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Oxenfree Review

Oxenfree is a supernatural thriller, mystery game about a group of friends who, while attempting to have a fun night out before their senior year of high school, end up experiencing what will slowly become the worst night of their lives. You play as Alex; a teenage girl who brought her new step-brother along to an island beach party that turns into a living nightmare.

Oxenfree Review

Introduction

Oxenfree is a graphic adventure, story-driven, mystery thriller developed by Night School Studio. It was released in January of 2016 and is available for PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, iOS, and Android.

The game revolves around a group of five friends who come out to an island for a party at the end of summer only to get dragged into a supernatural mystery that has been haunting the island (both literally and metaphorically) for over 50 years.

Oxenfree is available for purchase on Steam for $19.99

Story

The game begins on a ferry at 8pm. Alex (that's you) is traveling with her best friend, Ren, and her new step-brother, Jonas, to an overnight beach party on Edwards Island. The island's claim to fame stems from its abandoned military fort and the fact that it's the location of the only US submarine to ever be sunk by enemy fire in American waters. The story starts off with Ren and Jonas getting to know each other a bit while Alex occasionally chimes into the conversation. The mood is set from the get-go; we're clearly looking at three young adults who are getting ready to have a great night together.

Oxenfree Review: Look how happy-go-lucky they are! Surely nothing can go wrong tonight!

Upon arriving at the island, the three of them disembark and start making their way down to the beach. This involves a bit of work as it requires passing through Main Street at the front of the island (closed for the night), figuring out a way to get past Discovery Cliffs (hopping a fence; classic teenagers), and then following the correct trail to the beach. Already waiting at the beach is their friend Nona and her best friend Clarissa. They all thought there would be more people, but given that the ferry Alex took was the last of the night, it looks like it's going to end up being a party of five.

Everyone gathers around the bonfire for a delightful game of "Truth-or-Slap". As Ren so eloquently puts it "This is better than Truth-or-Dare because nobody ends up licking somebody's butthole." This ends up serving as a convenient plot device to learn a bit about everyone's background and how all the characters are connected. Ren has a crush on Nona who doesn't seem to reciprocate those feelings. Jonas' mother passed away due to cancer and his father recently married Alex's mother. Alex's parents got divorced due to the death of Alex's older brother Michael. Clarissa used to date Michael. Seems like a group that could easily lean towards either bonding or conflict.

Oxenfree Review: There's no way a game like this could hurt feelings. Zero chance.
Regardless of what activities you choose to participate in at the beginning of the night, Alex will inexorably end up investigating the standing stones located at the entrance of the caves on the beach. These stacks of stones are the reason that Ren told Alex to bring her portable radio, as there have been rumors for years that tuning into certain stations around the stones might allow one to hear otherworldly noises in the static. Alex is skeptical, but much to everyone's surprise the radio does in fact fluctuate oddly and even causes bursts of light to appear in the caves.

Oxenfree Review: I would be a terrible horror movie character because this would be my cue to get the hell outta dodge.  

One light continues to shine from a small hole in the cave and because teenagers are teenagers Alex and Jonas decide to dive right in. They end up in an enormous, and beautiful, crystal cavern complete with an eerie underground lake/pond. They come across some foreboding graffiti and Alex starts having second thoughts about exploring down here. Unfortunately, if Alex does decide to go back, she soon discovers that the entrance to the cavern has disappeared. There's no choice but to keep moving forward. Alex eventually has the bright idea to tune into her radio to see if she can pick up anything.

This time there's a bit more of a response than just weird lights and noises. Or rather, the lights and noises are that much weirder. As Alex messes with the radio, glowing triangles begin to form in the air above them. Before she can comprehend what's happening, a rift is opened. A triangle shaped hole in reality hangs in the air and demonic sounding language mixed with static and radio-speak echoes from within. Alex and Jonas suddenly wake up. They're no longer in the caves, but somehow on the other side of the island in front of the abandoned military comm tower. At least an hour has passed. None of their friends are anywhere in sight.

Oxenfree Review: Have you ever messed up so bad that you accidentally broke space-time?

This is where the game begins in earnest. It's now a race against time and supernatural, other-worldly denizens to find and gather all of Alex's friends and then find a way to get off the island. 

Gameplay

The gameplay is easy to understand and the controls are simple and intuitive. The arrow keys are used for movement, the mouse is used to select dialogue options, and two keys are used to access Alex's radio and a map of the island respectively. I personally chose to use a controller while playing, but neither the keyboard nor the controller are difficult to learn and operate.

Although Oxenfree isn't strictly a horror game, I feel obligated to mention that there are definitely some frightening moments. If you're someone who's easily scared then be warned that there are some tense situations and startling instances.  

The gameplay requires doing little other than walk around. Alex has two items in the game that will receive liberal use throughout: a map of the island and a radio. The radio is the most important item and serves an important function during the story. It's what's used to open the dimensional rift in the first place, it can be used during the game to break the ghosts' hold over someone who's possessed, it can be used to tune into various ghostly radio channels causing a host of paranormal phenomena, and it can be used to open doors and buildings that are otherwise sealed.

Oxenfree Review: If you have a phobia of radios, this is not the game for you.
There are various markers throughout the game that indicate when you should use your radio. Every landmark and unique location has an information plaque for tourists. Tuning your radio to the correct channel (which is provided by your map) while standing in front of one of those plaques will prompt a recording to explain the history of the various monuments and locations, including who discovered/built them and what they were used for.

Another common sight are standing stones. These stacks of small rocks are easy to miss, but if you find yourself in front of one, you'll have the option of searching through your radio for a channel that can tune into a creepy, ghost station. The color of the radio will become more red as you get closer to the correct station for each standing stone. If you're using a controller, the controller will rumble to indicate how close you are to the right channel.

A good portion of the game revolves around the island's abandoned military fort, which also hosts a nationally famous radio communications school. Information about this facility is provided throughout the game if you choose to look for it, and it goes a long way in explaining what's happening and why radio communication is important to the plot.

Oxenfree Review: Who knew that a hand-held radio could be so useful?
Throughout the game, various characters will constantly be chatting with one another and the player will be able to participate in these discussions by choosing dialogue options as they become available. Usually three different choices will appear above Alex's head and you can choose any one of the three to add to the conversation. You can wait until someone finishes speaking to give your two cents, you can choose to click early and interrupt whoever's talking, or you can simply allow the speaking options to fade away and not respond at all.

The main goal of the game is to get Alex and her friends off of Edwards Island. However, the multitude of possible responses and conversations in many situations throughout the game is a deciding factor in how the story plays out, how Alex's relationship with her friends is maintained (or not), and how the epilogue concludes. Not every response, or lack thereof, that Alex gives is going to change the nature of the game, but many do, so it's always worth being careful about what you say.  

Oxenfree Review: I have a feeling that one of these responses will have worse consequences than the others.
Sometimes, during or after a conversation, a picture of Alex's face will appear above another character. This indicates that what you just did or said has impacted your relationship with that person. This isn't always a cause for worry, as the picture will appear for both positive and negative interactions. It helps serve as a reminder that actions and words have consequences. This isn't just a game about ghosts, it's also a game about choices and how those choices matter.

The only complaint I can make about the gameplay is that I wish you could move faster. It sometimes feels too tedious having to go from one place to another. The ability to run would be an almost game-changing mechanic.

Additional Thoughts

Some of the dialogue in the game is at odds with what's happening. You'll have moments where the characters are cracking jokes or just generally talking as if they're not in an unbelievably terrifying and impossible situation. This is one of very few complaints that I have about the game, but it's jarring enough that it's worth mentioning.

That complaint, however, is a good stepping stone to discussing everything that the game's social interactions get right. Some might say that it's weird for a game about being haunted to focus so much on teen drama and worrying about other people's opinions, but I believe that the focus on those things is a powerful and meaningful analysis of teenage communication and relationships. Despite finding themselves in the midst of a horrible and traumatizing experience, these characters can't help but still care about what their peers think of them.

Oxenfree Review: Am I too young to be nostalgic about being a teen?
Being in a life-or-death situation has only a small effect on the posturing so endemic to their high-school lives. The point of the game is that it's about both their situation and how they behave during that situation. They're teenagers. They care about what other people think of them. They want to be liked and they're sometimes mean and thoughtless and they're often awkward around each other. Yes, these character might be overly flippant at times, and yes, that flippancy often messes with the player's suspension of disbelief, but a vast majority of their actions and words come across as genuine. I'd even go so far as to say it's remarkable how well Oxenfree captures the essence of teenage behavior and conversation. It's incredibly fluid and it feels completely natural. 

Target Age and Game Length

Oxenfree contains minimal swearing and a multitude of references to drug use. The game seems to be targeting those in their late teens and older. I'd hesitate to recommend it for any younger audience.

Whether or not you're trying to rush through or take it slow, Oxenfree shouldn't take longer than three to five hours to play through the whole thing. 

Graphics and Audio

I have nothing but praise for both the graphics and the audio. The graphics so perfectly compliment the atmosphere of the game that it's often a pleasure to just wander and appreciate the scenery. The game eschews realism for an art style that conveys emotion better than any other style could. It's clear that a lot of work went into the details and the originality of the overall form and design sets this game apart from others in similar genres.

Oxenfree Review: Absolutely gorgeous.
Every aspect of the game's audio enhances the entirety of the story. The soundtrack is beautiful. It doesn't just contribute to the game's ambience, but makes it. Every important moment, every location, and every action is accompanied by the perfect music for each situation. It ebbs and flows with an innate rhythm and makes the game feel more real as a result. 

However, even the soundtrack has nothing on Oxenfree's voice acting. Every character's speech is so smooth and natural, filled with such real emotion and sincerity, that it's easy to forget that the characters aren't real people. I'm in awe at the sheer amount of possible conversation options and how many different directions every encounter can go. Every single conversation sounds so real, not just because of what's being said, but also because of how it's being said. It's easy to believe that the various discussions throughout the game have happened in real life at some point. There are no weird pauses or unnatural silences. It's an absolute delight to just stand around and see how long you can hold a conversation.

It was the voice acting, coupled with how well put-together the plot is, that convinced me Oxenfree would make a phenomenal movie. If there's anyone reading this who's capable of making that happen, get on it.

Conclusion

Oxenfree is entertaining, brilliantly written, and a must-have addition to any gaming library. The plot is engaging and contains no boring moments, the graphics are unique and excellently designed, the soundtrack is, quite fittingly, haunting, and the voice acting is among the top three of any video game I've ever played.

The game explores loss and friendship and the frightening worlds of both interdimensional ghosts and teenage social interaction. It has an enormously high replay value and marks the first time that I've ever played through the same game twice in a row. Twice in two days, no less. Oxenfree is an excellent example of storytelling through video games done right. 

PROSCONS
+ The story is fantastic– Movement often feels too slow
+ The graphics are magnificent– Some dialogue feels unrealistic and out of place
+ The soundtrack is splendid
+ The voice acting is as perfect as humanly possible
+ High replay value
9.5
Amazing

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