Oxenfree, developed by Night School Studio, is a game that took a while for me to get on board with; I wasn’t enthused by the characters I was following and the initial gameplay felt a little laborious. But that didn’t fully last, as when things began to find their stride, I really got into the rhythm of the game. ‘Oxenfree’ will certainly not be game for everyone and I feel this review will give some enlightenment behind that opinion – so let’s get things underway and see if this is a game for you.
The story in ‘Oxenfree’ sees five teens partaking in a high school ritual of visiting a small island and drinking the night away on the beach. But of course things don’t play out that simply, as due to the curious minds of some of the teens a mysterious event occurs that sees all of them being taken on a journey filled with weird radio signals, ghosts(?) and the testing of their friendships. Uncovering the mystery and halting a dangerous “thing” is what now fully occupies these teens night.
So let’s get right into it with one of the most important elements: gameplay. I feel that the gameplay in the game is the main contributor to why some people will not be interested in playing this game. It is a side-scrolling explorer; you wander around the map, conversing with your friends through selecting from (usually) 3 dialogue options and you also scroll through a radio tuner for the purpose of unlocking clues and solving more of the mystery. The game is extremely basic in terms of how you interact with it and that lack of interaction is the thing that I think will turn a lot people away. I mean during my 4 hours with the game (that’s how long it’ll probably take you to finish the game) I never once felt challenged by the game, I never felt I was going to come up against an obstacle that would halt me in my progress nor did I ever feel that unveiling more of the mystery was ever something that I would struggle to do. I just continued to walk where I needed to walk and interact with the things that I clearly needed to interact with – this is not a game where you’ll ever mash buttons in the hopes of defeating a difficult enemy; there aren’t even any enemies to fight.
It was the elements beyond the simplistic gameplay that kept me engaged – and I know how backwards that seems, seeing as we’re talking about a game, but that’s the truth; the mystery that takes place in the game, the characters that you interact with or play as, the creepy environments that you traverse – these were what kept my attention. So let’s delve into them and see why they interested me so much.
First up the characters in the game: there are 5 primary characters; Alex – who is the character you play as – Jonas – your step-brother – Ren – your best friend – Nona – the girl who Ren fancies – and Clarissa – the character who is designed to be hated. For me the characters were a mixed bag: Initially I couldn’t stand most of them as they felt like tedious clichés, and that feeling stayed with me for a while. But as the story developed and the hardships of the characters evolved, I found myself starting to care (slightly) for them all – even if some of them tried hard to annoy me. One of your first goals in the game, after it all kicks off, is to travel around the island and rescue your stranded friends; I struggled with this motivation at first because I really didn’t care or like them very much. But like I said, things develop in the game and as things intensified for them all, I felt a bond start to appear and also a goal, and that goal was to get everyone off the island safe.
But I wasn’t completely against all the characters: Alex and Jonas’ newly forming step-brother step-sister relationship was something that really helped drive the game; you spend a lot of time traversing the island together – which is a point I want to circle back to in a moment – and so in that time the two really get to bond with one another and grow with one another. Being there as an initial participant in such a thing was enjoyable; I liked being a part of furthering their friendship, and I liked that bond that began to form. It also helps that the way they interact with one another is so refreshingly honest, and part of that is thanks to the diverse dialogue options that you have. I really felt I was able to talk to not only Jones but everyone in a way that I felt worked for the character but also how I myself would approach such a situation – this certainly wasn’t an ‘L.A. Noire’ type situation where the response I chose didn’t match the tone of the conversation I thought I was having. So yeah, with the characters in the game it’s mixed but still rewarding.
So of course while playing as Alex and interacting with all the other characters you are also trying to unravel the mystery of what is happening on the island. This element to the game never once bored me, I was always eager to discover more – this is perhaps the strongest motivator in the game, as who doesn’t love a good mystery to solve. There was a nagging feeling that kept bouncing around in my head and that was that whatever it ended up being was not going to be as fulfilling as the actual hunt for clues etc. but for the most part I’m happy to say that wasn’t the case; I liked where things lead and I liked my involvement in how it played out. This is also definitely one of those games where multiple play-throughs will reveal paths that you either missed or didn’t have the option to go down because of a previous choice you made – that replay-ability is probably something I’m going to take advantage of.
So to both further the main story and also develop all the characters you have to travel around the island, which involves walking up and down winding paths and taking part in the gameplay elements that I descried earlier. Now the benefit of this is that you get to explore some hauntingly beautiful environments, ones that unease you and also tickle your curiosity. I really enjoyed traversing the many areas of the island and seeing what mysteries/clues it held. But there is one glaring issue and that is that the map is split up into chunks, and to access another chunk you have to go through a loading screen – EVERY TIME! The loading isn’t fast and it can make traveling from one location to another quite laborious; especially if that other place you need to get to is far away. It didn’t overwhelmingly ruin my experience, but it certainly did mar it.
So I struggled in the beginning of ‘Oxenfree’: on one hand I was intrigued to see where things were leading but on the other hand I was not immediately excited to keep going. But here’s something that’s interesting to note: when I took a break from playing the game (because it’s important to get nourishment folks) I couldn’t stop thinking about the game. I was eager to load it back up and discover more about the mystery it had enticed me with. So perhaps that says something about the game, that once it had given me the goodness, I wanted more of it.
I’m going to recommend ‘Oxenfree’. This is definitely not a game that everyone will want to play but for those who aren’t always in need of a game to envelop you with its gameplay and don’t mind a game that’s more focused on its story, then I think this is one for you to check out.
So are you interested in Oxenfree? Or have you already played it and want to share your thoughts on the game? Then leave response in the comments down below. If you feel like being kept up-to-date on when I post more reviews, then perhaps either follow this blog directly, or follow me over on Twitter – @GavinsTurtle. Thank you for taking any of your time and dedicating it to reading my writing, I really do appreciate it!