Sunday, January 17, 2016

PC Review #138: Oxenfree

Title: Oxenfree
Developer: Night School Studios
Platforms: PC, Mac, Xbox One
Price: $19.99
A group of teenagers. A weird crazy adventure. Otherworldly happenings. From E,T, and The Goonies to more recently Super 8, it's a story told quite a few times in film. Oxenfree continues that tradition, telling the story of five friends, a mysterious island, and malevolent forces.
Oxenfree is a narrative-driven adventure game about Alex, a teenager still suffering from a great loss, and a group of other seniors spending the night on Edwards Island: step-brother Jonas, friend Ren, quiet Nona, and "mean-girl" Clarissa. It's a long-honored tradition in the community, hanging out on the beach, by the bonfire, drinking. But emotional turmoil and burgeoning relationships all bubble beneath the fun and small talk, and it's your dialogue choices that can make or break friendships, build or shatter trust, among more life-threatening consequences.

The bonfire drinking and games of truth or slap soon morph into a life-and-death struggle to escape the island when insidious supernatural forces are awakened. The story of Oxenfree is best experienced as blind as possible, so I won't delve into the specifics, but it's a gripping tale of coming-of-age and supernatural horror.
You won't find puzzles in Oxenfree, besides using Alex's radio to tune into different frequencies, nor moments of fast-paced action. Oxenfree is a game about atmospheric exploration and dialogue, and it absolutely excels. The landscape of Edwards Island is one of quaint shops, of colorful forests tinged brown and yellow from the autumn weather, of sheer sea-side cliffs and dank caves, of abandoned buildings holding chilling secrets. The place is as much as character in Oxenfree as Alex and the other teens, and a joy to explore.

And every moment of exploration is accompanied by some of the most natural likable dialogue I've heard in a game. Natural not just in tone and cadence, but in execution. Oxenfree evolves the choice-driven narrative genre popularized by Telltale by adopting a walk-and-talk pacing, letting you choose dialogue while on the move or in the midst of other actions. From trying to rationalize terrifying occurrences to making jokes and revealing hurtful secrets, the choices never feel like the mechanical good/bad/neutral options of other games, but natural responses to the situations.

Those situations are tinged with menace and unnerving horror. Oxenfree never resorts to jump scares or gore to be scary; instead it builds an atmosphere of dread and unease, through weird scenarios, excellent sound design, and visual aberrations that morph and contort the soft inviting aesthetic. Like a Stephen King novel or Poltergeist, the horror comes from seeing these normal characters you're invested in facing cruel ruthless evil.
Oxenfree's story ranges from four to seven hours, varying based on how much you explore the island and its secrets. While I typically play these choice-driven narrative games only once, I'm compelled to play Oxenfree again. It was a story I didn't want to end, with characters I liked, and I'm excited to dive in again and see how the story can change with different choices.

Oxenfree is available on Steam, Humble, and Xbox One. A PS4 version is releasing later this year.

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