I always have a slight feeling of cognitive dissonance when it comes to narratives that are player controlled. On the one hand I love that it allows me to imprint myself upon the character, crafting them into the person I want them to be in the game’s world. On the other hand however I sometimes feel like doing that runs contrary to what the true nature of the character might be, especially when I’m operating on imperfect information about said character. Oxenfree, the first title from Night School Studios (who count former Telltale Games and Disney staff among them), falls somewhere in the middle but still provides a great player driven narrative experience.
Oxenfree puts you in control of Alex, a teenager on the cusp of adulthood who’s heading out to an end of year rager with a bunch of her friends. Among them are your best friend Ren, his current crush Nona, a girl who used to date your brother Clarissa and your newly minted step-brother Jonas. The night starts off normal enough with everyone engaging in a rousing game of “Truth or Slap” however things start to quickly come unraveled as Ren beguiles you into investigating some of the island’s more paranormal features. From then on the night changes from being one of drunken revelry into a fight against a paranormal force.
The visual style of Oxenfree harks back to a time of pre-rendered backgrounds with simple 3D visuals layered on top of them. The backgrounds have a kind of textured paper look about them, as if they’re part of an arts project. The character models are quite simplistic, obviously done in that way to blend in more seamlessly with the backgrounds. However unlike the games which this art style pays homage to Oxenfree makes heavy use of lighting and visual effects, both in terms of aesthetics as well as forming part of the plot mechanics. Overall, from a visual perspective, Oxenfree is very well crafted and is done in a way that amplifies the story rather than distracting from it.
In terms of gameplay Oxenfree is primarily focused on the narrative and the dialogue choices you make as a player. You’re usually given 3 different options when responding, each of which can direct the story in a certain way. The main puzzle mechanic comes in the form of a radio which you tune to different stations, either to listen in for clues or to resonate with objects which will cause something to happen. There’s also some other puzzles which range in the form of simple to nigh on impossible although thankfully the latter, even if failed completely, will not stop you from progressing the narrative.
Oxenfree gets credit for keeping the story linear in nature whilst giving you the freedom to explore should you choose to do so. Too often I’ve played similarly styled games which lock core story elements behind inordinate numbers of puzzles, detracting from the narrative. The puzzle mechanics might be simple but they’re enough to keep you engaged through the times when there’s less dialogue about. One criticism I will level at them however is the “improved” radio which just doubles the number of frequencies you have to cycle through. Honestly that just adds tedium as you have to scroll through far more things in order to find the right frequency.
Oxenfree’s narrative deals with a lot of heavy subjects and does so through the lens of a teenage coming of age story. The paranormal aspects, whilst being downright scary in their own way, are used more as a mechanic to explore these issues rather than just being a license to do whacky things. You, as Alex, have quite a lot of control over how the story develops and this can radically change how you feel about the characters and, most interestingly, how they feel about each other. I really can’t say much more without wading into spoiler territory but suffice to say that Oxenfree delivers a solid narrative that deals well with issues that the video game medium is still coming to grips with.
Oxenfree is a powerful narrative driven game, one that shows how simplicity in all things but story can still add up to a great experience. The visual style pays homage to simpler times where pre-rendered backgrounds were a tool to get around the limitations of thte day. The mechanics are simple and do their best to get out of the way of the story. The story is what makes Oxenfree worth playing, both from the core story aspect as well as the level of control that the player is given over shaping it. For those who love a good story, or just a decent thriller, then Oxenfree is definitely worth a play through.
Oxenfree is available on PC and XboxOne right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with around 3 hours of total play time and 38% of the achievements unlocked.
There’s a startling number of games that just fly under my radar every year. Whilst this usually comes down to falling back into my own personal crack habit of World of Warcraft there are also quite a few that, for one reason or another, never make it past a first cursory glance. Nowadays I usually put a strong emphasis on recommendations from friends in order to make sure I catch the gems that might have fallen through the cracks and it’s proving to be a good system. Alan Wake was one of these games that I hadn’t really given much thought to as the hype around it was fairly minimal. You could put this down to the developer (Remedy Entertainment) being quite a small shop with only 45 employees. Still their pedigree is undisputably solid as they are the originators of the Max Payne series, which was eventually sold on to Take Two. Could they develop a story as compelling as the one that brought them fame? Read on to find out!
You play Alan Wake, a best selling author who’s been unable to write a single page in over two years. The starting of the game is your typical thriller/horror scenario as everything seems to be going quite well. Alan and his wife Alice have decided to take a vacation to a quite country town called Bright Falls for a couple weeks. You get a glimpse of the celeberity writer life as you’re pestered by your agent, adored by fans and frustrated with your creative block. All of this makes for a perfect setting for everything to go utterly, horribly wrong as the story begins to unfold.
After a couple intense events you find yourself in a car crash, alone. After walking away in search of help you come across a manuscript page of a novel that is written by you but you can’t remember writing it. As you find more pages you realise that the story it’s telling is coming true and if you search enough you can find pages that predict the future. You then encounter one of “The Taken”, the primary enemy of the game. This isn’t the first time you’ve seen them though as you had a dream (the tutorial level of the game) where you encountered them before. The rest of the game is spent fighting your way through the darkness, following the story as it unfolds in front of you.
The game is very atmospheric, drawing you in and really giving you that feeling of being alone in a world that’s actively hunting you. This is one of the first games that manages to use darkness correctly as whilst the majority of it was played with the only light source being a small torch it didn’t feel like a cheap hack to hide the lack of detail (I’m looking at you, Doom 3). The torch also facilitates much of the combat as all enemies you encounter are surrounded by darkness that can only be burned off by light. Whilst its cool the first time around having to burn off every enemy’s impenetrable darkness shield before you can cap them does get a bit tiring towards the end, although the other light based weapons (flares and flash bangs) do make for some rather fun and varied tactics with taking out The Taken.
For the most part the combat and movement are pretty solid but there are some times when you’ll find yourself walking off a ledge or falling through a crack in the floor to your death. On the flip side there are also times when mashing the controller will get you out of situations that were physically impossible like say jumping off thin air if you press the jump button at the right time. The level of interactivity with the game’s world is also fairly low with most objects just being solid and immovable. It’s not that big of a deal really but coming off my playthrough of Red Dead Redemption where almost everything was interactive it felt a little cheap.
That brings me to one of my biggest criticisms about this game: the cut scenes. Now usually when I first start playing a new game it takes me a little while to get used to the kind of motion capture they’ve used but after a while it doesn’t bother me anymore. Alan Wake however had horrendous motion capture done for quite a lot of the cut scenes, especially with the lip syncing. There were many times where the characters would just hang their mouths wide open after saying something or just simply not move their lips while they were talking. Cutscenes are immersion breakers at the best of times but these ones served to dump me right out of the game completely. Hopefully Remedy notices this and it won’t be so bad in their next release.
The game is delivered in a TV style episodic form right down to the “Previously on Alan Wake” at the start of each new chapter. Whilst I like the style it almost felt like the game was telling you “It’s OK to go away and do something else now” but I only found myself doing that 3 times throughout the whole playthrough. The pacing of the game is quite good and the story grips you enough that putting it down is quite hard. Remedy also took the TV idea to its realistic extreme by including ads in the game for almost any product that would have them. I don’t usually mind them as long as their unobtrusive but there were definitely some moments where they were put in your way to make sure you saw them. I don’t really know how effective such ads are but they must work on some level.
Oh yeah I’d better go buy some Energizer batteries and a new Verizon phone (wait…).
So the game has some major flaws and is riddled with product placement, but is it still worth your time to play? I’d say so as whilst it’s a short by many people’s standards its still quite an intense journey through the dark world that your character has created. The ending was an unfortunate cry for a sequel or DLC (of which some has already been released) which was a bit annoying but almost expected in this day and age. For the cost of admission though the game delivers quite a fulfilling game that can have its flaws overlooked for the ambitous way it tries to capture aspects of games like Mass Effect and Gears of War with more non-traditional games like Heavy Rain. Since the DLC that was just released was free for those who bought the original game I’ll more than likely be sitting down to another helping of Alan Wake in the near future and I’m looking forward to it.
Alan Wake is available exclusively on the Xbox 360 right now for $88 (Collector’s Edition price!). Game was played on the Hard difficulty with an estimated 10 hours of gameplay total. I think I got about 50 of those coffee thermoses…mmm coffee….