Night School Studio’s Oxenfree is a marvel of genre mixing and innovative design. Narrating a touching story about a group of teenagers and their struggle to survive on a haunted island, this game is truly mesmerizing and quite honestly one of the best games 2016 has offered so far.
Oxenfree, at its time of release in January 2016, generated a lot of buzz and hype. And even after playing it through completely, I can’t point to one singular reason why. It’s got so much going for it, it’s really hard to pinpoint one thing that makes it stand above other games for it truly does. Despite some glaring flaws, it does so well in other areas, it’s easy to fall in love with this one.
The game starts simple enough. Alex, our spunky protagonist, is travelling to Edwards Island on a ferry with her best friend, Ren, and her new step-brother, Jonas, to attend the annual year-end school bash. But they soon find out upon arriving that it’s just them two other people there: the school it-girl Clarisse and her faithful sidekick, Nona. So the five of them start exploring the island, playing a few teenage games and consuming some beers to boot. But boredom takes over and they split up. Clarisse and Nona remaining behind to drink some more and Alex, Jonas and Ren wandering into the caves to investigate some reported supernatural phenomena. And then all hell breaks loose.
It’s a riveting story. Sure, five kids on a deserted island sounds, quite frankly, so typical and boring these days but you’ve never seen a story like this. The story ties up war-era victims, an old lady who used to live on the island as well as several dead relatives and friends of our protagonists together in a devilishly twisted plotline that will leave you both exasperated and on the edge of your seat. As Alex, you wander all over the island with one or more of your friends in tow as you try to rescue your other friends while simultaneously solve the mysteries of the haunted island.
Now normally I avoid the horror genre like it’s the devil children, which it usually turns out to be. After a disastrous viewing of The Exorcist at age 8 I’ve developed an inherent fear of all things supernatural so horror books, movies, TV shows and games are completely off the list for me. But then a game like Oxenfree comes around and it’s beautiful visuals and unique (for the genre) side-scrolling 2D game design tricks you into thinking “oh wait I’ll see things coming right?”.
Amidst all the beautiful, scenic backgrounds and amazing detail here, there are definitely some masterful JUMP scares and full on creep moments. Coupled with the eerie, suspenseful soundtrack and sound effects, this game will not let you relax. Ever.
But this game isn’t just about horror. This is also the kind of dramatic adventure game that Life is Strange and The Wolf Among Us is. As Alex, you not only have to uproot evil but also talk to your friends, build and maintain your relationships with them and even peek at their inner demons with them. For a horror game, this is a novel approach as the focus is not only your surroundings but also on the people you’re with. Why is your step-brother overly protective suddenly? Does Nona really want Clarisse alive? Questions like these pop up fairly regularly and depending on how you handle social situations, the game changes slightly. But the absolute best thing about this side of the game is how much it contributes to the overall experience. Without this part, Oxenfree would be just another horror game where all it requires is mindless explorations and puzzle solving.
In the instances where the creep factor is absolutely absent (and there aren’t many instances like that), this game is downright beautiful. The writing of the game is wondrous. It’s hard to write a teenager, much less five, but the geniuses at Night School Studios have done exactly that to wild success. Filled with all the angst, sexual frustrations and yes, even the pretentious know-it-all rants, these characters are bursting with life. It makes you care for them in a way that’s frightening, especially when your favorite character (it WILL happen) is possessed or about to die. And in the moments when our characters are just talking, the backgrounds really pop out and the music complements is just right so that instead of simply mindlessly reading out speech bubbles, you are actually experiencing the story with them.
Oxenfree is one of those game where I could go on and on and on talking about it but I never could truly capture its true essence. It’s not quite complete horror but it’s also not quite complete adventure. It’s got a few issues here and there too: The controls are a little fidgety, especially if you’re using a game controller instead of a mouse/keyboard combo and the story’s resolution is patched up rather haphazardly. But overall, it’s an enthralling work of (dare I say it?) art that will have you both frightened out of your pants and feeling like the world just killed your best friend for no reason whatsoever.
Beautiful, mesmerizing, an impressive merger of two previously irreconcilable genres, Oxenfree deserves all the salutations it gets.