I recap free online video games as well as gush over Warcraft in non-video game recaps, but I’ve never really done an actual video game review…UNTIL TODAY. Today we are going to review Oxenfree by Night School Studio.
You play as Alex, a girl who is accompanying her super chatty best-friend Ren and brand new step-brother Jonas to the yearly beach bash on Edward’s Island. Unfortunately, the bash is more of a poke since the only other people who came are Clarissa, a girl who used to date Alex’s dead brother Michael, and Nona, a girl who Ren has a crush on. Right after the party starts, Alex and Jonas go spelunking in the nearby weirdo caves and the shit hits the fan. The teens are now trapped on an island with the vengeful “ghosts” on their tail, and they have until dawn to escape the island. The only weapons in your arsenal are your communication skills and a radio that can unlock radio locks and “tune” into the ghosts of the islands.
What initially attracted me to this game was the gorgeous artwork that portrayed both the haunting natural beauty of the island and the oppressing sense of imprisonment of the military base built upon it. The camera is pulled back so you can see the characters scrambling around, except for their blurred faces. I admire this artistic choice, because you can tell how the characters are feeling through their dialogue and body language. Plus, leaving the faces slightly blurred allows the player to interact further by imagining a much clearer face.
The camera is also scaled back so the player can select 1-3 speech bubbles for Alex to question or answer other characters. A lot of these you have to be quick about, or else Alex won’t answer and that can also bring on another response to the other characters. I just absolutely love the dialogue system for this game and how it often mimics real speech with people cutting each other off or just rambling in search of an answer. I also absolutely love how there is no real “evil” choice in the game (although some may argue me on that, but that’s for another spoilery blog post). The dialogue sometimes meshes together and what you may think was a supportive response comes out as rather antagonistic, much like how in real life you meant to say something one way but it comes out completely wrong. A lot of the suspense in this story comes from trying to keep it together and trying to say the right things to your friends and trying to do the right thing by everybody. There’s a lot of choices Alex has to make where you really don’t know the outcome, you can only just hope everything will work out all right.
Now, you may say to yourself, what’s the big deal about bad choices? If you don’t like the outcome of some choices you made, just go back to the save state where you think you flubbed up the worst and start from there. Unfortunately, dear reader, you can’t make any save files to peruse later, but the game autosaves at just about every new area you enter. It’s difficult for me to put succinctly, but say you finished all of the dialogue in Area A, moved onto Area B, and didn’t like the choices you make in Area B. If you want to change your choices in Area B, you would have to backtrack to Area A and start Area B all over again. If you move onto Area C, your choices for Area B are saved and you can no longer change them.
Before you bring out the pitchforks and Doritos, hear me out. This is a brilliant game mechanic. It adds weight to its theme of repeating/looping time (that ties in with its other major theme of grief, but that’s also another spoilery blog post), really puts the player on edge about the choices s/he makes, and encourages replaying of the game. I’ve been hearing some hemming and hawing about “omg this game is $20 and the initial run is only 4-5 hours.” I’ve been playing this game for 17 hours and I’m not finished with it, and that’s without doing the letter/anomaly scavenger hunt. The name of the game is not a long running time, it’s replay value.
Of course, a lot of the replay value depends on how much you want to get to know these characters, who are all teenagers that all get annoying as teenagers are wont to do when shoved in a supernatural life-or-death situation and tensions are high. They are going to bicker and berate each other, and least Alex (depending on how you play her) can try to stop it. For me, these were characters that I related and sympathized with, wanting to get to know their stories better that takes several play runs to do so.
I highly recommend Oxenfree to anyone looking for a good, emotional game, and an extra recommendation if supernatural mystery is your cup of tea.