Much to my dismay, Oxenfree was not a sequel to OlliOlli. Much to my surprise it was Until Dawn by way of Silent Hill, done in a Telltale Games fashion and could very well have been directed by Diablo Cody. This somewhat tense adventure comes to us from Night School Studio and chronicles the misadventures of five quirky high school kids sneaking onto a remote island for a beach hangout. Because when has that ever went wrong in the history of things?
Oxenfree: Windows PC [Reviewed], Xbox One, Mac OS X
Developer: Night School Studio
Publisher: Night School Studio
Release Date: 15 January 2016
Price: €19.99 [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Developer/Publisher]
Oxenfree, Island Survival Guide
The game starts you off on a boat heading off to the remote Edwards’ Island. Aboard it are childhood friends Ren (not Kylo) and Alex, our protagonist, along with Alex’ new step-brother Jonas. They’re heading to the island clandestinely, as the island is uninhabited by night, for one last beach party before high school ends. So right from the start, Oxenfree lays the melancholy aspect on pretty thick. They soon meet up with their other friends (and frenemies respectively), quintessential popular girl Clarissa and her best friend, underachiever Nona.
The game spends the first few minutes setting up the characters’ personality traits and the relationship dynamics within the group. It does so at a brisk pace, but very effectively and with a natural flow to it. There is little to no outward exposition as far as the group’s relationships are concerned, the game prefers to set up some in medias res exchanges at face value and let you puzzle out the background and context on your own. There is friction between Alex and Clarissa (no, not like that), a one-way crush between Ren and Nona and Jonas is the odd-man-out, being a newcomer.
Player input largely consists of moving through the environment, interacting with objects and choosing between three dialogue lines whenever prompted to respond, much like you would in a latter day Telltale Game. What Oxenfree does interestingly, though, is that it doesn’t hold you hostage to long-winded dialogues allowing your attention span to dwindle and then miss a crucial dialogue choice. Instead, you’re allowed almost constant freedom to walk around, interact with stuff and even interrupt other characters with a question or remark. And the best part? Most of the time they’ll acknowledge the interruption before picking up where they left off. However, this is not a perfect system as occasionally you’ll walk past a trigger for a different conversation in the middle of some banter and it can be a not-so-pretty look at the turning gears of the game engine. Thankfully, those moments are rare and far apart so a good chunk of the game has a satisfying flow in terms of dialogue.
The first half hour or so of the game is quirky (yes, I used that word a few times before and it’s not over yet) and whimsical, just overly-witty teenager banter. It’s soon revealed that Alex has brought her handheld radio with her at Ren’s request, in order to tune in to some allegedly supernatural frequencies on the beach. Naturally, nothing of note happens and the game ends. Haha! Got you there, imaginary gullible person! This is the part where spoilers kick in, but something definitely does happen and the rest of the game consists of navigating the island and trying to ensure everyone’s safety while investigating the mystery and using your radio to either solve puzzles or get clues. I played the game with a controller and I had the added bonus of it rumbling every time I tuned into a relevant frequency.
As the night drags on, events turn creepier and more disturbing and the supernatural elements grow more numerous. Oxenfree prefers to stray clear of jump scares, trying instead to provoking a slight but constant unease in the player. I didn’t find it to be particularly scary but it had me wince two or five times nonetheless. Stretches of trudging through gloomy abandoned buildings are interspersed with the characters talking about mundane things and giving us insight into their personalities and past. It’s an excellent filler for long treks between the island’s various areas which you always have to perform on foot, without fast travel. The conversations and various events along the way do a great job of breaking the repetitive nature of the tasks.
I found Oxenfree‘s pastel backgrounds and minimalistic 3D character models to make for an excellent art style. It’s reminiscent, somewhat, of Broken Age but clearly does its own thing, doing a great job of evoking the picturesque island scenery, gloomy forests and abandoned facilities, and an eldritch thing or two that I can’t really tell you about. The color palette complements the style well. Most of the game takes place at night but everything is sufficiently illuminated, Oxenfree preferring to exchange total darkness with unsaturated, but visible cold colours which, for a game that takes place at night, is refreshing.
The sound design is spot on. The music alternates from whimsical to unsettling, punctuating the atmosphere of each scene. Radio static, while you try to find a frequency to tune into, builds up tension as you never know if the next station you find plays old songs, indistinguishable chatter, cryptic recorded messages from an upbeat radio announcer that seem to pertain to your situation or just plain-old blaring noise and gibberish. The voice acting is excellently executed. The character models are not very expressive aside from some body language but the voice does the rest so well that you don’t need more.
Gameplay-wise, Oxenfree is very shallow. Make no mistake, you probably won’t have a good time if you scoff at the term “walking simulator”, but fans of interactive storytelling are bound to get a kick out of it. As I mentioned before, shallow gameplay or not, there’s always something to do in Oxenfree. There are very few moments where control is wrested away from you. While the primary function of your radio is to solve puzzles and you are usually prompted by your companion to do so, you can also use it to listen to various bits of lore about certain points on the island or participate in a decades-old scavenger hunt during the late game. The dialogue choices dictate the reaction the rest of the cast has toward you and occasionally there’s a visual cue of a character’s opinion of another shifting, though in what way and what direction we are never explicitly told. There are, however, a few crucial points in the game where your choices will impact the ending and the fates of the rest of your friends. This gives the relatively short Oxenfree (4-5 hours) a certain degree of replayability. There’s also a bit of meta-content that I found to be interesting, but I’ll let you figure that out for yourselves.
The writing is, for the most part, solid. The island’s mystery is intentionally left a bit vague, as are some of the other weirder things that happen, but there’s definitely not the same degree of obfuscation here that you’d see in something like Silent Hill. The characters are well-written and executed but for a slight flaw (or maybe just a pet peeve): they’re too clever. Don’t you get tired of overly witty teenagers? I know this is a different generation than it was ten years ago when I was their age, but I just don’t see how there’s enough time, in 18 years of life, to develop your personality to a point where every second line you utter is a witty quip or a clever retort, or have the amount of abandon required to be funny or sarcastic while clearly in mortal danger. So this is my only gripe with the writing: Oxenfree’s characters act like teenagers acting like adults, because they were written by adults, but you know what? I think I’ll take that over adults trying to write teenagers as what they think teenagers are like.
I loved Oxenfree. For its minor flaws it’s a great-looking, great-sounding, well-acted, well-flowing, engaging and sometimes emotional, interactive thriller story. It had me invested in its characters in just a few hours and while short, for a game, it makes the most out of every single second. There are no long stretches where no one says anything and nothing happens. I’d definitely recommend it if you enjoy interactive storytelling and don’t mind simplistic gameplay.