Between Oxenfree and last year’s Until Dawn, it is a good time for narrative focused horror games. I’m realizing in this moment that I haven’t posted a top 10 2015 games list yet, and I will, but in the meantime I can confirm Until Dawn has a firm spot on that list. It’s only a few months later and we’ve already been given another solid horror title. That seems rare. Is that rare? Seems rare.
Just how good is Oxenfree? Good enough that it inspired me to write my first video game review on this site in like 18 months.
It’s going to be hard to say too much about the overall concept of Oxenfree without spoiling anything. I went in completely blind, only knowing it had supernatural elements and was reviewing well. That’s the way I would recommend anyone go into it…which I realize in this moment is a statement that applies to nearly any piece of entertainment ever. Watching it unfold and seeing the game slowly unveil its hand is an absolute joy so I will give the most base level summary I can here - You are Alex. Alex and her friends are taking a boat to an island. They accidently make ghosts happen. Now go and play the game!
As mentioned, Oxenfree is absolutely story driven as talking with other characters and traversing the island makes up the majority of the game’s content. There are encounters with “enemies” but you are never at risk of dying/losing (at least not that I saw during my playthrough). There are technically puzzles, but only two different types and neither one is challenging. The first has you rolling through a radio dial to find the frequency that makes your controller vibrate, and the other has you trying to find the sweet spot while spinning a reel on an old tape player. Neither puzzle type is engaging and they are repeated numerous times throughout the game. I kept waiting for a twist on the formula to be revealed as things progressed, but the goal never changed, outside of making you do it more times in a single instance.
It’s a shame because the radio is actually a cool idea that, outside of those puzzles, is utilized quite well. At certain spots across the island, you can use the radio to dial into a frequency meant for tourists that will provide a summary of the area you are in. You can also just randomly skim through and find all sorts of creepy business, like ghostly voices or eerie, old-timey music and more. It’s a neat feature that I really wish they had been able to go all the way with.
Thankfully they (they being Night School, and this being their first game) nail the crux of the game, which is the story and characters. There is a staggering amount of dialogue choice here. Nearly all of Alex’s dialogue is selected by the player and allows you to shape aspects of the story as it unfolds. Some of the dialogue definitely does suffer from being a little too “teen-y” but there was nothing too cringe-worthy and thankfully the majority of the dialogue completely works. Each character is unique and not nearly the one-dimensional horror tropes I would have expected, especially coming off of Until Dawn. There is depth to everyone here, with even the bitchy character given layers instead of just being the one you’re supposed to hate. These are characters I cared about and I wanted to be damn sure I pulled them through this situation alive. Except maybe for Rem. Kinda fuck that guy.
The idea that you are shaping the story with your dialogue choices feels a lot more organic here than in many games that present these sorts of decisions. Often in these games, there are very clear moments where you know this decision is a biggie that will dramatically affect everything. Oxenfree plays it more subtle. Ok yes the choices often make it clear which path you are heading down (things like calling your step brother an asshole vs saying he seems like a cool dude), but it never felt like it all hinged on a few larger choices that undid the smaller ones around them. Actually, it’s done so subtly that when shown some of the possible alternate outcomes at the end of the game, I wasn’t even sure how to begin shaping the story in those directions.
While the story is strong, the pacing can sometimes feel a little frantic. The situation on the island gets out of hand real fast and I would have been perfectly ok with the introduction to these characters having a little more breathing room. From there, things move at a brisk but reasonable clip, before a finale that is in a bit of a hurry to wind things down. There’s also a weird bit of business with one of the collectible types, letters that are written by an unseen character that provide a tremendous amount of backstory to the situation. These letters aren’t introduced until the final act, and you are required to traverse the entirety of the island in order to gather them all up. At this stage in the story things are meant to be wrapping up, so the characters don’t even have anything to say to each other during this stretch. You’re left wandering the island in stark silence. The letters are absolutely worth seeking out, but I do wish they were available earlier.
I can’t wrap this up without mentioning that the game looks and sounds fantastic. Each and every location/backdrop resembles a painting and there is clearly a strong attention to detail. I do wish there was a larger variety in the environments (lots of cliffsides and forests to run through here) but what’s there looks phenomenal. I’ve seen mixed opinions on the voice acting, but outside of the occasional “well maybe a second take would have been good there” line delivery, I was quite impressed and the music is top notch. A terrific sounding game from top to bottom.
Oxenfree is a terrific start to what could be another phenomenal year for video games. For me it came completely out of nowhere and had time permitted, I would have gone through the entire experience in a single sitting. Alas, commitments to other human beings and adult responsibilities prevented this, but rest assured a second session was all it took to see the credits roll. …I’m never good at wrapping these things up. Oxenfree is good! Very good! If you like video games that are good, you should check out Oxenfree!