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Youthful adventures and supernatural events galore.
Late night conversations; warm campfires in nature; hearty laughs with friends; these are central components to most teen years. Emulating and drawing from this nostalgia creates a unique experience named Oxenfree. Developed by Night School Studio in early 2016, Oxenfree is what many would classify a “walking simulator.” For others, it’s a quaint, elegant story that wears its heart on its sleeve.
Oxenfree isn’t trying to be revolutionary, and instead opts to tell a heartfelt tale….
You play as Alex, a young girl readying for her high school graduation, as she visits a local island with her friends. Joining them is Alex’s brand new step-brother, Jonas, whom you slowly get to know throughout the story. As they explore the island, the gang stumbles upon a supernatural mystery, involving time loops, ghosts, and old war tales. Using her handheld radio, Alex can interact with and investigate the world around her. During conversation, you are given three different dialogue options used to steer the interaction, relying heavily on a “choose your own adventure” narrative style. While not a new mechanic by any means, it’s clear that Oxenfree isn’t trying to be revolutionary, and instead opts to tell a heartfelt tale rather than melt your mind with a radically innovative gameplay loop.
At this, Oxenfree certainly succeeds. The game begins rather slowly and awkwardly–you feel the odd tension as Alex and her friends warm up to Jonas’ presence. As you meet the cast, you can’t help but feel a familiar twinge from your own past. Each character is lovingly crafted to be memorable and unique, and will surely remind you of your own friends. Perhaps your best friend was harsh and inquisitive throughout high school, or maybe they were the talkative, geeky type. It’s all too easy to imagine your clique in lieu of Alex’s. “What would I say while this is happening? How would Matt react? What would Josh do here?” At its core, this is a game about interaction and friendship. The journey entices both nostalgia and excitement, allowing you to attach familiar emotions to each character while experiencing something new.
Speaking of friends: the teenagers in Oxenfree are some of the most likeable, well-written characters in recent history. The conversations feel real, like these kids actually know each other (which is a plus, seeing as it’s a game about kids who know each other). Alex’s dialogue options feel real and human, letting you input sincere questions and reactions without derailing the chat. Many modern “branching story” games will often present you with a dialogue option that sounds reasonable, yet, when chosen, leads down a grossly different conversational path than you expected. Oxenfree, however, leads the dialogue exactly where you want to go, and leaves you satisfied in doing so.
The journey entices both nostalgia and excitement, allowing you to attach familiar emotions to each character while experiencing something new.
That being said, Oxenfree isn’t a perfect package. Throughout the game, several small mishaps rear their head. For example, Alex may clip through a rock; she may not walk down a narrow path when it appears she is supposed to; or she may overlap different parts of the foreground when she shouldn’t. These errors by no means break the experience. However, in a game as simple and story-driven as this, it’d be nice to see all actual “game” aspects be as flawless as possible. Coupled with this is the fact that the main focus of the game, the story, is lackluster at times. The supernatural pieces of the tale become muddled, and blot out the shining stars that are the human elements. Ghosts and cryptic messages are not the heart and soul of this game: the characters and world-building are.
When Oxenfree does something well, it does it exceptionally well. Night School Studios has truly nailed the writing here, and created a teenage troupe that feels and sounds absurdly real. However, for some, this game may not scratch an itch. Certain players may insult it for being a “non-game,” and while some may say that it drags on. Others still may find it boring and repetitive. Yet Oxenfree captures that vital essence of having a night out with your long-time buddies, and returns you to your wonder years. Even with flaws, it is an experience that shouldn’t be missed out on, and warrants praise for the aspects which succeed.