What if we were to tell you that there is a game that combines the best elements of adventure games like Broken Age with believable teenage characters from movies such as Juno and 500 Days of Summer, along with supernatural or mysterious elements from the likes of Lost and Twin Peaks? Sounds like a great mix of things, doesn't it? That's exactly what you're getting with Oxenfree - a supernatural teenage adventure from Night School Studios, that's just been released on Steam and Xbox One. The game follows in the footsteps of Telltale's success and delivers a more mature, and more importantly rather gruesome experience.
Games such as Oxenfree are part of a larger trend that's growing in video games. It belongs to the growing number of titles that, at least in a traditional sense, don't offer true gameplay. That means there are no mechanics like puzzles to solve, weapons, enemies or any such things in Oxenfree. It is what is often and somewhat disrespectfully referred to as a "walking simulator". The game progresses through dialogue between the characters, and the choices the player makes. Sure some sections will require that you tune a radio to a certain frequency, but that's pretty much it as far as the puzzles go. If you belong to the group of players who see no merit in games where the experience takes precedence over the mechanics, then Oxenfree simply isn't for you. However, if you're of the opinion that a game can be just about any sort of interactive experience and you're fine with something that is less focused on systems, then by all means keep on reading.
It's the story, and the relationships between the characters, that will motivate you to keep playing. And what a story it is. Alex is a teenage girl in high school and she and her friends have an annual tradition where they go to Edward's Island, drink themselves silly, play truth or dare, and just hang out in general. This year Alex has her new stepbrother, Jonas, along as her father just recently got remarried. After having explored some of the underground caves of the island they come across a strange signal. Shortly thereafter everything about the trip gets turned on its head. Mysterious spirits, strange time gaps and everything else in between is enough to ensure that this is one evening the group won't forget anytime soon.
And this is where the narrative influences comes into play. Oxenfree appears as something of a "what if" scenario. You could imagine the scriptwriters thinking: "what if we make a classic teenage story, mix the best parts of Twin Peaks with the mysteries of Lost, and spice it up with deep, emotionally charged relationships between the characters?" The result is brilliant, and as the story and characters are what makes or breaks a game like this, it's naturally key that they are captivating. The script is a bit too obvious at times, to the point where the dialogue simply isn't credible. Some of the conversations seem to have been designed to introduce players to the various back stories and past relations of the characters, and it just didn't sit right. Oxenfree is at its best when the five young persons react to what's going on around them and base their dialogue on that. This is where the dialogue comes across as natural and not forced.
Oxenfree plays out from a 2.5D perspective, meaning you pretty much see it from the side, but at times there is more than one layer available to move in so it's not purely a 2D title. You can explore as much of Edward's Island as you wish, but the plot plays out along a linear path. The game's map that's divided into a bunch of zones, opens up as you're given a new objective and you'll be ever so gently ushered towards said objective. This lack of true freedom isn't really a problem as that's not what the game aims to provide the player with. The experience never feels forced and you won't feel limited in this regard.
Oxenfree is incredibly beautiful and exists somewhere in between computer animation and something that's more hand-drawn. The static backdrops come across like modernist or cubist paintings, and at times you have to stop what you're doing to simply take it in. The characters, however, are animated using your typical 3D techniques and don't strike us as inspired. There is nothing wrong with them, not at all, but as Oxenfree is so strikingly beautiful elsewhere we would have liked to have seen something a little different when it comes to something you'll be watching throughout the game, namely the movements of the characters. Add to the supernatural powers that manifest themselves visually, both randomly in the background and as perceived by both the characters in the game and in turn by the player. Without any explanation a sequence can play out twice with different outcomes, or all of a sudden your companion can commit suicide in front of your eyes only to appear again unharmed just around the corner. It blurs the lines between what's real and what's not, and makes for a very intense experience. Just like Twin Peaks or Lost.
The same cannot be said of the soundtrack. It starts out well enough with electronica artist SCNTFC. And the music listened to on its own, is excellent, but you could make an argument that for an emotionally charged experience like Oxenfree you need a bit more care than the 80s-inspired electronica offers, especially since this sort of soundtrack has been overused in cinema and games lately. Oxenfree could have benefitted from something more subtle, something that would have amplified the horror and the mystery, but SCNTFC's tracks tend to do just the opposite. It turns it into something generic and ordinary.
Thankfully the game manages to rise above most of its problems and in doing so it delivers an experience that both comes across as unique, and rather personal in its own way. This story starring Alex is interesting, deep and easy to identify with, and while the dialogue appears odd at times, the characters are still believable and lifelike. Additionally the mysterious horror is really well put together, and because of this Oxenfree manages to achieve the sort of mood and atmosphere it's aiming for. It's a shame because if the music had offered something more and the dialogue had been given some further care, then this experience could have been something truly special. Too bad.