Review: Oxenfree

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By Nicole Pryde, @xnikkipryde

 

Do you remember those “choose your own adventure” books from childhood? I owned quite a few of the Goosebumps versions, and they were always such a thrill for me. When I first played Heavy Rain back in 2010, I was reminded of those books I spent countless hours on, and the decision-based storytelling game quickly became one of my favorite kinds. Quantic Dream and Telltale Games are well known for being the leaders of this genre, but in the last couple of years we’ve seen other developers step up and create memorable games in a similar fashion, such as Life is Strange and Until Dawn. So, when someone suggested I play the newly released Oxenfree by Night School Studio, a team made up of Telltale and Disney alum, I was eager to try it out.

 

Oxenfree tells the story of a high school student named Alex, who is attending an overnight party on an island with some of her friends and classmates. She is accompanied by her new stepbrother Jonas, who she only just met that same day, and her best friend Ren. When they reach their destination, the turnout isn’t as great as they had expected, and out of boredom they decide to explore the caves and investigate some of the weird activity other students had reported. In doing so, they accidentally open a rift to a paranormal world, and the group gets separated as unpleasant things start to happen. Alex must work her way through time loops and other creepy, supernatural phenomena to reunite with her friends, and together they have to solve the mysteries of the island and get to safety.

 

The game mainly functions like a 2.5D platform game, but it does offer more opportunities for exploring and interacting with the environment than many games of the genre. The player has the opportunity to explore off the main path to find bonus items, complete some objectives in order of preference, and even choose who accompanies them for certain tasks. While the exploration bit is fun, it can be rather tedious when you have to go back through a place you’ve already explored. The characters do not walk very quickly, and there is no option to jump from location to location via the map. You have to walk the whole way through, every time.

Thankfully, the conversation between characters is almost constant, providing entertainment during those long walks. The voice acting is great, and the interactions feel so natural. When it’s Alex’s turn to talk, the player is given several conversation options to choose from, reflecting different moods or decisions. These choices affect the progression of the story as well as how the characters will interact with each other in the future. The only problem I had with the conversation aspect of the game is that there wasn’t much time to select a dialogue option, which can be annoying when you know that your decisions might affect the rest of the game in a big way.

 

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The key item of this game is a radio that Alex carries with her. When she and her friends go to explore the cave, they check out the rumor of how certain frequencies interact with the island in weird ways. This is what causes the rift to open, and it also becomes the key to getting through many of the obstacles in the game by revealing clues, unlocking doors, and opening rifts.

 

The graphics of this game are 2D, and painted in a textured style full of colors that really contribute to the mood of the current situation. Fond memories are portrayed in soft, golden hues, moments of terror are filled with deep purples and bright reds, and the moments in between are filled with muted browns and greens.

 

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The game’s strongest point would definitely be the story and the characters. There was so much more heart to it than I was expecting. Each character is well developed and unique. Our protagonist Alex is an adventurous blue-haired teen with a sad past, and though she can be rebellious and sarcastic, she has a kind heart. Her best friend Ren is an energetic and chatty guy who enjoys being the center of attention, but is also sensitive and a bit insecure.  I could feel the awkwardness between Alex and Jonas, strangers who are suddenly considered family and have to try to get to know each other. I unintentionally played this up a bit through my dialogue choices, keeping him at a distance, and unfortunately did not get to know his character very well. When I met Clarissa, she was immediately my least favorite character because of her short temper and attitude towards Alex, but as the story progressed and I learned more about her past, she started to grow on me, and I could understand the reason for her bitterness. Clarissa’s friendship with Nona interested me, because Nona was such a sweet and reserved person compared to the loud and unfiltered Clarissa.

 

As the story progresses and each character is tested to their limits, their pasts and inner conflicts come to light. The reasons behind the tensions between some of the characters become more understandable, and there are opportunities to look into these situations and bring about closure. The decisions the player makes throughout the game determine where the characters and their relationships stand at the conclusion. Some people who were closest friends at the beginning may not be so amicable at the end, and vice versa.

 

Though this is a horror game, with the island’s history and supernatural elements being the main source of conflict, I felt like not much detail or explanation was given surrounding those mysteries. It was like a typical “ghosts who can’t let go” situation, and it did not get much deeper than that. Despite that, the coming-of-age story was more than enough to draw me in and keep my interest, and the ending left me with wanting more.

 

I would like to give this game a 4.5 out of 5. It was interesting and highly addictive. I played through the first half in one sitting, and probably would have finished it then and there if I hadn’t been interrupted. My only issues really have to do with pacing. Conversation options passed by too quickly at times, and the slow travel was sometimes annoying and dulled the excitement over getting to the next point in the game. The art and the story were fantastic throughout, and the potential for different outcomes for each character give it a solid replay value. I would highly recommend this to all of my friends – frequent gamers and non-gamers alike.
Oxenfree is currently available on Xbox One, Windows 10, and Steam


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