Developed and Published by: Night School Studios
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Mobile
Release Date: Out Now
In the ever-expanding genre of the “walking simulator” (where the narrative of the game takes priority over gameplay), Oxenfree manages to carve its niche thanks to a quirky setting and aesthetic. While it can be niggly to control and leave you looking for more at times, the first game from Night School Studios is overall a narrative success that channels the same retro supernatural spirit that Stranger Things managed on TV.
The premise is pretty simple in Oxenfree. You play as Alex, joining 4 other friends on a trip to the empty Edwards Island, a regular resort for these troubled teens. There is a feeling of aftermath to proceedings as you discover the group dynamic – affected greatly by the passing of Alex’s brother Michael – through early discussion. Environments are 2.5D, with set paths that shepherd you through the story but also allow a small feeling of freedom and choice. You can interact at a basic level with the environment by inspecting objects, but the most interesting segment of the game is controlling the flow of dialogue.
You use directional inputs to decide on responses to the rest of the group in real-time, which adds a pace and natural feeling that is sometimes missing in walking-and-talking games (for example, the TellTale games). One of the best scenes of the entire game takes place early on, before anything supernatural kicks in, as the group gathers around a campfire to do what any teenagers do – pine over each other, bicker at each other, and generally provide gloriously entertaining teenage drama. Blue-haired Alex is a great protagonist, certainly flawed but also inherently likeable as your voice in all this. How you handle, say, the resent from the girlfriend of her late brother supplies plenty of player agency throughout. If you so choose, you can let the others talk without you, and just listen – it’s really seamless, and an approach other games in the genre would do well to look at.
Tonally, Oxenfree is a lot like Life is Strange, with teenage issues mixing with time manipulation to form a heightened yet believable story. After Alex inadvertently opens a rift inside a cave through the tuning of her radio, a frenetic island escape begins; puzzles are rarely challenging but often interesting, as an unknown entity starts playing with the minds of our main characters. Alex’s radio becomes your main way of supernatural interaction going forward – thought as a gameplay mechanic it falls a bit flat. All you have to do at major story beats is find fluctuations as you scroll through radio frequencies. As with many games of this ilk, if you are looking for much of a challenge, Oxenfree isn’t the game for you.
The most affecting moments of Oxenfree come when it fully embraces the time travel aspect to allow greater insight into the relationship between Alex and her brother. Seeing the contrast to a brighter segment of her life is bittersweet, and serves the characters in the present. Oxenfree ends just as it is starting to experiment with more extreme uses of time, and it left a slightly unsatisfactory aftertaste. There is a New Game Plus mode waiting after the initial 4-5 hour playthrough, but it still isn’t quite enough – Oxenfree has amazing ideas, but lacks the full confidence to commit to them at the end.
Been Here Before
On this topic, it is worth noting that parts of Oxenfree can feel like padding. Alex and company have to backtrack across the island a couple of times towards the climax of the game, and it gets a bit tiring despite the continued conversation. Using an analogue stick (I played Oxenfree on Switch) to control your movement through the narrow pathways is often quite fiddly, too, making movement quite uneven at times simply because of the limited space in which to move. On the other hand, you do at least have some charming visuals to look at on the way.
There’s an almost handmade aesthetic in Oxenfree, with rustic textures making up the creepy, mysterious look of the island. Character models are oh-so-slightly exaggerated, giving them extra expression but maintaining a relatively realistic appearance. In this department, the game truly shines once you’ve started opening rifts and encountering teenage possession; Oxenfree uses neon glitches and harsh static effects to show time loops and other dimensional manipulation, escalating fabulously as you play. The music by Andrew Rohrmann compliments the visuals, knowing when to be tranquil and when to be eery.
Oxenfree brings some neat ideas to the walk-and-talk genre, with seamless continuous dialogue being the highlight. It also skirts around some bigger implementations of time travel, not quite realising the narrative potential that is set up. Nevertheless, for fans of story-driven experiences it is worth playing through – especially if you love some teenage drama. Come on, admit it, you do – there’s no judgment here!