So let’s take five American teenagers. Done. Let’s put them all on an island for the night and make sure they can’t leave until the morning. Seems okay? Did I mention that the island used to have a military base that was used to perform strange science experiments linked to radio frequency’s and other dimensions? No? Well anyway, what’s the worst that could happen?
You play as one of the kids. Alex, is a teenage girl who has just finishing high school and has recently seen her family ripped apart by a disastrous event. You arrive on the island with your best friend and new stepbrother before meeting up with two others students; an emo type, and your brothers ex girlfriend who hates your guts. The group ends up on the beach and start to do what teenagers do – drinking, smoking, throwing stones into the sea and playing Truth or Dare. A few wander into the nearby caves high on space brownies and discover a weird trick that when you tune your radio in to a certain frequency, strange lights appear. When you tune your radio deeper into the cave a small floating triangle appears, then another, then another and then….oh my god what’s happening….is that a?….AHHHHH….you’re suddenly standing in a field on the other side of the island. The adventure begins.
Gameplay in Oxenfree is basically a mixture of exploration, dialogue trees and tuning your radio into certain frequencies to unlock pathways and time loops. The radio sections are actually a very new and interesting way of conveying information and moving the narrative forward. Exploration is just your usual, move around and press a button to interact with an object. There are secrets all around the island to stumble upon with some of these being delightful and well worth collecting. Sometimes the pace of this is slow and ponderous, but the world always delivers a surprise around every corner as the story twists and turns.
The dialogue tree section is the main focus of the game and here lies its strength. The actors who play the teenagers really commit to their roles and the way the conversations are edited skillfully together give it a real energy and realism to the story. Each character is carefully drawn, with real weight and purpose. The choices in the dialogue tree really do have an effect of how the events play out. Each playthrough has many different outcomes, altering how your relationships with the others change and even your future destiny as Alex unfolds. Normally in these type of games you want to skip over the dialogue, but I found myself genuinely excited each time a new conversation started up. There have been a lot of comparisons with “Life is Strange” because the hero is a teenage girl and because of the time looping elements involved in the game. Oxenfree however feels much more charming than its soul mate and is much gentler in its tone.
The story itself is quite complex and involves radio waves, ghosts, different dimensions and rips in time and space. The actual premise is quite well thought out and the creepiness it conveys really does work well throughout the story. Flashes of shadow, the main characters suddenly being transported across the island, visions of your friend’s deaths and the main concept of being stuck in endless time loops are just some of the devices employed very neatly here.
The two reasons it does what it does so well is basically because of its use of sound and vision. The voice work as I said earlier is really well played; good variations in pace and delivery really make us believe in the characters. The actual sound effects themselves are brilliant, especially the weirder stuff with radio frequency distortion sections that ramp up the nerves whilst creating a general sense of dread. Sprinkled on top of this brilliant sound work is a lovely score that underpins the whole experience beautifully.
The vision part of the game is a choice of art style that for some reason really struck a chord with me. Maybe it was the retro feel to it; one that reminded me of PC point and click from the early 90’s – or was it just the perfect balance of lighting and cell drawing that made this world appealing and stunning to walk around. Little details here and there makes the world grounded and magical at the same time. When it all becomes unworldly and supernatural the graphical elements really come into the own, with possessions and effects like the weird triangles triggering the spookiness. Both the sound and vision make Oxenfree into something special – something that makes it stand out from the other indie games on the market.
On the negative side the game has a tendency to crash. It went back to the dashboard about four times when I was playing my run through. The auto save is really reliable though and I thankfully didn’t have to retread my footsteps to much. Except one time, which made me swear and upset the dog. The game has a few sections where there is perhaps a bit too much slow wandering without much happening, but it’s a rare occurrence and not too annoying.
The style and tone of the game won’t be to everyone’s taste and hopefully that will be clear from my review. I have thoroughly enjoyed my four or five hours with Oxenfree and will definitely venture forth onto the island again – just so I can see if things play out a little differently next time around.