Five teens are stranded on a seemingly abandoned island and have to survive the night while subjected unexplained phenomena. While that may sound like the premise for any given horror movie, Oxenfree takes the setup for a teen slasher and turns it into a wonderful character adventure game that hits some poignant moments.
You play as Alex as she spends the night on Edward’s Island with her friends and new stepbrother Jonas as part of a yearly tradition among friends. All starts out normal as teens lament high school, enjoy adult beverages and struggle to be normal around their beachfront bonfire. Things take a turn as Alex, Jonas, and her friend Ren go off on their own to explore the nearby cave with a radio, which interacts with the supposedly supernatural radio signals of Edward’s Island. From the first moment Alex uses her radio in the cave, Oxenfree hits the ground running and you will not want to put down your controller.
Oxenfree is another entry in the increasingly popular genre of indie adventure games (such as Gone Home, Life Is Strange, Kentucky Route Zero) which has less to do with Sierra-style puzzle solving and more of a focus on story and characters and how the player responds to the situations put before them. The story is not something that is clearly mapped out by designers, but more inferred (as with previous examples) and at times, molded by player choices. This style of gameplay has me desperately trying to wring every ounce of story out of my time with it and Oxenfree makes that rewarding.
While gameplay is mostly limited to dialogue choices and adjusting Alex’s radio, it’s no less enthralling. The extra wrinkle that makes Oxenfree flow so smoothly is that dialogue choices do not halt the pace of the game. If Alex doesn’t respond to the conversation before the opportunity fades, she remains silent which has as much impact as any of the choices given. As someone who fully admits to pausing during dialogue in other games to find a walkthrough online in the past, I enjoyed being thrown in the deep end by this.
The characters feel real in their interactions for the most part, which is sometimes difficult with writing teenagers. This shines best with Alex’s interaction with Jonas as they develop their new sibling relationship amidst the mysteries of Edward’s Island. Equally engaging to the character development is Edward’s Island itself. The perspective of the game forces the player to take in the landscape, which has a beautiful artistic style. The art direction complements the story beautifully, as does the soundtrack. Both evoke a mood that fleshes out the characters and helps tell a story that isn’t ever spelled out.
There’s not much more to say without pushing into spoiler territory, as the game is a little over three hours long. Oxenfree tells the story it wants to tell without overstaying its welcome, but still leaving enough open threads that players will want to return to it again to find what they may have missed. Also worth mentioning, Oxenfree is the first game released by Night School Studio and it is an incredibly beautiful and thoughtful first step. Night School has set a high bar and I look forward to seeing what future projects follow Oxenfree.
Oxenfree is available on Steam, Xbox, and PS4 for $20. Steam also has a $25 option that includes the original soundtrack for Oxenfree produced by Scntfc.
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