Put it this way, if you are looking for a game to play this Halloween AND something to scratch that 80s horror itch Stranger Things left behind, then you need to check out Oxenfree.
Oxenfree is a (kind of) side scrolling adventure game with a supernatural/horror twist. It functions as both a tribute to 80s family friendly horror as well as a beautifully written coming-of-age story. Written by Adam Himes – the man responsible for Telltale Games’ Tales From The Borderlands. Oxenfree uses the gorgeous artwork of Heather Gross to weave together a story of science fiction and weird horror to a near masterful effect.
So What's It About?
The plot follows a teenage girl named Alex, who alongside her stoner best friend Ren and her new stepbrother Jonas, arrives on Edwards Island for a night of High School debauchery – a rite of passage indulged in by their towns youth. Their plan? Get a bonfire going, start drinking, enjoy the starry night sky, and maybe check out the Island’s caves where it is rumored bizarre and ghostly recordings can be picked up as radio frequencies.
Of course, what follows is a hard and fast descent into the uncanny, when Alex, operating an old radio opens up a kind of portal, zapping the three along with other party goers to random locations around the island. As the gang attempts to regroup and figure out what the hell just happened, more strange events begin to occur – possessions, ground-hog day time slips, glowing lights and talking reflections to name a few. The teenagers find themselves forced into a journey of discovery, both of the mysteries behind the island, as well as the mysteries behind their own lives.
Oxenfree is quite honestly a pretty amazing game. I would term it a flawed masterpiece as there are a few issues I have, but whatever issues there are, they most of the time, tend to be dwarfed in comparison with the good that this game offers up.
Talk Like A Teen
First off, let’s deal with the games’ greatest asset: The Dialogue. It isn’t very often that you get an adventure or horror game with such brilliant dialogue. Video games aren’t particularly well known for their stories or for their character development, but Oxenfree has this in spades.
Because the game play almost exclusively consists of characters exploring the island together, walking around and occasionally solving some sort of puzzle, the dialogue is key to stopping the lack of action becoming a negative in the players mind. Every character in the game is voice acted, and voice acted rather well. There’s no wooden language here.
And unlike other games that have attempted to go for an indie coming-of-age plot *cough* Life Is Strange *cough*, Oxenfree manages to steer clear of feeling as if the writers were middle-aged parents, glancing through Tumblr, trying to get an understanding of “how the kids speak nowadays”.
The dialogue is quirky, funny and for the most half engaging, and Himes has done a great job at unpacking character backstory not through chunk exposition monologues, but rather through casual conversation, with details being more hinted at than explicitly explained.
Unfortunately, with the games’ biggest plus, also comes its biggest critique in my opinion. What I found during my play through was that it is way too easy to skip past this dazzling dialogue. What I mean by that all falls down to the games’ mechanics and how they don’t quite work as well as they could. When characters are conversing with each other, we are presented with several options on how to continue the conversation through multi-colored speech bubbles floating above Alex’s head. The problem is, you only have a limited amount of time to pick an option before they disappear and she just says nothing, but if you choose an option too early, Alex will interrupt what the other character is saying, cutting his dialogue line short, to start a new stage in the conversation.
What this resulted in for me, was often times a mad dash to try click an option before they disappeared and roughly around my best guess of when the other characters were about to finish speaking. Sometimes I got it right, but mostly, I ended up with a whole bunch of confusing, chopped up conversation lines.
This could have been easily remedied a couple of different ways, so I’m not sure as to why the designers decided to leave such an obvious flaw in the finished version of the game. They could have designed it so the speech bubbles don’t disappear until a few seconds after a character has finished speaking, or they could have set the system up so that the game remembers what your choice of dialogue was and only initiates it when there is no more dialogue left to be said by the characters – kind of like queuing the language instead of the player rudely interrupting everyone every three minutes or so.
I know this sounds like a pretty big mistake that could make the game unplayable, but perhaps I’m overstating it a little. The game is still miles ahead of a lot of other stuff out there and totally worth playing, you just have to be aware that this is one of the faults it has, and accommodate for it.
On a more positive note, let’s talk about...
Much like the aforementioned Stranger Things, Oxenfree is accompanied with an at times nostalgic, and at others creepy, synth-filled 80s' vibe soundtrack. I’m unclear as to whether the game takes place in the 80s’ or simply chooses to carry that vibe, but whatever the answer is, it isn’t relevant to the plot, so we won’t worry about that. The music is lush and vibrant however, and really helps to set emotional tone in some of the more character driven moments, as well as creating tension in the spookier scenes.
As a writer that often focuses on games, I play a lot of them, and there are many out there that while playing, I don’t even notice the music behind the pictures on the screen. There is on the odd occasion however, a video game soundtrack that stands above the rest, one that I will notice, and actually stop to listen to from time to time. Oxenfree is one of those games, not only does the music merge well with the games’ plot; it also stands on its own two feet as a piece of art, which is commendable.
Lastly, let’s take a quick look at...
Oxenfree, as I stated earlier is a (kind of) side scrolling game. I say “kind of” because when I think of side scrolling, I generally think of 2D. Oxenfree is not 2D. It may look it at first, but you can often move your character into the foreground or background of the path they are traveling on. Game play can take place moving away from the screen up a hill – you get the picture. The level design is fairly strong, a lot of platforming (walking, jumping and climbing) intermittently split up by exploring abandoned buildings and the like.
I wouldn’t say the level design is Dark Souls revolutionary, but it is mostly solid and works well for the type of story being told. I did have a bit of trouble on the odd occasion with my character getting stuck against the side of a dirt path because I’d accidentally moved to far back, and there was also an annoying moment when Alex started conversing with Ren while I had her climbing down a ladder, and the resulting choices seemed to lock her avatar onto the ladder, unable to climb off it even once she touched the ground. In the first instance I just had to readjust my character direction to start moving again, but with the latter, it required closing out of the game and loading back into it.
But these are minor issues in an otherwise great game.
With Halloween just around the corner, I would strongly suggest you grab a hold of this little gem, it is a fun and fascinating play, punctuated by interesting characters and lots of spooky moments. It’s no Exorcist but it doesn’t need to be. This is not a horror game that approaches you with the intent of scaring the pants off you; rather it hopes to move you through the medium of the ghost story. While flawed in some places, I don’t believe these flaws should be enough to stop anyone from playing and really enjoying this game, and since not enough games of this caliber are being made currently, please, give it a go and get lost in a nostalgic journey of stranger and stranger things.
Have you played Oxenfree? What were your thoughts? Did you encounter the same issues as me? Were you impressed by something not mentioned here? Let me know in the comments below!