Developer: Night School Studio
Last week I didn't give myself enough time to play and review a game, so this week I got started right away without debating what game should be next. I also got sucked in to this one, so I happened to finish it way quicker than expected. Oxenfree is a game I've been excited to get around to for a long time, since a close friend of mine recommended it to me over a year ago. Last year I bought itch.io's giant "Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality" that included a ridiculously generous amount of games, one of which was Oxenfree. With Oxenfree 2 having been announced, it was just the push I needed to finally play. Oxenfree is a side-scrolling "psychological thriller" adventure game about a group of teenagers on an overnight trip at an old military island turned tourist site. Oxenfree is excellent not only in its storytelling and interactions, but in its ability to eerily permeate beyond the game and feel like a real experience.
You play as Alex, a teenage girl on her way to Edwards Island to meet some "friends" for a night of drinking, drugs, and other teenage activities. She was invited by her stoner friend Ren and brought along her new step-brother Jonas, who just moved in with her. This trio is weird enough, but when they get to Edwards Island it's even more strange and uncomfortable when they're joined by only two other people, Nona and Clarissa. Ren has a crush on Nona, who's seemingly very sweet and shy. Clarissa, on the other hand... I don't know how else to say it besides she's the worst. She's incredibly rude to Alex, and by extension Jonas, and has unnecessarily snarky remark to everything. Of course, when the crew settles down by a campfire on the beach and starts playing "Truth or Slap", things get ugly and uncomfortable quick. Trying to diffuse the tension, Ren takes Alex and Jonas to a nearby cave to show them a strange anomaly of light that can be caused by tuning your radio to a specific frequency. Jonas, distracted by a light, travels deep in to the cave where him and Alex try the radio trick again. Unfortunately, this time, light triangle opens up some sort of rift and suddenly they are transported to another part of the island. From here on, Alex and Jonas must find their friends and figure out why such strange, ghostly events are happening on this island.
Oxenfree's soundtrack is.... truly special. It's one of those games where the music is so good sometimes you have to stay in that area for a little while in order to not interrupt it with a loading screen. It's very synth-y and electronic, reminiscent of 80's horror and perfectly fitting for game about strange radio waves. Towhee Grove, one of my favorite tracks, somehow manages to be fun and upbeat despite the darkness and mystery it also carries. Much of the music instills an eerie feeling, like something sounds a little off, and yet it's just such good ambient music to put on repeat. It's grown on me more each time I listen to it. The art style in Oxenfree is an interesting look that gives the characters a very three-dimensional feel despite being in 2D. The backgrounds are at times bizarre, more artistic than realistic, yet it still feels like you're on a real island. It makes the island environments feel wild and untamed, like there's much more to it than meets the eye. Although the story is set on a fictional island, there are actually many decommissioned military islands along the U.S. coast so it's not too hard to imagine. The game doesn't touch on it directly but I found very interesting and relevant the references to how the U.S. military exploits and uses people, afterwards leaving them to be forgotten and erased through time. Despite this being about a specific case on this island, it holds true in real life.
Oxenfree has some very positive qualities that remind me of Life is Strange games in that: one, what you say and do matters and ultimately affects the ending you get; and two, you can keep conversations going even if you walk away or do another activity. I love being able to keep conversations going while I do other tasks, since I never want to miss any dialogue but I'm also not very patient. This combined with the voice acting, the ability to interrupt conversations, and missing your chance to respond if you waited too long made these interactions feel very relevant and realistic, like real conversations that these teenagers would have. The gameplay consisted mostly of picking dialogue choices and tuning your radio, but it feels involved nonetheless. Also, when you reach the ending, you get to see the effects of the choices you made and how many other plays also made the choices you did regarding specific events and characters. Without spoiling too much, I just want to mention to anyone who's considering playing Oxenfree that the game has "additional content" that was added some time after its original release - this allows for an optional "new game+" after beating the game once. If you're undecided, like I was, about checking out new game+, here's my advice: do it. Trust me - this is coming from someone who doesn't like to repeat things in games. NieR: Automata, despite how good it was, became a little frustrating for me since I had to do and see a lot of the same things over and over again. Yet, this new game+ in Oxenfree was totally worth it for me. That's all I'll say on that.
Oxenfree has been out 5 years but has devoted fans even now, and I can see why. It's a perfect mix of teenage drama and supernatural sci-fi. It treads that line between horror and thriller, so I think it makes for a good game to play for anyone who can't usually handle horror games - even though you can still expect some jump scares. It can be a little repetitive in gameplay but it's hard to call that a big flaw since it's fairly important to the way the story plays out. I'm definitely looking forward to the sequel, as I'm really curious to see what they'll do next with this story. I highly recommend this game as I think anyone could pick it up and play through it, there's not much difficulty to its puzzles and exploring. This game was powerful due to how memorable and real the characters felt, and how much it makes the player desperately want them to make it out alive. I was on the edge of my seat until the very last second of this game.
Note: If you've played Oxenfree, you may also want to check out the Oxenfree ARG that happened in 2016. Full breakdown can be found the subreddit and I watched an interesting documentary of the trip involved here. Spoilers for the game in these links, of course.
Oxenfree is available on PC, Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Android, and Apple Store.
Played on: PC
Playtime: 11 hrs