If I had a preferred genre of game, I suppose it would be “emotional narrative” games. I love me some 3rd person adventure, first person and platform puzzlers, and good old point-and-click, but I always seem to find my recent favorites in character driven narrative games. If you’ve looked at my past gaming coverage, this is obvious. Between Firewatch and my (obsessive?) coverage of Life is Strange, I seem to have a trend. Well,
Oxenfree falls into that pattern. It’s the game I picked up while trying to recover from my initial LiS play through. And if Life is Strange can be thought of as a head-over-heels whirlwind romance, Oxenfree is a simmering crush.
The cast goes to Edwards Island and purposely misses the last ferry back to the mainland. The plan is to spend the night on the beach, partying. Alex, Jonas, and Ren head off into a cave to explore. After utilizing a radio to “summon ghosts” they all black out and awaken separated and in new locations.
From there things get odder, with supernatural events happening as Alex uncovers more of the history of what was really happening on Edwards Island.
Relationships are at the core of this supernatural story. The game mechanics are mostly done through branching conversation options, and they all have consequences. I don’t think there’s a relationship between two characters that you don’t affect by the end of the game. Friendships are made or broken, romances cemented or aborted. It was fascinating finding that out. I had assumed that some of them were set, but when reading forums or watching Lets Plays, it was really entertaining to see that Alex has so much of an influence, if not control, over her surroundings.
The other main game mechanic is tuning into radio frequencies. Different frequencies are used to unlock puzzles, both supernatural and mundane, under the guise that the base on Edwards Island had done research on radio technology. This is actually sort of a brilliant choice, as there are hidden things in the radio broadcasts over the island. You can pull out the radio to interact with what’s around, or you can tune into the invisible and try to find clues and world-building details. The static builds atmosphere, but there’s an island-wide radio tour that drops interesting and relevant history now and then. The idea of something always present, often undetected, is a great parallel to everything else going on.
Spoilers to follow
At the end of your game you find out that you’re in something of a time loop. There’s a New Game Plus1. The cool thing about Oxenfree’s NG+ is that the kept experience is knowledge of the player’s first playthrough! Alex gets flashes of deja vu and lost time, and can come to the conclusion that all of this has happened before. Depending on how you play Alex, and using this new understanding, it’s possible to get a completely different result when the loop restarts once more. There’s even a way to convince the group not to go to the island in the first place. I love the meta-ness of the fact that one of the most fully explored plays of the game ends with the character not participating in the events at all.
Completing your first run of the main games takes about 4 or 5 hours. That may seem slight, but keep in mind that the second play-through is really the second half of the game. Even if you’re not an achievement hunter or completionist, playing through twice really is playing through the story once.
There are a handful of mechanics at play in this game, and they’re not all wonderful. The majority of consequential actions are done through the branching dialog choices, and that part is phenomenal. The conversations are well written and the voice acting is great. Everyone has a sense of strong character, and when friends are won over, or offended, they really give the sense that you’re involved in a circle of friends. The radio puzzles are simple, but immersive. The exploration is a joy to look at, the art design is gorgeous, but the actual exploration leaves something to be desired.
At its heart, Oxenfree is a platformer and that is where its greatest weakness lies. The walking can, at times, become a chore. The pace that the characters traverse the island is somewhat slow and leisurely, and as far as anyone knows there is no way to sprint. The game involves a lot of back-tracking, and at times walking through that cave or barracks or forest yet again takes just a bit more patience than I have at hand. Most of the time there’s some environmental interaction that’s new: a discussion to be had, or an interaction with the forces at work on the island. But even so, it often feels like there should be a bit more sense of exploration and discovery on subsequent strolls than the game offers. And that is probably the weakest part of this game. Something like a fast-travel option would break the pace of the narrative, the hours tick by giving an almost real-time sense of game-play, but even Myst had little lightning bolt jump feature to speed up travel.
That shouldn’t dissuade you from picking this up. It’s often on sale on Steam and GOG (normally $19.99, often on sale for $4.99 so wishlist and wait). And while the gameplay isn’t as tight as I would have liked, the story and character is what you should show up for. As I mentioned above, I played this while coming off of Life is Strange. I had become completely immersed in the story of Chloe and Max, and I wanted a rebound game that would give me other characters to get involved with. Oxenfree delivers. I became invested in Alex. I felt for her and her brother. I struggled to balance her friendships with Jonas and Ren, combining her old life and new. And while Clarissa felt a bit like a stock character, and Nona never really comes into her own for me, they’re involved enough with characters that I do care about that their story matters as well. The writing and character work is very well balanced.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↵||A game feature that lets your restart a completed game with something new. Either experience, abilities, or equipment earned in the first game, or some new mechanic.|