Game Review: Oxenfree

It’s October and you know what that means: it’s time to play tons of spooky games! This one came recommended to me by a ton of people, but I went into it not really knowing what it was or why it was so highly praised.

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Oxenftee is a supernatural horror thriller mystery adventure game by Night School Studio. You play as a teenager named Alex, who is heading out to Edwards Island–formerly the site of an active military base and now a commercial site and tourist trap–with her best friend Ren and Jonas, her stepbrother. The party predictably takes a turn for the worse as Alex and friends contend with time loops, creepy radio messages, possession, and each other.

You’ll spend most of your time listening to dialogue and banter between characters in this game, luckily, the characters are all pretty likeable. One of my favourites was Ren, the talkative nerd with a drug problem. He’s constantly in conflict with Jonas, who is a bit more serious. There’s also Clarissa, who doesn’t seem to like Alex very much, and Nona, Clarissa’s best friend who doesn’t talk a lot and loves taking pictures.

Compared to many other point and click adventure games, the controls are simple: you use WASD to move and space to interact with objects (climb ledges, etc), the tab key brings up the map. You use the mouse to select dialogue options, and pressing shift brings out Alex’s radio. The radio is the key to solving puzzles in this game. Solving puzzles are usually as simple as tuning in to the correct frequency on the radio. When the numbers are green, you can listen to information about landmarks on the island. When the numbers are red, that means you’ve found an anomaly, one of the game’s collectables, usually a creepy message of some sort, blue numbers open locks on doors. In addition to radio anomalies, there are letters to collect and photos to take. It is possible to collect everything on one playthrough and as long as you don’t go into the final area, you can still find everything, finding all of the collectables involves exploring the environment, some can be hard to spot or require a lot of backtracking. I’ve been calling them “puzzles” all this time, but what it really comes down to is tuning the radio until you find the number that does something.

The real meat of the game is in how you, as Alex, choose to interact with your friends. Do you try your best to be nice to Clarissa, even though she wants nothing to do with you? How do you feel about your stepbrother Jonas? Do you encourage Ren to talk to his crush? Or, alternatively, do you push everyone away? Much like a Telltale game, these choices influence how characters relate to you during the story, and also affect the ending variations you get. One unique thing about the dialogue is that instead of choosing from a list of options at the bottom of the screen, you choose speech bubbles, and these choices are timed. Yes, if you’re not fast enough, Alex will clam up. Would you believe this game’s development team included folks from Telltale? Yep, and that influence shows. If I had to compare Oxenfree to other games, I’d say it’s a lot like Life is Strange meets, well, pick a ghost story, down to the weird time travel plot.

A note about the art, the 2D environments are really pretty. I think my favourite area is Epiphany Field, with its dark wooded area leading up a mist-shrouded slope. Some reviewers have classified this game as a horror game. I would personally say this is more atmospheric horror. The island’s environments, while pretty, are also very oppressive. The music and sound effects are difficult to describe, at times melancholy, at other times, cacophonous, full of radio chatter and static. The soundtrack reminds me of Sword & Sorcery, in a way.

I have three major criticisms of this game. The first is that it’s short: Steam has me clocked at six hours, and that includes getting all the collectables, although to unlock all the achievements, you’ll need to play the game at least three times (other sites report that subsequent playthroughs take about three hours). I haven’t started New Game+ but apparently it’s worth it. It’s still pretty short (IMHO) for a $20 title, although the sale price at just above $5 CAD is a steal. My second major criticism is that the game requires a ton of backtracking, especially if you’re looking for collectables, and although the environments are gorgeous and the music is lovely, Alex doesn’t move very quickly and having to constantly take the long route to the next area gets really tedious, really fast. I also thought that Nona’s lack of spoken dialogue (far less than the other characters) played into stereotypes of submissive Asian women. I wouldn’t say Nona is demure by any means, but I felt out of all the cast that the player knows the least about her by the game’s end. A note regarding accessibility: I strongly recommend turning on subtitles so you don’t miss a lot of the dialogue (which is communicated through the radio and can sound really garbled at times).

In terms of diversity, I’ve already mentioned Nona, but Alex and her brother Michael (who is a posthumous character) are brown-skinned (Alex’s hair is naturally brown, as seen in flashbacks). There’s no overt queerness, although Alex can mention that she’d fuck or marry either of the girls during a game of Fuck, Marry, Kill and two background characters may or may not have been romantically involved.

In terms of trigger warnings, here is a list I’ve compiled: there’s a lot of death (particularly by drowning), suicide, possession (as in being possessed by ghosts), death of a family member, unreality (there are moments when you’re stuck in a time loop, you’ll know when you’re stuck because there will be screen distortion and the music will be weird, there’s also some fourth wall breaking near the end, and the collectables involve picking up weird radio signals), drugs (Ren has a thing with drugs) and alcohol (you can choose not to drink). There’s a lot of flashing lights and one game mechanic (opening portals with the radio) is accompanied by flickering visuals, static, and a lot of noise, there are also a couple times where everything’s turned upside down abruptly (including dialogue).

Overall, despite it’s short length, I enjoyed Oxenfree, it’s a horror game that doesn’t rely on jump scares and an adventure game that doesn’t rely on complex puzzles. It has the teen drama of Life is Strange with the relationship dynamics of a Telltale game. If any of that sounds good to you and you’re looking for a creepy game to play in October, give Oxenfree a try.

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