Maybe I’m getting old, but a disused military base seems a pretty poor choice of setting for a high-school kegger. On the other hand, the group of young bloods serve as the protagonists of Oxen Free think a rager on a desolate island is just what they need to commemorate their new status as high school seniors. Island bound with her new stepbrother (Jonas) and childhood friend (Ren), Alex stands pensively aboard a ferry gazing into the waves. Their plan is to meet up with their friends (Clarissa and Nona) and party on the beach till dawn. Or that was the plan until Alex awakens an unknown aggression lurking deep within the island.
The banter between Jonas and Ren snaps Alex back to reality and speech bubbles begin to appear over head. While reading the dialog choices they begin to fade, forcing the player to digest choices quickly and respond before they disappear completely or remain solemn. It’s this discourse between Alex and her friends is a ground-breaking achievement that fuels fantastic organic storytelling and serves as the backbone of Oxen Free’s plot and gameplay.
Night School does a great job of introducing players to their exhilarating (and rather anxiety-inducing) discussion mechanic. The subtleties of this seemingly simple system pressures players to assess speech quickly, leading to making a few gut decisions, which is a distinctly different approach than the timeless deliberation of most interactive conversation systems. Oxen Free’s excellent pacing is largely to thank for this feat, as there is no time to chew over decisions before making them. Prior to tackling the thorny choices presented to players toward the narrative’s conclusion, Night School allows players the luxury of making deceptively simple choices. For example, immediately after the opening scene, seemingly inconsequential decisions like hanging back to talk and swap secrets or stopping for a smoke break allow players to explore the intimidate results of their actions.
As the narrative continues, these choices and their consequences begin to branch off and intertwine. Strife emerges between characters, forcing Alex to take sides or remain silent in an effort to avoid divisive action. At other times, Alex’s speech might interrupt conversations or events redirecting them on the fly and (in certain cases) altering the wider narrative, the discussion at hand and, her relationships all at once. To help the player keep track of how their vocal commitments affect their relationships, bubbles appear over the heads of their companions denoting their approval or disapproval.Though the lasting effects of some choices aren’t so easy to see.
The winding fluid nature of natural conversation is a mark that no other game has quite hit (I’m looking at you, Tell Tale games) and while Night School’s attempt falls short of fully realizing its own potential, the speech system remains the title’s bedrock until the credits roll.Characters never feel stiff, dialog is wonderfully asynchronous and each persona you meet feels lively. On top of the conversation itself, choices and their consequences remain engaging. Even dialog that appears inconsequential weighs heavy on the story’s outcome forcing players to make sure their off the cuff decision making remains mindful. Even later in the game, when Alex is forced to choose between seemingly straightforward polarizing options, how those decisions will resonate throughout the narrative remains ambiguous. How her friends will react to her choices (something that even the biggest-budget AAA games have struggled to achieve) isn’t blunt or obvious, but subtle. Every time I thought I had pegged a member of the cast’s personality but prying into their past and present motives shed light into the complexity of their lives.
In addition to controlling her dialog, players guide Alex around the Island looking for clues about the mysterious spectral forces haunting this group of teenage drama queens. There are some puzzly bits in order to discover clues about the forces that plague the island like flipping switches, answering riddles, and using AM/FM radios to mingle with Oxen Free’s illusory antagonists. It can get a bit tiresome using the right analog stick to tune the radio while trying to read and participate in each instance of dialog, especially when it appears during heart-to-hearts with the islands fiends, but the team at Night School’s expertly written dialog kept me engaged enough that those speech bubbles rarely lost my focus even when distracted by puzzles. I just wish they weren’t quite as intrusive, and it felt sometimes as though the system was a bit too greedy, working to distract the player unduly from other aspects of the game.
Puzzles and exploration are executed well overall, but the dialog system doesn’t mesh as well as it could with the rest of the game. To keep up with the banter between characters, movement can be a bit restricting. The player doesn’t have the ability to manually increase Alex’s speed, so she’ll only run when parts of the narrative become urgent. Due to this, locomotion feels a bit plodding because Alex is restricted to walking so she can converse before proceeding to the next area. This would be fine if moving between areas didn’t end the current conversation, but unfortunately I often found myself forced to hanging back if I wanted to hear every bit of dialog. The Island is pretty winding too, so it’s not always clear which path the player needs to take to get to their destination; It makes backtracking more common than I would have liked. Luckily, the islands compact size means retracing steps isn’t enough of a hassle to foil the eerie splendor of the environment.
Oxen Free’s visual styling is literally and thematically dark, yet never drab. From the bright blues of the ocean surf obscured by the thick mist from the surf to the lush greens of the forests, everything is stunningly rendered in a seemingly hand-painted watercolor style. Even the damp and dark caves glow with a hint of the supernatural and old construction sites illuminated by multicolored security lights are a joy to behold. As if players needed any more reason to soak in every inch of this world, hidden letters and voice messages are scattered about to provide the group insight into the nightmare this isle has become.
It’s not just audio correspondence played over radio static that sends chills up the spine though. The music piped into every scene sets an electronic disco aflame in the heart. At times, I left the audio on because it’s just that good. Synths and drums mixed with what I swear were clips taken straight from the twilight zone TV series show some real genius on the part of Night School’s audio team. Unfortunately, just as every song in the score loops back to the beginning, so does Oxen Free come to a close.
As one might expect of this tale, there are a litany of possible outcomes. Both large and small decisions affect the result of the story and every relationship among Alex and her friends, weaving a truly unique ending for each character involved and each player on the other side of the screen. I’m still not sure what the Island is or if our protagonists will ever truly escape it, but I can be certain that I gained some friends and lost some others. I saved some confidants (sometimes at the expense of others or my own personal well being), but I’m damned if I can figure out if I did the right thing. Yet, I’m positive that my time with Oxen Free will remain a highlight of my year, and I’ll still be trying to wrap my head around my choices for quite some time.