Oxenfree Review – Teenage Debauchery (PS4)
Every neighborhood has that one creepy abandoned house, or the recluse that lives in a huge building all to himself but hasn’t been seen in years. Stories get passed on about how these places are haunted (usually due to some terrible tragedy that occurred years prior), and stupid teenagers typically test their luck & attempt to find the truth of the situation. Typically nothing comes from this type of mischief, but what if the rumors were actually true?
Oxenfree focuses on a group of teenagers who take a trip to Edwards Island, a tourist attraction that’s abandoned at night. Their goal is general tomfoolery like getting drunk on the beach and playing truth or slap (my favorite game). Eventually, they start to explore the nearby caves, and investigate the rumors that you can hear ghosts if you bring a radio inside them. Since this is a video game, paranormal activity gets set off almost immediately, and the group is left trying to fend for themselves and make it to the next morning.
Players are put in the skater shoes of Alex, Oxenfree‘s cyan haired protagonist. All she has with her is a map of the island, a radio, and her wits. The latter of which are in a pretty questionable state after what happens early on in this memorable (if not for all the wrong reasons) night. Players will lead Alex around the island, use her radio to tune into the supernatural (and the oldies station that barely gets reception), and make sure none of her friends go off the deep end (and there’s naturally some pent up aggression when dealing with teens).
One area where Oxenfree absolutely knocks it out of the park is in its dialogue system. Branching dialogue has been done in a lot of games at this point, but none have done it as well as Night School Studio. Particularly impressive is how you can interrupt a character talking by examining an object (thus forcing Alex to speak up about what she’s examining), and the computer character will naturally bring up the point he was going to make. It’s seemingly simple, but it ensures that players don’t miss out on backstory just because they were exploring. In past adventure games, I distinctly remember standing around doing nothing while I waited for a character to finish their story, afraid to examine items in fear that I’d interrupt the scripting and never get to hear it. That’s not the case here, and it’s brilliant.
While the dialogue system in place rocks (and it must’ve been a lot of extra work to record variants of lines just in case the player interrupted them), it would be all for nothing if the writing wasn’t good. Thankfully, Oxenfree features a cast of distinctly different characters that are all flawed (but ultimately likable), and feel layered. Each character, including Alex, has their faults, but I ended up growing attached to them all by the time the credits rolled.
Without getting into spoilers, it’s worth noting that Oxenfree deals with several tricky themes. Grief, death, and divorce are just a few that are brought up in the first 30 minutes, and it only goes into deeper territory from there. While it’s difficult to portray such complex issues, Night School Studios has done a great job of showing how these can affect different people. A lot of the credit goes to both the writing and the voice actors for making the characters come alive.
The gameplay ultimately never really evolves past using your radio (you’d be surprised how effective a radio can be when dealing with the supernatural!), exploring absolutely gorgeous areas, and talking to your friends during this terrifying situation. While some additional ways to interact with the world would’ve been cool, it never feels repetitive. The ability to set presets for your radio would’ve been nice (since you’ll specifically go to a few frequencies often), but that minor nitpick is all I have against the gameplay.
One other disappointment is that a lot of the non-story important radio signals aren’t subtitled. There’s a guided radio tour for the island, and it’s a shame that hearing impaired players won’t be able to get some of the backstory on past events. Thankfully, all of the major dialogue has been transcribed, so they won’t miss out on the larger story. Still, it’s something that Night School Studio should fix in an update, and it’s a bit disheartening to see it wasn’t included in the PlayStation 4 version considering it launched on PC and Xbox One months ago.
Let’s Be Free
One of the ideas that Night School Studio introduces early on is repetition. Players will often get trapped in time loops, where they’ll have to slightly change what they’re doing until they can fix a situation. It doesn’t fully explore this idea (as it never gets as crazy as Ghost Trick), but it’s very interesting how it actually plays back into the narrative.
See the truly brilliant thing about Oxenfree is that its mystery is merely just starting to unravel after your initial playthrough. There’s plenty of incentive to go back and play the game again (which doesn’t feel like a chore due to its relatively short length), and the game even changes on repeated playthroughs. There’s new endings, additional dialogue choices, and new imagery that makes this an even better experience when replayed. If you want to dig even deeper (and I may have spent several hours deciphering morse code last night), there’s a really cool augmented reality game built around Night School Studios’ game. If you want to dive into this, I highly suggest checking out the game’s subreddit (r/OXENFREE), which is one of the few times I’ll ever recommend Reddit.
Rounding out what has clearly been a labor of love by the development team is a slew of different documentary videos. These are selectable in the main menu, and go pretty in-depth on the voice actors that brought the characters to life, and the game’s development process. It’s a great extra, and it’s something I hope more developers will do in the future. The more people that realize games take a lot of work to come to fruition, the more understanding there hopefully will be from gamers whenever a game is delayed or turns out poorly.
Oxenfree deals with some heavy topics in just a few hours, and manages to do something genuinely interesting with them. A phenomenal conversation system anchors most of the experience, but there’s many mysteries for dedicated players to solve. Oxenfree is a game that rewards players that go the extra mile, and how much you get out of it is directly tied to how much you put in.
Review code for Oxenfree provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here