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Oxenfree (PC) artwork

Oxenfree (PC) review

"An inventive and malleable story with surprisingly well-written characters."

Oxenfree isn’t much of a “game”, but its strong characters and spooky vibe are well worth seeing through to the end.

You play as Alex, a bright, blue haired high school student who joins a group of friends on a night trip to a local island to drink and party. All hopes for a fun night on the beach quickly fade as Alex inadvertently awakens a supernatural force that puts the group’s lives in peril. Over the course of the night, You must help Alex and her friends get through the night alive while discovering the secrets of the island.

The most immediately striking thing about the game is that it is absolutely gorgeous. Edwards Island is depicted in a beautiful art style. Due to its great use of light and color, the whole game feels like an interactive painting. The graphics, combined with the excellent synth-heavy soundtrack, creates a really strong aesthetic that fits with the game’s surreal and twisting plot. The game’s themes heavily revolve around time and space and the possibilities of what could exist outside of our realm of existence. It shows this invasion of our dimension through the heavy use of VCR-style glitches and time loops that make you replay certain moments that deliver weirdly different results.

The basics of Oxenfree is pretty simple. You walk around the 2d environment searching for clues and information to keep the story moving forward. You can see most of the island where the game is set from the start, but the separate sections of the island don’t have much to interact with until the plot sends you there. The game moves at a deliberate pace, forcing you to soak in everything the game has to offer. There is a creeping sense of dread that permeates every inch of the island that Alex and her friends traverse through. The game is clearly influenced by psychological horror and thriller films, where the enemy is not merely some serial killer who lives in a shack in the woods. You are never in immediate danger of death in Oxenfree. You never engage in any physical fights. But you always feel like you’re being watched, as if there is something just off-screen that is watching your every move, always one step ahead of you no matter what you attempt to do. The ethereal nature of the threat makes it impressively uncomfortable at times.

The gameplay mechanic that differentiates the game from other adventure games is the radio. The radio is the Macguffin that gets Oxenfree’s story rolling. At any point, you can bring up the radio to learn information about the island, hear some music that sounds like it’s from the 1950’s, or some strange and unsettling messages from beings who are not of this dimension. If you’re ever unsure about what to do next, scrolling through the frequencies on the radio is probably the answer to your question. But that’s about it. The gameplay is very light, but the game’s other qualities and short runtime (you can finish it in four or five hours) made it possible for me to focus on the things the game does well. The game doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Plot and character development take precedence over gameplay in Oxenfree. You spend most of your time in the game having conversations with your friends as you walk through the assorted areas on the island. The dialogue trees are pretty nuanced, offering three options that rarely skew into simple “good” or “evil” answers. The answers you give offer the chance to learn about the backstory of the characters, as well as affect the interpersonal relationships between the characters. This is where Oxenfree stumbles slightly. There were a few times during the game where the piece of dialogue I chose didn’t mean what I thought it would, or it took a different tone than I expected. But overall, the writing for these conversations is impressively grounded and realistic. Writing for teenager characters is usually a disaster, especially in video games. Aside from a few missteps here and there, Night School Studio does a pretty good job of making the characters feel three-dimensional, with feelings and motivations that make sense with the version of the story that you're participating in.

There has been some pushback in recent years from gamers over the emergence of these so-called “walking simulators”. But these types of games have plenty to offer to the tapestry of the medium. Oxenfree manages to do a lot of things most games can’t or aren’t as interested in doing. It creates an eerie atmosphere that is as alluring as it is unnerving. It has smart characters and an unpredictable story that I was invested in finishing. Yes, it’s a walking simulator, but it’s a pretty entertaining one.


sam1193's avatar
Community review by sam1193 (April 09, 2016)

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