Not every game gets finished right after release. They collectively stack up and officially get added on the backlog. When they are finally completed, then it’s time for a review we like to call a “Backlog Breakdown”.
by Joshua Russo
Developer/Publisher: Night School Studios
Format: PlayStation 4, Xbox One (reviewed), PC, Linux, Mac
Released: January 15, 2016
Oxenfree is a supernatural thriller that’s dialed in just right
Oxenfree doesn’t ask for much from the player. There’s no tricky platforming, intense combat, or quick time events to fail over and over at. But investing the short amount of time Oxenfree demands will pay dividends in spectacular visuals, authentic characters and dialogue, and one hell of a spooky story.
You play as a high school girl named Alex, one of five teens spending the night partying on a mostly vacant island that is also a former military base. Oxenfree opens with Alex, her new step-brother Jonas and her best friend Ren on a ferry boat to meet their friends Clarissa and Nona. Not long after the party begins Ren asks Alex to check out a strange signal on the island with her radio. I won’t spoil what happens from here, but I will say the ominous broadcast convinces Alex and her friends to do whatever they can to get off of Edwards Island.
While exploring the island throughout the night, Alex has plenty of conversations with her friends. You can choose which direction to steer the chat through branching dialogue options that appear as speech bubbles over Alex’s head. Silence is also an viable option in many of the night’s discussions. Oxenfree’s voice acting not only couldn’t be delivered better, but also highlights just how individual each of the game’s characters are. At no point does it feel like anyone is there as a service to Alex. They all have their own drama and feelings going on before and during this adventure. Alex can respond with her opinion on any of her friend’s situations, and they’ll take that opinion into consideration. But at the end of the day, they are each their own person shaped by their individual struggles and emotions.
It was a little too easy for me to forget to reply to a conversation in time because I was absolutely lost in how enchanting Oxenfree’s environments are. Transitioning from one area to another feels like flipping through pages of a beautifully illustrated children’s book. Quaint small town streets, damp hollow caves and shady green forests are just a few of the places Edwards Island to take in.
Oxenfree’s frequent dialogue and traveling gameplay tended to result in some pacing issues. With no combat or real sense of urgency, much of the gameplay is strolling through these areas and interacting in conversations with Alex’s friends. Some of these exchanges are light-hearted while others are much more dire, but the length of these chats don’t match up with the amount of time it takes to travel through the section. I often found myself hiking through Edwards Island in silence, or standing near the exit of an area waiting until the conversation was wrapped up before continuing on.
Oxenfree’s controls are very simple, but a sprint or run toggle would have made those long silent marches much more tolerable. Movement controls are clean, an action button allows Alex to interact with her friends and environments, and the triggers pull up her radio and a map of Edward’s Island. Dialogue bubbles are selected by choosing the button that the desired response corresponds with on the controller.
Apart from walking and talking, Oxenfree has some very light puzzles to solve. Tuning the radio in certain areas of the island will unlock collectibles or open new paths to further the story. Alex can also get caught in time loops, which cause her to get stuck repeating conversations or areas until you figure out the correct actions to exit out of it.
There are plenty of beautiful places and moments in Oxenfree, and equally creepy ones as well. There is a lot to explore and learn about the island and it’s tough to do it all in one playthrough. Night School Studios added a New Game + mode to Oxenfree that allows players to repeat the story with new dialogue and endings that give players a clearer, fuller picture of what happened that night with Alex and her friends on Edwards Island.