It’s no secret that I’m an unashamed fan of adventure games. I have a reputation for gravitating towards games with very easy achievements, and they don’t get much easier than games like “Life Is Strange” or any of the Telltale Games Series. What’s interesting about my desire to play “Oxenfree” from developer Night School Studio (which is comprised of former Telltale and Disney developers) wasn’t the achievements at all. Everything I heard about the game made it sound like a truly unique experience that I couldn’t wait to try. While I wasn’t nearly as blown away by the game as many of the reviews I read, it’s still something very special and a great starting point for a new developer.
It’s difficult to talk about the story of “Oxenfree”, as the reveal of what’s happening in this world is truly part of the intrigue. It starts out simple enough: a group of high school kids are on a boat headed for an island to spend the weekend making all kinds of bad decisions. You play as Alex, a girl who really has whatever personality you choose to give her (but we’ll get to that later) who stumbles across a supernatural discovery that sets the tone for the rest of the game. Without divulging too much information, it’s up to Alex and the rest of the crew to unravel the mystery behind what really happened on the island so many years ago.
The gameplay is only slightly more involved than a Telltale game like, say, “The Walking Dead”. “Oxenfree” has less 3-D depth than that game, but offers a small puzzle element in the form of a radio that Alex carries. From time to time, she will need to “tune in” to certain stations to either unlock doors or communicate with the island’s inhabitants. It’s almost not fair to call this a “puzzle”, however, as you literally just spin the dial until you reach the correct frequency to move the game along. I think to this game’s credit, however, as anything deeper would detract from the interesting story taking place here.
What sets this game apart from others in this genre are the dialogue choices. Telltale games seem very much focused on providing you with options that are serious shades of gray. While I’ve appreciated that approach for several years now, “Oxenfree” provides a refreshing take by providing dialogue choices that feel like something I actually want the character to say. These choices still have serious effects on the outcome of the story, but not as directly as I’m used to. What you say may end up with two of your friends to start dating each other, or a character might be present in your ending that wouldn’t otherwise if you had chosen differently. I even played through an entire run of the game without choosing a single dialogue option, and I completely changed the ending of my game. I appreciated how varied different playthroughs of the game were by making myself feel like a different character each time.
The dialogue in this game also helps to mask some of the backtracking that would be otherwise annoying. Not only is the voice acting spot-on, but I found myself genuinely interested in the conversations between the characters. I wanted to learn more about each person with whom I interacted as a way to learn about their past.
“Oxenfree” is not without its issues. I played the Xbox One version of the game (it’s also available on PC) and it was plagued with a game-crashing bug that happened to me at least ten times. This has hopefully been remedied with an after-release patch, but it was very annoying to have to replay small sections of the game because it simply decided to quit working. This feels like an oversight that should have been picked up before launch.
I also didn’t feel 100% satisfied by the end of the game. The mystery was pretty interesting, but the resolution didn’t feel explained very well, and the conclusion just felt a bit flat to me. I was waiting for an inevitable “blow me away” moment, but it never happened. This could have been a fault of my own, however, as I tend to over-hype myself before going into a game of which I’ve read so many positive things. Still, I wanted to walk away feeling that “wow” moment, but it didn’t quite hit the mark for me.
That’s not to say that this game should be avoided; it shouldn’t. It’s definitely worth a look. I would recommend waiting for a sale, as the three to four hour length makes the $19.99 price tag a bit hard to swallow. There’s nothing gameplay-wise that will get you excited, but this is a game all about the characters and the mystery surrounding them. If that sounds at all intriguing to you, I highly recommend giving this title a shot at some point.