It is almost expected that when a group of teenagers go to a remote location, booze in tow, that something bad is going to happen. We have been programmed by countless horror films to start guessing which ones will inevitably be offed, and who is going to get it on. So it’s no surprise that developer Night School Studio’s Oxenfree is a horror game centred around teens “just trying to have a good time” on a remote island that inevitably goes wrong.
Oxenfree sees a group of teens; Alex, Jonas, Ren, Nona, and Clarissa travel to a remote island to drink, party, and cause a little bit of mischief. But all is not quite what it seems. While on the island Ren convinces Alex and her new step brother Jonas to explore an eerie cave and investigate the odd disturbances in radio waves that are scattered thereabouts. As the excitable teens investigate and indulge in some space cake something changes. It would appear their interference with the signals has awoken something in the bellows of the island. To go in to any more detail would be to spoil the allure of Oxenfree’s story, nobody ever quite knows what is going on as friends are possessed, time skews, and the islands rich history unfolds in front of your eyes. There is something about the curve balls that Oxenfree throws at you that keeps the story interesting and engaging throughout the short 4 hour journey.
Although Oxenfree’s story is very engaging I would struggle to say the same for the gameplay. Oxenfree is a very passive experience in which dialogue options and tuning in to differing radio stations breaks up the perpetual walking required to explore the island. More often than not the dialogue options present themselves mid conversation and result in you being incredibly rude and interrupt several conversations. The interruptions were a massive sticking point for me as it felt you were often cutting short some of the more interesting conversations with an abrupt, and often rude, intrusion that would stop them characters in their tracks. It was hard to tell how these intrusions impacted on the characters or if what you said affected the relationships in the group, which can be a large factor in the game as the relationships you build can change the events and dialogue trees available in the game. There are also parts in which in spite of your interruptions the dialogue runs on far longer than the actual scene it is set in, often leaving the player lingering at the periphery of the screen waiting for the dialogue to finish. In short the pacing often fell out of sync with what was expected and what was available to the player in the scene.
In spite of a horrible lingering feeling at times Oxenfree’s world is a delight to immerse yourself in. The watercolour based design is easy on the eyes, but eerie enough to leave you feeling unsettled by the looming presence of whatever haunts the island. In amongst the soft colours of fields and dark skies vibrant red lights indicate the presence of spirits on the radio signals that you can tune in to through your radio. Oxenfree even has some collectibles in the form of anomalies and letters scattered around the world, although a major pitfall is that many of these items are not available until a certain point in the game and forces you to re-tread old ground in a very specific fashion or you miss out on the items. There is also a brilliant sounds track created by scntfc that eases you in to the surrounds with gentle melodies littered with haunting overtones, almost reminiscent of older horror films in the best way possible.
Oxenfree ultimately falls short of being a great game due to some design niggles, in such a short and concise story you are often left standing about and feeling like there should be more. The relationship mechanic is very hard to determine as the small faces that appear on the screen can be difficult to make out as you try to focus on what is happening. There is no way to adjust the safe zones of the screen, so I lost the subtitles to the border of the television. And to top it all off my game consistently crashed in the last 8% of the game, meaning I was unable to resolve the story. For the asking price of £15.99 you would hope for a more rounded and indulging experience, especially in comparison to the value games like The Banner Saga and Rebel Galaxy offer at the same price. That’s not to say Oxenfree is a bad game, in fact at its peak Oxenfree is a brilliant and atmospheric game, it just had too many niggles for me to fall in love.