of Hell, and return to Earth, by outdrinking Satan. It looks like it’s going to be a riot. “Oxenfree” has enough moments of brilliance to show that Night School Studio is dedicated to creating games that feel truly unique and to leave me feeling optimistic about their next venture.