Set on an abandoned island visited by a group of teenagers, Oxenfree weaves the supernatural into an unsettling and ultimately very touching coming of age story.
Consisting of former Telltale Games and Disney employees, Oxenfree is Nightschool Studio’s first game. Stepping into it, it’s apparent that the game was developed by those who have a strong grounding in how to produce a game driven entirely by strong narrative devices. And in reviewing Oxenfree I’m going to tread lightly in order to avoid spoiling the game entirely for you.
In its most basic spoiler-free form, Oxenfree concerns Alex and her group of friends who embark on a care-free trip to an island in the hope that they’ll enjoy themselves. You take control of Alex who’s joined by Jonas, Ren, Clarissa and Nona. In some way or another they’re connected, either as good friends or on a more personal level and you begin to delve into the intricacies of each relationship as the game progresses.
Taking control of Alex means interacting with those around her and guiding her through the island. Before I mention anything else, it’s a gorgeous-looking game, adopting a hand painted art-style that gives the island a unique feel. Whilst it’s rare to find anything that’s truly unique, Oxenfree’s aesthetic is wonderfully distinctive, to the point where it’s indelibly tied to the game. The island itself is fairly vast, spanning a number of different areas that vary not only in size but also in appearance and feel. There are times when you enter a new area and you just know you’re in for something that’ll get under your skin. That’s because the story doesn’t consist of a bunch of teenagers frolicking for a few hours; it takes an unexpected turn that only escalates as time goes by. This “turn” is supernatural in nature and you’ll begin to notice when things start getting a bit iffy; there’s an air of “this doesn’t seem right” that piques your curiosity and makes you want to investigate further. At first I was a little sceptical, assuming that it would be a bit silly or borrow from a cheap cliché, however I was proved totally wrong. Whilst I wouldn’t say it’s absolutely terrifying – at least I don’t think it’s trying to be – there’s an ongoing sense of light dread that accompanies you throughout, and permeates the island through every step you take. It’s not trying too hard to please horror fans by importing telegraphed jump scares and overdone tropes; the supernatural element exists purely to drive the narrative forwards in a way that plunges you deep into the thoughts of each character, stripping away their outer shell layer by layer until it reveals a world of thoughts and emotions that swirl beneath the surface.
Oxenfree’s greatest feat is its main strength – the dialogue. Little pop-up speech bubbles appear when an individual speaks, and as Alex you’re also part of the conversation too. You’ll have three options that appear above your head in a condensed format rather like Fallout 4 or Mass Effect. However it’s infinitely more responsive and fluid than both these games or any other game I’ve ever played that requires an exchange of words. It’s also far more accurate, and upon selecting an option, you feel like Alex has done your decision justice. In fact it’s even better than that: it’s like she’s an extension of yourself, engaging in direct conversation with these characters effortlessly and in a remarkably seamless fashion.
Conversations feel dynamic and realistic as you interrupt or hold your thoughts to offer your opinion on a topic that’s voice-acted to sheer perfection. Each word feels meaningful as you genuinely believe you’re shaping the dialogue rather than interacting in a unremarkable turn-based exchange that, if scrubbed at hard enough, would reveal a ton of code denoting an all too familiar designated path. And because the voice-acting and mechanics behind conversation are so well-crafted, you instantly build a rapport with the characters you like or react in ways to opinions that you dislike in an inherently real way. Often you might find yourself alone with a character and they’ll react accordingly, bringing up topics that wouldn’t have seen the light of day had you been with others. Sometimes I found myself stopping and soaking up extra dialogue that I could’ve skipped over easily, but couldn’t because it was so damn interesting. I wanted to learn more about every character and their connection with one another in an entirely relatable teenage context. Believe me, it’s rare when a game makes me want to soak up extra, as my minuscule attention span usually rears its head when characters chat unnecessarily. Not with Oxenfree; it never made me feel like I was following a set route, it was immersive natural progression throughout.
Hand in hand with Oxenfree’s greatest strength is the humour that lightens the mood when it’s most needed, or turns a particularly disastrous scenario into a hilarious one. I found the speech options provided were spot-on in allowing me to put a humorous twist or spin on events. Its humour provides a great contrast to the darker sections of the game that play out, making them seem all the more staggering as you’re taken aback by something wholly unexpected, having just participated in a good chortle. Thankfully the humour isn’t overused but belongs in the natural dialogue, elevating moments that stray away from the light-hearted atmosphere that pervade the game, but have been muffled by worrying supernatural events. Not only is it all centered around supernatural spookiness, Oxenfree also gives you tough decisions to make and throws you into uncomfortable, agonising conversations or situations with others that affect your standing with them. You’re pre-occupied with strange goings-on, but also with keeping a healthy – or unhealthy – relationship with your friends. Considering you’re all hormonal teenagers, perhaps it’s unsurprising that tensions can flair in a journey of angsty self-discovery.
Oxenfree is as much of a game as Until Dawn or Life is Strange. It’s a game anyone can play because it functions as an interactive novel more than anything else. Decisions are made and things are explored, with your activities and interactions serving to push the narrative forwards in ways that don’t require you to fight any baddies or dodge any missiles. For a game that leans its weight entirely on its narrative and dialogue-heavy storytelling, it’s exceptionally well done. More-ish in nature, I found myself not wanting to stop playing as I was so curious to see what was going to happen next in the hope that it might shed light on what the heck was going on. I became rather attached to characters such as Ren and Alex’s stepbrother Jonas. Ren’s a joker and always had the capacity to make me laugh, whilst Jonas was a dependable character who’d seen a lot in his life for better or for worse. It was always a joy to find out more about them, and also realise that each character complimented or played their role in the teenage group without falling into an undesirable – easy to fall into – stereotypical pit.
The only couple of gripes I’d have with Oxenfree are in relation to the fact that it’s so caught up in its own narrative. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great, but it also means that it comes across rather simplistic at times when interacting with things in the environment with just a press of a button or gentle prod of the analogue stick. It’s so effortless that it can detract from the experience sometimes. In addition I found myself thinking that the game could’ve been paced a little better. There were times when it all got rather intense, but the surge of emotion was halted rather suddenly as I spent an absolute age consulting the map and wandering through the woods to get to my next destination. Otherwise though, these are small negatives that weren’t exactly game-breaking or truly heart-breaking.
Oxenfree executes what it set out to accomplish in a great way, providing a rather unique adventure game filled with interesting methods of interaction and some pretty shocking moments. You’ll feel a wide range of emotions, but above all you’ll be moved as it gradually dawns on you that the teenagers are simply struggling to let go of the inner demons that dwell on the inside.