Indie horror games are par for the course these days, you can’t throw a digital rock without hitting one. “They’re comin’ outta the goddamn walls!” as a certain movie character once said. This doesn’t mean that the general quality is poor, but it does mean that new experiences are harder to find, especially on console. Along comes Night School Studio, a developer made up of former Telltale Games and Disney alumni, to try something new with Oxenfree.
Right from the first scene, you can tell that Oxenfree is something special. On a ferry headed to the island on which the game takes place, we meet Alex, her new step-brother Jonas, and her old friend Ren. The scene is immediately set with Ren asking Alex if she was paying attention, and introducing the game’s primary mechanic, its dialogue system. Using the X, Y and B buttons on the Xbox One controller to choose the corresponding response, you can influence the way characters see Alex and even change the way the story plays out.
Unlike most dialogue systems in games, the responses aren’t the stereotypical good, evil and in-between choices seen in The Walking Dead or Mass Effect, etc. Some can be snippy retorts, some can be comforting or simply a standard musing, but all feel natural and the script as a whole is spectacularly written. It doesn’t sound like a bunch of old men have written how they think teenagers speak, every conversation fits perfectly into the game and its story. This is helped along by the stellar voice acting from the entire cast. There are moments in which your responses will cut off another person’s speech however, whereas others will only activate at the end of the current character’s line, but it’s never really clear when to make your selection which can be a little irritating. That said, you can choose to wait it out and remain silent, which can be just as important as speaking up.
For a horror game (although perhaps ‘supernatural thriller’ is more accurate), Oxenfree is surprisingly free of dark colours and relentlessly oppressive atmosphere. To its credit, its colourful palette makes the island genuinely feel like it could be based on a real location, with its lush green forest and its waterside town. The beach upon which you will begin to learn about the characters of Alex, Jonas and Ren, along with the other two girls, Nona and Clarissa, comes with a stunning sunset backdrop against which you will get to know everyone through a game of ‘truth or slap’. This entire scene-setting moment feels like something from a beloved 80’s/90’s teen movie, and helps draw you into their stories quickly and naturally, with nary a boring tutorial in sight.
The friends (or not, depending on how you choose to play) are on the island to drink and be stupid, but Ren has an ulterior motive thanks to the radio he asked Alex to bring with her. This introduces the most unique mechanic within Oxenfree’s repertoire: using the radio to tune into various frequencies throughout the game. This radio is the source of all the group’s problems, as it manages to open up some sort of paranormal gateway. The rest of the story, much like the recent PS4 exclusive Until Dawn, is spent trying to survive the night and discover the secrets of the island as you go. The radio, activated with the right bumper/trigger and tuned using the right stick, can pick up different signals including tourist guides at plaques dotted around each area. It’s a neat way of telling the island’s backstory for those wanting to learn more, but not getting in the way for those wanting to just get on with things.
Although the radio is used to great effect at times, it does feel underused, perhaps even a wasted opportunity. Picking up strange broadcasts is great and all, but it could have been so much creepier if the radio turned itself on from time to time, blaring out static and strange voices, instead of only really being part of a linear sequence of events. The only time it’s really used outside of the main story is during an optional fetch quest in the final third, which is a real shame.
Of course, the gameplay is about more than just tuning a radio. As you explore the gorgeously detailed, 2D painted backgrounds, trying to accomplish various objectives within the story you will take part in conversations with whichever character is currently accompanying Alex. These happen regularly and keep things flowing during long trips around the map, and your responses will not only change the course of the story but also determine how much Alex learns about her friends in the process. This gives the game a real sense of replay value, as each playthrough will be different and there’s even a subtle, incredibly touching subplot that adds even more depth to certain characters. There are multiple endings too, depending on decisions you make during your time with Alex and her friends, all adding yet more replay value to Oxenfree.
A treat for the senses, Oxenfree is awash in gorgeous visual design with its painted backgrounds and superbly animated cast, and its sound design is just as fantastic. Its music contains old wartime songs buried within the radio’s airwaves, alongside some wonderfully atmospheric pieces during some of the game’s darker sequences, not to mention a distinctive theme that runs throughout it 3-4 hour playtime.
It even hides one more mechanic up its sleeve, a real, “holy crap, that’s cool,” moment that sets Oxenfree apart from most games in its genre. This moment, that shall remain unspoiled in this review, will challenge the way you view the game’s subtle narrative and even question your own morality, as weighty and pretentious as that may sound.
Releasing with very little spectacle on the Xbox One and Steam stores, with a PS4 release planned for the future, Oxenfree will likely have gone under almost everyone’s radar and that is a damn shame. It is genuinely one of the best games of its type and definitely one for the Telltale generation, deserving of the large sales and audience numbers that Telltale Games enjoys.
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