Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4 (release date TBA)
As someone who's a fan of video games, it's easy for me to tell you that I liked playing Oxenfree. Hell, I loved playing the game. As someone who reviews games, all of that remains true, but I'd also like to add that I respect Oxenfree and the development team at Night School Studio for being able to pull off something so seamless and remarkable and memorable, and for showing that certain games don't need to pretend that they're something they're not.
Oxenfree is an incredible game and an incredible story — a story whose characters I won't soon forget, and a story that I'm excited to revist in the future.
Not Another Teen Movie
Oxenfree starts out by introducing you to its cast of teenage characters, who have decided to spend the night on a secluded island and engage in your usual adolescent activities. It's not exactly going to be a night of debauchery per se, but these are high school kids so smoking, drinking, soft drug use, and possibly some sexual exploration are not out of the question for them. They don't get to enjoy much of their night out, though, because almost immediately after they hit the shore, unreal things begin to happen on the island.
Before we get to any of that, though, let's talk about these kids. First, I'd like to mention that when it comes to a game that puts major emphasis on its cast, I tend to forget character names, which prompts me to scour the Internet for those details if I'm writing a review on said game. That's not the case here. I remember all of the main characters' names: Alex (the main protagonist with a mysterious past), Jonas (her new step-brother), Ren (her best friend), Clarissa (the disgruntled girl who holds a grudge against Alex), and Nona (the quiet girl).
Why do I actually remember these characters' names? Because Oxenfree made me care about each one of them, and by the end of it all, I felt like I knew them personally. I dug Alex and Ren. Jonas was pretty cool. Clarissa was a pain, but once I figured her out, I understood her, even if I still didn't agree with her badgering Alex at every turn. And Nona was nice and more complex than I first figured.
Alex, Ren, Jonas, Clarissa, and Nona all portray the typical teen archetypes you'd expect from a movie or book, but they eventually break free of those archetypes. Some characters do it better than others, but there are complexities to each personality, and Oxenfree does an amazing job of revealing those complexities and details the more you get to know the characters.
Stuck on a Haunted Island
What starts out as a night of harmless teenage fun (and animosity, if we're taking into account Alex and Clarissa's relationship) is turned upside-down when Alex inadvertently summons an otherworldly force while exploring a cave with her step-brother, Jonas. She does this — or rather, you do this — by tuning a radio to a strange, ominous signal that results in the island essentially going haywire. A portal is then opened, and ghostly beings begin to mess with the kids, sending them into possessed trances, transporting them to other parts of the island, and even messing with time itself.
From there, you have to guide Alex in finding her friends, unearthing the island's secrets, finding a way off the island, and, ultimately, finding herself. Throughout the course of the game, you travel through the island in its entirety. Save for a few slightly tedious moments where you have to backtrack and revisit previously explored areas, you're constantly seeing new sights — entering radio control towers, going inside an abandoned (yet still quite lovely) beach house, scaling cliffs, and so on.
Make Your Conversations Count
There are no action sequences or QTEs in Oxenfree. This is entirely a story-heavy, character-driven experience that, thankfully, boasts an incredibly well-crafted plot. It takes cues from adventure games and "walking simulators" to create a cinematic ride that's heavy on dialogue. There's a lot of talking in Oxenfree — talking is pretty much the game's “thing,” which is why it's awesome that the voice acting is so stellar.
While discovering the mysteries of the island, you'll talk with each of your friends extensively. There are myriad conversations, all of which grant you the opportunity to select from multiple responses. You can reply as you see fit: with a sarcastic retort, a witty jab, a frightened reaction, or a heartfelt confession. Your options vary with every conversation, but your responses shape your relationships with other characters all the same and, depending on what you say, can either strengthen a bond or add some tension between Alex and company.
Without spoiling anything, I will say that the conversational decisions you make build up as well as have an impact on which ending you get. Because the dialogue scenes are the crux of Oxenfree — not just pivotal to the plot but the central parts of it — what you say, if anything (you can opt not to respond), can lead to drastically different relationships.
Even if it is mostly talking, there's nary a dull moment to be had in Oxenfree. Yes, these are teenagers, but unlike real-life teenagers, they're tolerable ... and likable (side note: I feel old now). When you're not talking, you're using your radio to connect with the island's spirits and open new paths that continue the story. When you're not doing that, you're walking around the island. Even these walking parts are filled with anticipation because you know they're going to lead to the next revelation. Admittedly, the controls are a bit sluggish at times, but they mostly work fine.
Presentation That Sets a New Standard
As easy as it is to get lost in the story that Oxenfree so boldly tells, it's just as easy to get lost in its wondrous artistry. The game is a beauty to behold, with magnificent art that's often reminiscent of a storybook. The captivating scenery is awe-inspiring, and every time you visit a new area on the island, you're treated to majestically designed backgrounds and foregrounds.
Aside from just being pretty to look at, Oxenfree is also highly atmospheric, which is due in equal parts to the game's visuals and its soundtrack. Featuring tracks from SCNTFC (Sword & Sworcery, Galak-Z), the music helps to further enhance the overall tone and atmosphere — it transplants you right into the story even more than you already were just by playing. It's a breathtaking soundtrack for a breathtaking game.
The voice acting is also powerful. Featuring a cast that includes voice-over actors and actress from the Borderlands series, The Wolf Among Us, and Tomb Raider, there's an impressive amount of speech. The most important thing to note about the voice acting is that it's almost all believable. There are minor exceptions with some lines and delivery that aren't exactly cringe-worthy but are a tad questionable nonetheless. Thankfully, those are few and far between (which is probably why they're noticeable when they do occur) and are far outweighed by just how great the voice work is the majority of the time.
The Bar for Narrative in Games Has Been Raised
There were times during my playthrough of Oxenfree when I felt that I was watching a movie rather than playing a game. That's not to discredit the many great stories that video games have told, especially in the last several years, but Oxenfree had a cinematic quality to its plot and performances that I haven't really seen in other titles and that far transcends anything you could get from a standard cutscene. I was so engrossed in the experience that I finished it all in one sitting.
You'll get through Oxenfree in four hours or so. The game costs $20, but that's not exactly expensive when you consider the sheer quality of everything it does. And also taking into account that people pay that much for a 90-minute movie on Blu-ray, as well as the game's multiple endings which encourage you to revisit the whole thing more than once, you really get your money's worth. I'd argue that fact even if you just play the game once — it's that good.
I, however, will revisit Oxenfree. I don't know that I'll play it in one sitting next time, but I'm curious to experiment with different dialogue choices and to see how those choices shape not just the ending, but Alex, Ren, Jonas, Clarissa, and Nona's relationships with one another. Honestly, I look forward to being stuck on that creepy, haunted island with those four once again.