Oxenfree is a 2.5D side-scrolling adventure game that follows five kids stranded on an island. After initially only wanting to party amongst themselves, the island’s dormant history of supernatural terror is stirred and the resourceful teens must find a way to work together and get to safety before morning.
The game sees a teenage girl named Alex, blue-haired and low-key cool, dragged to a party on an island near her home town by her chatterbox stoner friend Ren. Alex is reluctant to go but is doing it as a balm for the stressful experience of getting to know her new step-brother, Jonas. Ren is keen to hook up with the sweet but rather dim Nona and won’t stop pestering Alex about it. The cherry on top of Alex’s stress-cake is Clarissa, who was dating Alex’s late brother Michael prior his death and seems to still have a grief-stricken axe to grind. The party is something of a fizzer and it isn’t long before Alex, Jonas and Ren opt to investigate the bizarre phenomena in the nearby caves instead. It’s at this point that Oxenfree really starts to get its spooky little ball rolling.
The game gives you a lot of information about these characters quite quickly but it never feels like an info dump. The dialogue is smart and, despite veering close the same “trying too hard to sound like kids” hill that Life is Strange nearly died on a few times, often very funny. It’s also helped a talented voice cast who are able to bring real charisma to each of the characters. Clarissa, for instance, is human disaster. She’s a mess of grief and misplaced anger, who pillories Alex relentlessly and unfairly because it’s the closest she can get to being mad at the deceased Michael. As easy as it is to hate Clarissa, it’s equally easy to see why she behaves the way she does.
It’s solid character work like this that allows Oxenfree to shed the trappings of other 2.5D adventures, placing a heavy emphasis on story, dialogue and character. Exploration also has a part to play, however there is no combat to speak of. It shouldn’t come as any surprise then to hear a good chunk of developer Night School Studio’s staff roster is made up of former Telltale Games and Disney employees.
The island itself its surprisingly large, broken up into a number of different areas for exploration and the walk between these areas is where most of the expository heavy lifting is done. Directing Alex on how to interact with her friends and hearing them bicker amongst themselves is surprisingly entertaining. I found myself quite attached to this team of dedicated whingers and by the time the credits rolled, I was bummed that I didn’t get to spend more time with them.
Alex is armed with a pocket transistor radio which allows her to tune into different radio frequencies for further information, clues and puzzle solving. It’s possible to careen through the game’s story in an afternoon and still get the gist without getting off the beaten track once but if you’re looking to dig into the surprisingly rich story here, exploration is mandatory.
When Oxenfree turns on the scary or unsettling, and it does quite a bit the further in you get, it’s really effective. The island’s secrets are strange and unnerving and the game’s time-hopping narrative only adds to the sense of background dread. It’s a lot of fun and there were a couple of great jump-scares that caught me completely off-guard.
Visually, Oxenfree has a lovely look not that far removed from an oil painting. The environments all feel like they were created in brushstrokes rather than in textures or assets. It’s engrossing and there were a few occasions where I stopped just to look at it. Combine this with a lovely and restrained soundtrack by scntfc and you have an atmosphere that is dense and electric.
This is an extremely solid experience and a great way to spend a rainy afternoon on the couch. Oxenfree’s indie trappings belie a confidence and delicate touch that many AAA developers would kill for. It’s smart, funny and occasionally rather frightening. I can’t wait to play it again for a different ending.
Review Score: 8.5 out of 10
Highlights: Lovely visuals, sound, character and story
Lowlights: Some clunky dialogue
Developer: Night School Studio
Publisher: Night School Studio
Released: January 15, 2016
Platform: Xbox One, Windows PC, Mac (PlayStation 4 TBA)
Reviewed on PC