Oxenfree Review (Xbox One)
Every school had its weird class traditions or secret spots where teens gathered to socialize away from the rest of the world. Doing something dumb, like sneaking onto a closed beach, with your friends before you graduated is a time-honored tradition. Every school also had its weird myths and rumors about the local area, too. Maybe you had that house that was haunted, or a place in the woods where you could hear strange sounds under the perfect conditions. Oxenfree takes those elements and mixes them together to create a wild, dangerous night for a small group of friends. With a mystery that grows stranger and stronger the deeper you dive and characters that are instantly relatable, Night School Studio delivers a first effort that's spooky, sincere and enthralling.
It's not been a great year for Alex, but she's agreed to go with her best friend Ren and her new step-brother Jonas to the beach to meet up with some other classmates. It's tradition, and Ren isn't one to ignore traditions, especially if he has a crush on a cute girl he knows is also going to be there. Out on the beach of Edwards Island, the trio meets up with Clarissa and Nona, Ren's crush, and finds that no one else was able to make the trip. What should have been a big bash at the beach to close out the school year ends up being an intimate and awkward affair. It's made all that more uncomfortable by the uneasy relationship between Clarissa and Alex, and the fact that no matter what, everyone is stuck here until the first ferry back to the mainland in the morning.
To help break up the boredom, Ren has the bright idea to explore the caves of Edwards Island, which are rumored to house some creepy secrets. You see, radio transmissions don't work as intended out on the island, but if you tune to certain frequencies you can hear strange sounds emitting from the island's depths. Nobody knows what these transmissions are or where they come from, but for years, the classes at Alex's high school have been tracking the locations of where you can hear them across the island, and leaving little rock piles to let others find the perfect spots. No one ever thought the follow the sounds before though, and Jonas wants to make a good impression on his new friends. That's what gets this whole group in a mess of trouble.
What Alex and Jonas find in the cave sets off an evening of supernatural mystery. Edwards Island isn't just a normal tourist attraction; it's home to a secret a very small number of people have ever uncovered. Unwittingly discovering this horrible truth could be dangerous for everyone involved, and it's up to Alex to try and set everything right again. It's not her fault she happened to be in charge of the radio at the time, but the beings that were awakened by her meddling don't seem to care.
The radio is key part of Oxenfree's puzzle-solving, such as it is. The challenges you'll encounter in Oxenfree aren't all that difficult, but they almost entirely revolve around tuning to the right frequency on the radio to figure out. The puzzles are more about fleshing out the mysterious situation on the island than they are about making it hard for you to proceed. The signals you'll pick up sometimes offer clues for later use, but the radio is also the primary way to communicate with the supernatural forces keeping you trapped on the island.
While the radio is necessary to progress through the story and uncover as many truths about the island as you can, communication is the real driving force in Oxenfree. At its absolute core, Oxenfree is a dialogue-drive adventure game. Given that it was developed by ex-Telltale (and Disney) devs, it should come as no surprise to learn conversations play a major role in determining how your relationships and story play out from Alex's perspective. There are a lot of emotions to juggle, and finding Alex's voice will determine just who trusts you to make the right decisions and whether or not everyone makes it out of the situation together.
Character dialogue in Oxenfree is remarkably true to life, which might sound odd, but given how video games have typically portrayed teenagers, it's refreshing to play a game where characters sound natural. Despite the circumstances, the dialogue feels real and never stilted. What's more, even though these characters are all new to us, they all have a deep history with each other that the developers clearly spent a lot of time crafting. It's incredibly intimate. There's a real sincerity to how all these kids feel about one another. Alex and Jonas have one of the most complex relationships you'll ever see a video game try to replicate, but even in just a few short hours, you become invested in the two of them.
The mystery, as engaging as it is, takes a back seat to developing Alex as a person through this trying night. She's a young woman with a lot of pain and regret, and Oxenfree deals with all of her issues amazingly well. Obviously you can play her as a callous kid if you want, but Oxenfree became a richer, deeper experience when we chose conversational cues that opened her up emotionally. It's easy to run through games without thinking about the psyche of a lead character, but the lengths to which the development team went to allow us to see each and every situation from multiple perspectives paid off in spades by the time the credits rolled.
As you might expect, a game that relies so heavily on conversation means every decision you make impacts the overall tone and final outcome of Oxenfree's story. You'll see little indicators pop up above the heads of characters showing how your choices are impacting them, but it's not very clear what kind of influence that has on the story. There are multiple endings to get, but even with the context clues showing how people were reacting, it's not easy to determine how the things you to impact the conclusion. Sure, there are major decisions to make that have obvious consequences, but given the number of variables in the equation, it would have been nice to have a slightly better idea of how chatting up friends worked to give you the determined outcome.
Tying everything together is a wonderfully charming visual style that is beautiful, creepy and eye-catching all at once. The world of Edwards Island is rendered like pristine papercraft, and could easily be mistaken for a backdrop in a stopmotion film like Coraline or Paranorman. The environments look believable, but there's always an element that's just askew, like slightly crooked bridges, or elements that add a bit of wonder, like the sparkling bugs in the forest. Things can get really dark in Oxenfree, too, and certain locales get downright frightening when necessary. They never stop looking great though. It's really hard to take your eyes off the screen no matter where you are or what's happening.
It's not often that we pick up a game and play it straight through to completion in one sitting, but Oxenfree just hooked us from the minute we started. The world is bewildering, the mysteries are thrilling, and the characters are so well-realized it's hard not to fall deep into Oxenfree's embrace. Though there are multiple endings giving us a reason to replay Alex's adventure, there's nothing quite like your first time through the rabbit hole. Oxenfree is a sweet story with just enough darkness on the edges to keep things interesting. It's a fantastic game, and one that sets a tremendous bar for Night School Studio and the upcoming 2016 class of games.
This review was completed with a download of Oxenfree provided by the publisher for Xbox One.