Oxenfree PC Review
Though it came out at the beginning of 2016 and we are now nearing the end of 2016, I finally got around to playing Oxenfree. I wasn’t quite sure what the game was about: having bought it in the Halloween Sale, I suspected it must be something spooky, or at least supernatural, but beyond that I hadn’t heard much about it. The premise is a group of teenagers on a remote island (so far, so cliché), who by the use of radio, manage to wake something paranormal which seemingly starts to affect them, time and the island itself.
The immediately striking part of Oxenfree is how good the writing and voice acting are in this interesting little game. This is perhaps unsurprising given that the creators are of Telltale stock. As soon as the game starts, each character has a distinct personality with believable writing and for me, the very best parts of the game are where characters had seemingly insignificant but revealing side-conversations. Even though these did not progress the main story, they felt valuable and interesting. In my playthrough, Alex and her new step-brother bonded whilst learning more about each other. Their relationship really emphasised the feel of the game: looking forward with hope but with a sadness and longing for the past.
Relatedly, the game is unsettling primarily due to the themes it chooses to portray, central among these being grief and the ways in which it affects people. Clarissa deals with grief by lashing out, Alex by mourning and Jonas by reminiscing. There is also a heavy weight of nostalgia underscoring the game. For the characters, this is both their grief and the ghostly premonitions which cause flashbacks. In addition, their age, around 18 and about to leave for college, means that they reminisce about younger years spent on the island. And with the central focus on the hand-held radio, now more commonly known as a hipster accessory than electronic necessity, the nostalgia is even in the antiquated tech.
I should mention, the ghosts too are unsettling. At points it is difficult to understand what is happening; time seems to go forward and backward, characters die and are resurrected or possessed and it is all finished off by an ending which requires… individual interpretation. The overall storyline made sense, but exactly what was going on was left to the player’s own conclusion. This is valuable in supernatural games, in which it would be impossible to explain everything anyway, and leaves more than a dash of intrigue after finishing the game. Multiple playthroughs to gather more information and the various endings are encouraged.
There are a number of mechanics used, the most obvious being the radio. Although I was initially a bit confused by this choice (it is 2016 after all), the radio did serve as an interesting little mini-game by finding the right frequencies to affect ghostly happenings. However, the game asks you to repeat this ‘twist the dial until you get a sound’ time and time again, which gets a bit wearing. Aside from the radio, there were a few simple puzzles, for example, a riddle game and some climbing, but nothing really of note. Whilst choice in dialogue is also a mechanic, this doesn’t effect the story to a great degree – it mostly affects how the characters fare in the epilogue, how they react to Alex and building Alex’s general character.
Perhaps the most interesting of all the features was Dominic sporadically popping up to give me guidance in the form of reflections. At the end of the game, you are asked to give advice to past Alex and this can play a part in the games of your friends. It was a nice inclusion in a game about friends overcoming adversity together and, to my knowledge, unique.
There is a beautiful art style to Oxenfree with the backdrops to each area a stylised watercolour, with a palette of hazy blues, browns and greens, adding to the unsettling nature of the game. The only problem with this is that the character models themselves seem more realistic and three dimensional, sometimes causing an unfortunate clash of design.
Another particularly frustrating part of the game were the very slow meanders around the island you often have to make to get to a certain point. This was particularly painful for getting all the collectables: often I had missed one at the other end of the island and Alex had to trawl all the way back there. Sometimes this would allow time for well written, well acted dialogue, but when there was none of that to be had, it felt very slow.
Oxenfree is a curious and fairly short game. The wonderful voice acting and characters, the interesting themes and the beautiful backdrops are sometimes let down by poor design choices. Ultimately, for fans of story, of which I am one, it is worth playing. But if you have to get your kicks from involved gameplay, perhaps this is not the one for you.