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Guest Post – Game Review: Oxenfree

Title: Oxenfree
Developer: Night School Studio
Release Date: January 15, 2016
Website

Synopsis:

Play as Alex, a bright and rebellious teenager who brings her new stepbrother Jonas to an overnight party on an old military island. The night takes a terrifying turn when you unwittingly open a ghostly gate spawned from the island’s cryptic past. How you deal with these events, your peers, and the ominous creatures you’ve unleashed is up to you.

Review:

First off, I have to say that walking simulators are nowhere near the top of my list of preferred genres. So what possessed me to play this game? In truth, it was mainly out of politeness to the buddy that gifted it to me, but the story also intrigued me. In my opinion, there are three cardinal aspects to a game: gameplay, story, and atmosphere. To be a good game in my books, it has to excel in at least two of these aspects. I’ll tell you how Oxenfree fares in these categories below.

To begin, the atmosphere in this game is great. The landscape is a wash of dark tones accented with hopeful islands of light. While the scenes are not pitch black, the sombre darkness will soon come to feel oppressive as the story ploughs on into the night. Fear not, as Alex has brought along a portable radio that you can use to stave off the growing dread with awesome tunes! Or at least that would be the case if you could listen to anything on it other than odd snippets of Morse code or long forgotten radio programs. The production values of these audio fragments effectively drive home the fact that things are not right on the island.

In-game screenshot.

In contrast, when compared to the atmosphere the gameplay is quite lacking. There is no challenge to this game at all if your sole objective is to progress the plot. The biggest challenge in the game is to find out which choices have an affect on the ending, as the epilogue varies based on how you’ve influenced those around you. In addition to that, there are a few collectables to scour the island for. As far as walking simulators go, this is the most gameplay I’ve seen in one, so I guess that’s good. But again, not very engaging and the few “puzzles” included were extremely simple.

 

As for controls, this game is very simple. Walk with the left joystick or WASD keys, select dialogue with the corresponding button or by mouse click, and tune your radio with the right joystick or mouse. Simple. I do recommend using a gamepad over the keyboard and mouse as that will make tuning Alex’s radio less of a chore.

In-game screenshot.

The story and characters are where this game shines. While Alex is a clearly defined character, you as the player can determine what nuances her character has. Is she a trash talking sass machine or is she a natural mediator? Maybe she’s the silent type? That’s all decided by the player, and your companions will react to that choice. Whether you build your relationships or burn all of your bridges, the choice is yours and you have to live with the consequences when the time comes.

 

This ties into the previous section on gameplay when I said that a lot of the gameplay was weak. That may be mostly true, but the way Oxenfree handles dialogue is definitely the exception to this as it was implemented brilliantly. Each dialogue prompt you’re given has a countdown until the choice is taken from you and the game moves on. Just like in a real conversation, your friends will chatter on and leave you in the dust if you don’t cut in. It is incredibly refreshing to listen to your stepbrother grumble about strange occurrences only to have your buddy Ren interject with something about what he did last week that you totally should have seen!

In-game screenshot – choosing not to speak.

This serves to lighten the mood while you’re exploring the island, and reminds you that these characters aren’t just images in front of you. You’re reminded that they are Alex’s friends who are fully fleshed out people, and you’ll want to make sure that you help them last through the night.

As for the story itself, let’s say that like any good mystery and horror tale, you have to piece the mystery together with your friends. The goal is to simply live through the suspense and try to get out in one piece. To say much more would be to spoil the plot’s very well-executed delivery.

In-game screenshot.

So, despite being a game in a genre I don’t particularly like, I really have to recommend this one if only to get more people into the story. The characters are fantastically relatable, the setting is a great accompaniment to a creepy story, and while the plot may seem generic at first, that only scratches the surface of what there is to discover. Seriously, there’s a couple of twists I don’t want to spoil, but are definitely worth experiencing. Go play it.

Plot: 4/5
Characters: 5/5
Graphics: 4/5
Gameplay: 3/5
Overall: 4.5/5

Review by Eric Dieter.

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Game Review: Tacoma

Title: Tacoma
Developer: The Fullbright Company
Release Date: August 2, 2017
Website

Synopsis:

Tacoma is a narrative adventure set aboard a high-tech space station in the year 2088. As you go about your mission, you’ll explore every detail of how the station’s crew lived and worked, finding the clues that add up to a gripping story of trust, fear, and resolve in the face of disaster.

At the heart of Tacoma is the facility’s digital surveillance system, which has captured 3D recordings of pivotal moments in the crew’s life on the station. As you explore, echoes of these captured moments surround you. You’ll use your ability to rewind, fast-forward, and move through the physical space of these complex, interwoven scenes to examine events from every angle, reconstructing the multi-layered narrative as you explore.

Tacoma is the next game from the creators of Gone Home, and carries on that tradition of detailed, immersive, and powerful storytelling, while pulling players deeper into the narrative than ever before.

Review:

As we’ve established previously, I’m not a game person. I’m simply a booknerd on a quest to find stories in other places. And I’ll tell you this now, Tacoma has one hell of a story. I’ve had brilliant experiences with multi-perspective books, and I was curious to see how Fullbright handled multiple perspectives in Tacoma.

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In-game screenshot.

As you play from the perspective of Amy Ferrier, you get to explore the space station Tacoma which was recently abandoned by its crew. Scattered throughout the ship are augmented reality (AR) videos that take you through the crew’s story. These videos were recorded anywhere from 8 months to 16 hours ago, and you use them to dive into the lives the characters.

I loved the way that the story was presented here. You have what has already happened to the original crew, and then what your character sees. The story takes on this multiple perspective lens where you observe AR versions of the crew members running around, performing tasks, and having conversations. The AR medium allows you to sit in on conversations, rewind, and then follow different characters as they move through the ship and interact with one another. It’s like a third-person story following the lives of five different characters, but you get to see them move, react, and live. Honestly, by the end of it, I was so invested in all of their lives that I was sad to be done with the game and to have completed the story. However, just like books can be reread, games can be replayed. Now I’m aiming to get all the achievements!

Screenshot provided by Fullbright.

Something I appreciated about this game is that the characters were very diverse. It wasn’t just their racial backgrounds, though people of colour were certainly represented, but also the fact that they had people of different sexual orientations, body types, and believable personalities. Each character was very distinct when compared to the others and that really fed into the character and story development. Further, as you dive into their lives, you get to see snippets of who and what they left behind on Earth. In time, you also get to hear them talk to their families, converse with Odin, and read through their emails and text chats. This investigative aspect made me a lot more invested in the characters, their lives, and what happened to them.

In-game screenshot.

Another fun little detail is how languages are translated. Throughout the ship there are items with various languages written on them. As you go through, most of them will automatically be translated for you – but you do have the option to turn it off. The packaging for some of these things were really detailed and well thought out.

In-game screenshot.

Off to the technical aspects, and I have to say that the interface was pretty straightforward and easy to understand. I wasn’t sure what to do when presented with the first video (icons pop up on the video bar), but I figured out that it was a signal that something important occurred for a different character who may not be in the same place. As noted earlier, this aspect drives you to seek out the other characters and see what is happening with them. Sometimes it’s easy, but sometimes you need to examine the environment in order to find a pass code to the door. It’s really quite addicting.

On the topic of details, I appreciated the different books featured in the game and the literary references made throughout the game. There’s some Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare, and much more. I think the funniest part is that even in a space station classic literature is being read. Bet Shakespeare never anticipated his works would get all the way out there!

In-game screenshot.

Finally, the art. This game is visually detailed and realistic while still being slightly stylized. As you can see, each character shines brightly with their unique colours, but the scenery is also something to be admired. As you explore, the environment is just as important as the people and the videos, and it’s extremely detailed and riddled with secrets and answers. Additionally, the environment often blends with the music, setting the atmosphere for the AR videos and that specific area of the ship. To be honest, my base mood throughout the game was mildly fearful – I mean you’re walking through an abandoned ship, it’s bound to be a little creepy. But it was so amazing exploring the world and the lives of these characters that I couldn’t stop playing.

Concept & key art by Rebecca Mock

This game was like a story you walked through. Maybe it won’t be as interesting to people who prefer action games, but it was amazingly fascinating and new to someone like me who tends to prefer flipping through the pages of a book. The story and the characters were extremely well developed given the short timeline that you, the player, are given to get to know them (it’s about a 3-4 hour long game). I appreciated that the short length allowed you to take in the entire story in one or two sittings. All in all, I’d recommend booknerds give this game a try – I think you’ll all love it!

Plot: 5/5
Characters: 5/5
Graphics: 5/5
UX: 4.5/5
Overall: 5/5

Steam Code obtained via The Fullbright Company in exchange for an honest review.

 

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Game Review: Sunless Sea

Title: Sunless Sea
Developer: Failbetter Games Ltd.
Release Date: February 6, 2015
Website

Plot Synopsis:

Take to the dark waters

Welcome to the dark and hilarious Victorian-Gothic underworld of Fallen London, where every choice has a consequence, from the style of your hat to the price of your soul. Except this time around, the Unterzee is your oyster.

Choose your ship, name your captain, and leave the bustle of the docks for the wild and lightless depths of the Unterzee. The map changes every time you play, and every officer in your crew has their own story.

Encounter a corsairs’ village in a forest of stalagmites, come face to face with the vicious war trimarans of the New Khanate or the golden agents of the Dawn Machine. Grow strong and wise and rich and feared. With luck and skill you may achieve your ambitions: find your father’s bones, found a pirate princedom or sail beyond the Unterzee into the strangeness at time’s heart.

Review:

I don’t know if you’ve read A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab, but when I first started this game, that was the first thing that came to mind. The game begins in Fallen London, a world underneath the “surface.” I decided to be a Poet who uses knowledge and trickery to get my way and then chose world exploration as my objective. I even named my character Lila. However, while Lila Bard explored the seas of Red London – a world thriving on magic and life – my version was floundering in a darker world more akin to White London in Schwab’s ADSOM universe. Let’s just say she didn’t live long.

Sunless Sea feeds off of your curiosity. The game starts a little slow, but as you progress, you’ll find new random events, new story threads, and new opportunities to choose a different path. Think choose-your-own-adventure with an unfortunate reset button. Honestly, my first captain died within an hour of me playing the game. Although a little disheartened, I ended up learning from that experience and choosing different paths and options with my next captain. As a result, my second captain lived a lot longer and explored further. With different characters and different goals, the story is very free-form and after more than ten hours of playing, I’ve still only seen the tip of the iceberg.

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As you all know, character development is like crack to me, and this game is wrought with it. As you explore, you gain new opportunities to talk to your officers and learn more about them. Sometimes, their stories will trigger new events and unlock new paths in the game that will lead you to more opportunities to learn about them or yourself. One aspect that I thought was interesting is that currency in this world is in Echos, but it’s also in stories – Tales of Terror, Secrets, Memories of Distant Shores, etc. That, along with the colour palette and soundtrack of the game, really helps to create a dark and foreboding atmosphere within this world you’re in.

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When you first start, it’s hard to pick up on the story at large and understand what you’re supposed to do, but I think that feeds into the aspect of curiosity. Click around, talk to people, and explore the map. In the end, a story will slowly weave itself together in front of you as you discover more and more about this dark world and you share different stories with others in the world.

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Now to the nitty-gritty aspects of the game. I’m one to just jump into a game. Unless there’s a mandatory tutorial, I’ll poke around until I figure out what I’m supposed to do. Don’t do what I did. Read the Captain’s manual. It won’t give you insight into your goals or what you should and could do, but it will help you understand the controls and figure out what all the varying bars mean. To help make it clearer, I would have preferred some arrows, bubbles or more informative tips, but reading the manual definitely helps. A small detail that I found to be quite entertaining was how the graphics settings were named – Adequate, Charming, and Sublime. Small touches like that really added to the atmosphere that the game was conveying.

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Something else that I have difficulties with is the font size. I’m terribly vision impaired and even with my glasses I was squinting and leaning over the screen trying to read the story. With such a story heavy game, the small font was a little difficult to navigate through. It was only afterwards that I realized that the game had a font scale option, something that I thought should’ve been presented to the user upon starting up the game.

As a whole, I’m really enjoying Sunless Sea! I’m nowhere near done, but I’m excited to see where else the story takes me!

Plot: 4.5/5
Characters: 5/5
Graphics: 4.5/5
UX: 3.5/5
Overall: 4/5

Steam Code obtained via FailBetter Games Ltd. in exchange for an honest review.

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