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Night School
Night School
GENRE: Adventure
January 15, 2016
 Written by Stephen Varner  on January 21, 2016

Reviews: Oxenfree is about forging relationships in the midst of the spooky happenings of Edwards Island.


Over the course of my five or so hours exploring Edwards Island I found a great deal of variety in the actual emotions Oxenfree would elicit from me. When I wasn't being creeped out by the stellar atmosphere and haunting presence of the island itself I was caught up in the melancholy of it's more tender moments. While it's light on actual game mechanics that don't include picking from dialogue bubbles and tapping A on key items in the environment while walking from one area to the next the experience is instead punctuated by it's painterly water color aesthetic, fantastic music and dialogue that's mostly smart and interesting.

My biggest complaint with Oxenfree is that the amount of stuff there is to actually do on Edwards Island feels a little bit limited compared to what I wanted to interact with given the confines of the mechanics available to you. Whether that's an endorsement of the mysterious and interesting world that you're in or an objection to it's gameplay minimalism will likely depend on where you fall on the spectrum of story first vs. gameplay first. This is very much a choose your adventure style game that has enough dialogue branches to get a great range of different tones and feelings from Alex and her friends on the Island based on how you elect to respond to them. This ties into your two primary means of interacting with the environment as well. You'll be able to walk up to and select certain objects within each area in order to have Alex comment on specific things and get responses from other characters. You've also got your portable radio with you that will be the key to unlocking new areas and story beats by tuning in to the strange transmissions that are haunting Edwards Island. Both provide a means for the history of the island and the arc of each character to unfold in a very natural way.

The relationships Alex builds with her new step-brother Jonas and the supporting cast is where Oxenfree really shines. Despite a few hokey lines here and there the writing is consistently sharp and engaging in the way it keeps you focused on what's being said and how Alex should respond to it, even if that response is to simply stay silent. In those instances the characters will react to her silence in a way that feels natural and interesting when I missed a dialogue prompt or couldn't decide how exactly I wanted to respond. Upon restarting the game and choosing from different reactions the dialogue seemed like it could be interesting and varied enough that I'd want to see how differently certain situations could play out throughout the game. It's even possible to play through the entire thing without saying a word. I have to imagine that the silent protagonist thing would wear a bit thin at some point both for the player and for Alex's friends but the fact that you have that option is pretty interesting. It's clear that Night School Studio wanted to go to every length to make the conversations throughout the game feel both natural and responsive to how you choose to engage with them and it's this that made Oxenfree such a memorable experience for me.

I'm happy to say that both the art and sound live up to the same degree of care that went into developing the game’s characters. The entire Island looks as though a water color painting has come to life. The way that the colors blend and flow together creates a gorgeous and unique visual style that manages to be as diverse in it's backgrounds and color palate as it is beautiful to look at. It does a wonderful job of blending with the music to create an atmosphere that is equal parts haunting and inviting. I always wanted to move forward to see what was next, even if what I found left me uneasy. My progress was only ever made to feel stagnant by some backtracking I had to do in order to round up every last collectible item and a pair of game crashes I experienced during loading screens between areas. The former was borne of my own need to eke out the last bits of story info and background information and the fact that I couldn't actually collect many of them until I'd acquired the upgraded radio later on in the game. It made me wish that the collectibles had been spread a little more evenly within the early parts of the game so that I didn't have to keep revisiting areas I'd already been to. The latter never actually made me lose any progress apart from having to reboot the game. It managed to auto-save as I was entering the new area so I didn't actually have to repeat anything.

Oxenfree is memorable and well written. The way everything is balanced into a cohesive whole made me want to not only track down all the optional collectibles (which is something I rarely do) but also start replaying it to see how I can change how things play out by making different choices. It's short enough that you can play through it in one sitting and feel like I'd gotten a full experience but still manages to leave me with enough reason to want to revisit it. If you've got a spare afternoon or evening then checking out Oxenfree is a worthwhile way to spend it.

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