Oxenfree defies genres at the same time as it weaves the American obsession with high school culture into a horrific tale that is more about the loss of freedom at a time of life when young people look towards expressing new found liberties.
A young group of teens decide to spend a night on a nearby island, however rebelliously innocent this may at first appear, all is not well beneath the surface as tensions arise from the various traumas that each character bears. Grief is very much poignant in their relations and sours a number of friendships. As they explore the island and are thrown into a supernatural occurrence these dramas unfold, as each character is exposed to the stress of the situation.
Oxenfree is not only a horror game but also fits into the genre of character drama. By isolating the characters and placing them in a situation where they face an existential crisis, is a staple of literature and film, and is used to good effect here as well.
The tensions between the characters are revealed early on in the game, however the reasons for this are only slowly revealed through the course of the game. The narrative is thus forced to carry two stories, one for the present events on the island, and another that reveals a past tragedy that shapes the present. It’s a heavy burden to bear and the game suffers as it slows the pace down heavily, which may make some players bored as a consequence. The game demands investment of your time, and though it is rewarding you will need to slog through the game to get there.
This slowness is ameliorated somewhat by the brilliant characterization. From the superb voice acting to the dialogue trees that form in response, the game deftly shapes each person through their speech. Little idiosyncrasies in the diction come to the foreground to differentiate each character and the writers have mastered the delivery of emotions through the responses. The tension, relief and fear of each character is effectively realised.
Most interesting was the primary mechanic of the speech process. You have usually 3 responses, and although it’s fairly obvious which ones would portray Alex as more sympathetic to others, or which would have her more individually focused the third also gives her a sense of humour. It’s tempting to think if you answer only a certain way you’d create a specific ending, but this isn’t entirely true as the consequences of choices (the player as) Alex makes also determine the outcomes. Add in various linguistic issues such as being able to interrupt others while speaking by making a quick dialogue choice, or just not replying at all and the speech system here is one of the most robust I’ve ever encountered in a game. It makes for excellent roleplaying of Alex, as you shape her character towards compassion for her current acquaintances or whether she is torn and guilt ridden over her past.
The game itself will have you travelling around the island in an attempt to escape, and in order to make this more interesting the game offers small collectibles in the form of special radio frequencies and letters to discover. These illuminate more of the backstory of the island and the reason for the encounter with the supernatural and in addition to having specific information for in the game itself, they also include hidden messages such as morse code in some of the audio for the player to crack the code of. The game then slowly bleeds these messages out into the real world, referencing actual telephone numbers that make it more real for the player as well.
As mentioned most of the game will be responding to dialogue and this is fairly easy to do as it works off the mouse. The environments themselves are actually 2.5D and can be moved around using the keyboard. In addition Alex uses her radio to solve various puzzles by tuning into different frequencies when she pulls out her radio and dials it with the mouse. Finding out the correct frequency to progress, is the primary puzzle mechanic and with a stronger radio later in the game, Alex will even be able to open doors not just react to the supernatural.
A map is available to use to help you navigate around the island, and Alex will scrawl objective notes on it to help the player recall where they are meant to go. Despite how small the areas look trekking across them will take quite a bit of time, because walking and even jogging is quite slow. This is partially because dialogues will occur as you walk so the speed is artificially slowed to allow the dialogue to play out largely in full. Add in sections that will trap you in extra-dimensional spaces and memories of the past and you’ll be slowed even further. Whilst these “occurrences” or “happenings” do move the overall story forward they feel more like interruptions (which metaphysically they are). It can become frustrating but if they were not there the game would most certainly lose the element of suspense that these intrusions create.
The suspense and horror elements are subdued. Most of this is born out by the fact that the colour palette is largely composed of pastel tones, and only occasionally will move to the harsh reds and blacks that define the contrasts of worlds during a supernatural invasion. The scenes are also soft, almost appearing to be made of a velvet texture with blurred outlines, it’s actually incredibly beautiful, though somewhat stylistic.
The game often zooms out when moving drawing back to give you a larger sense of the location, however in times of stress or when moving indoors the camera zooms in to better show the characters, although when playing at high resolutions they can still seem quite small.
Audio is where the game excels, from the small ambient sounds to the orchestral pieces that build up slowly adding to the tension, and the arbitrary crackle of the radio’s white sound interspersed with old jazz and country rock. A large part of Oxenfree’s aesthetic relies on the sound. Additional elements such as the morse code mentioned before, that cries for release and a radio and tape deck puzzles all add to the games central element revolving around the radio device that Alex used to unveil the horrors of time and entrapment.
Oxenfree is a very special game. Despite it’s incredibly slow pacing it is a masterwork of character interaction and dialogue and cleverly espouses its themes of concealment, entrapment and the desire to be set free and escape, and return to friendship just as the old phrase “All ye, all ye oxen free” would amicably end a childhood game,
Score: 8/10 ~Slowly suspenseful~
Publisher: Night School Studio
Developer: Night School Studio
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android
ESRB: T / PEGI: 12
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