Play as Alex, a bright and rebellious teenager who brings her new stepbrother Jonas to an overnight party on an old military island. The night takes a terrifying turn when you unwittingly open a ghostly gate spawned from the island’s cryptic past. How you deal with these events, your peers, and the ominous creatures you’ve unleashed is up to you.
First off, I have to say that walking simulators are nowhere near the top of my list of preferred genres. So what possessed me to play this game? In truth, it was mainly out of politeness to the buddy that gifted it to me, but the story also intrigued me. In my opinion, there are three cardinal aspects to a game: gameplay, story, and atmosphere. To be a good game in my books, it has to excel in at least two of these aspects. I’ll tell you how Oxenfree fares in these categories below.
To begin, the atmosphere in this game is great. The landscape is a wash of dark tones accented with hopeful islands of light. While the scenes are not pitch black, the sombre darkness will soon come to feel oppressive as the story ploughs on into the night. Fear not, as Alex has brought along a portable radio that you can use to stave off the growing dread with awesome tunes! Or at least that would be the case if you could listen to anything on it other than odd snippets of Morse code or long forgotten radio programs. The production values of these audio fragments effectively drive home the fact that things are not right on the island.
In contrast, when compared to the atmosphere the gameplay is quite lacking. There is no challenge to this game at all if your sole objective is to progress the plot. The biggest challenge in the game is to find out which choices have an affect on the ending, as the epilogue varies based on how you’ve influenced those around you. In addition to that, there are a few collectables to scour the island for. As far as walking simulators go, this is the most gameplay I’ve seen in one, so I guess that’s good. But again, not very engaging and the few “puzzles” included were extremely simple.
As for controls, this game is very simple. Walk with the left joystick or WASD keys, select dialogue with the corresponding button or by mouse click, and tune your radio with the right joystick or mouse. Simple. I do recommend using a gamepad over the keyboard and mouse as that will make tuning Alex’s radio less of a chore.
The story and characters are where this game shines. While Alex is a clearly defined character, you as the player can determine what nuances her character has. Is she a trash talking sass machine or is she a natural mediator? Maybe she’s the silent type? That’s all decided by the player, and your companions will react to that choice. Whether you build your relationships or burn all of your bridges, the choice is yours and you have to live with the consequences when the time comes.
This ties into the previous section on gameplay when I said that a lot of the gameplay was weak. That may be mostly true, but the way Oxenfree handles dialogue is definitely the exception to this as it was implemented brilliantly. Each dialogue prompt you’re given has a countdown until the choice is taken from you and the game moves on. Just like in a real conversation, your friends will chatter on and leave you in the dust if you don’t cut in. It is incredibly refreshing to listen to your stepbrother grumble about strange occurrences only to have your buddy Ren interject with something about what he did last week that you totally should have seen!
This serves to lighten the mood while you’re exploring the island, and reminds you that these characters aren’t just images in front of you. You’re reminded that they are Alex’s friends who are fully fleshed out people, and you’ll want to make sure that you help them last through the night.
As for the story itself, let’s say that like any good mystery and horror tale, you have to piece the mystery together with your friends. The goal is to simply live through the suspense and try to get out in one piece. To say much more would be to spoil the plot’s very well-executed delivery.
So, despite being a game in a genre I don’t particularly like, I really have to recommend this one if only to get more people into the story. The characters are fantastically relatable, the setting is a great accompaniment to a creepy story, and while the plot may seem generic at first, that only scratches the surface of what there is to discover. Seriously, there’s a couple of twists I don’t want to spoil, but are definitely worth experiencing. Go play it.
Review by Eric Dieter.