Oxenfree tells the story of 5 teenagers, as their weekend getaway on a remote island takes a turn into supernatural territory. Alex, her best friend Ren and her new step brother Jonas take a ferry ride to the Edwards Island to meetup with Clarissa, Alex’s late brother’s girlfriend and Nona, Ren’s crush. While exploring a cave, Alex and Jonas accidentally opens a rift to another dimension, which unleashes supernatural beings and causes some time loops. Alex must race against time to save her friends and make sure they survive until morning comes.
The game is developed and published by Night School Studio, an indie game studio formed by two cousins Adam Hines and Sean Krankel. The game plays out in a 2.5D environment where the player controls the actions of protagonist Alex. Dialogue bubbles pop up above the characters head as they talk and follow them as they move around. And players can choose Alex’s responses to the conversation which will in turn affect her relationship with the group and the ending of the game. There are puzzles in some locations but most amount to nothing more than spinning the analogue stick to turn tapes or find the right radio frequency to trigger an event, which includes communicating with the supernatural beings and opening rifts.
The voice acting of the game is top notch. I always find myself deliberately slowing down and paying attention to the conversations between the characters. I would just make Alex run around in circles sometimes, just to listen to every single word that is said. There are times you could do other things while conversing too, like stoking a fire or throwing stones at the sea. And often times when characters are interrupted, they will continue where they left off with something like “Where was I? Oh…” and little things like that, which really brings them to life.
The art style of the game is beautiful too. The environment that the group traverses often felt like a painting. The cave in particular is very pretty to look at and reminds me of the art style of other indie titles like Ori and the Blind Forest. The character designs are excellent too. They’re easily distinguishable from one another, despite the fact that the camera is often far away from them. And their posture and movement often reflect their traits too, like Clarissa’s haughty attitude often reflected in her crossed arms.
The game is well paced. I never felt like I’m trying to rush to the finish line or that things are getting boring, which more often than not happens when I play this type of game. Even games I loved like Life is Strange had this issue for me. Oxenfree never once made me feel that way. Part of it, I felt, is the constant dialogue choices that take place. Not all of it has impact on the game, but it does make Alex that much more relatable as her banter with the group often feels like one I would have with my friends. Plus, there are some sarcastic options and witty quips that reminded me of Dragon Age 2’s Hawke, which is always a good thing in my book.
Being a 2.5D game that’s not really focus on maneuverability and quick reflexes, it’s easy to overlook the movement controls of the game. And honestly, it’s pretty bad. Because the road after zig and zags, like a real trail would, there’s often a need to change direction rather sharply. This usually results in the character running against an invisible wall which looks comical if it didn’t happen that often. Characters are often limited to a slow walk, which can be a pain to get through if you’re rushing for some achievements. There’s no real reason why it couldn’t have been fast throughout, besides the need for conversations to finish before the entire area is explored.
The ending leaves a little more to be desired. It’s not outright bad, but it’s not totally satisfying. There are several things that feels like plot holes and there’s a kind of “post credit but not really” scene that flips the entire thing on its head. I was expecting there to be some sort of “true” ending but a cursory look on the Internet told me there’s nothing of that sort. It is somewhat thematically appropriate but at the same time I felt that it takes a lot away from the game itself and the player’s experience with it.
The soundtrack is a hit or miss. Some of it was peaceful to listen to, others gave me a headache and had me wishing I could sprint off the map. I resorted to taking out my earphones in those areas, unless a conversation was taking place. But does that were good to listen too, I would stick around the area a while just to heard more of the music.
Oxenfree is a great experience despite its flaw. Its ending might not be 100% satisfying, but the journey to get there more than makes up for it.