I’ve found that in gaming’s current era, having a game almost instantly captivate you is an increasingly rare phenomenon. As titles become bigger, with more moving parts, it often takes longer to get to the selling point, the hook, the talking point. The indie movement has been a difference maker in this regard. Having to rely on hitting you with that initial hook early so it can capture your attention quickly. Games do this in a number of ways. Rocket League does it by showcasing its deceptively simple fun side immediately; games like Fez show you how they subvert the norm; and games like Oxenfree let their story do the talking.
It was the dialogue between three of the characters aboard a boat in Oxenfree’s opening that sold me on it. It sets the scene perfectly by engaging you in these characters’ basic personality traits without heavily overselling it. I was more interested in the lives of these three teenagers after spending mere minutes in their company than countless other character-driven games manage in their entirety. What made it even more effective was that they didn’t have to do anything dramatic or flamboyant in order to get there. It was just well-written, well-voiced, and most importantly, believable. As good as Life is Strange was at depicting some of the hardships of teenage life, it never came across as fluently in the dialogue. Oxenfree excels at this.
The story concerns those three teenagers we previously addressed heading to what should be the mother of all parties on a dilapidated holiday island. These three are Alex, a quirky, blue-haired teen girl with a devastating personal loss playing on her mind (this is who you control), her newly-acquired step-brother (blank) who has been invited along despite not knowing anyone, and her friend Ren, the motor-mouthed geek chasing a seemingly unattainable beau. When they finally arrive after said boat trip, they find that the only other people on the island are the object of Ren’s affection, Nona, and Clarissa, a snarky redhead who has issues with Alex.
Up to this point, Oxenfree has the same teen indie film vibe as Life is Strange and it wears its influences on its sleeve (I won’t mention them because it’ll spoil the story), but things take a turn for the strange soon after you all sit around a firepit on the beach and have an awkward truth or dare session. From here, the story becomes just as much a supernatural mystery as it does a teen drama.
Oxenfree is presented as a two-dimensional adventure game that heavily focuses on the narrative, while feeding in the odd soft puzzle to switch things up. The art style is suitably gloomy and has a cartoonish painting vibe to it that gives the characters very defined looks, helping them to each look memorable enough to match their sharply-written dialogue. You will spend the majority of your time having conversations about life beyond the island, as well as the events occurring on it. There’s the odd puzzle—mainly involving tuning into radio frequencies—and a bit of clambering about, but the meat of Oxenfree is in its conversation system.
You’re given a selection of up to three options to respond with and rather than pause the action until you’ve answered. Conversations flow naturally and if you don’t reply in time the chat continues unabated. You can also amusingly cut people off mid sentence. This conversation system feels quite inspired in the realm of games, and it’s why the interaction between the characters feels so natural.
The story gathers pace in a very slow, methodical manner, teasing out the weirdness incrementally and never relying on cheap shocks and scares to deliver its supernatural elements. The narrative progression moves along so nicely for so long, so it’s unfortunate that Oxenfree’s plot sadly begins to unravel as the game enters the home straight, losing its winning focus on character to push the island’s mystery more forcefully. You can accept it to a degree; after all, the character development up until the has been so strong that you could argue Oxenfree has earned its late-game indulgence. Nonetheless, that doesn’t make it any less disappointing to witness as a delightful, insightful trek with a relatable cast begins to turn into a trudging, drawn-out spooky tale in those closing moments.
It’s all over and done with within a matter of hours, and in fairness, Oxenfree is long enough for what it is. There’s ample amount of backstory and secrets to find if you so wish, and a second playthrough is entirely worth it to discover more about the island, and to hear those conversations again in different ways. For once, replay value is entirely dependent on narrative, not gameplay, and it’s a glowing commendation of the writing to say that it is more than enough reason to go back again. End section aside, the mystery and history of this beautifully designed island is quite compelling, a feeling that surges further thanks to the soundtrack’s ethereal tones lilting in the background.
There’s so much beauty to Oxenfree’s small world; from the characters, to the island, to the art design and the audio. It became an easy game to fall in love with thanks to those facets, but the one standout thing that dug its loving, ragged claws into me is that conversation system. It ties all those other parts together superbly and largely overrides the slackness of the late game story because it provides you with a bunch of characters you are actually invested in. Oxenfree deserves to be experienced by all who crave a smarter, more grounded take on in-game dialogue options, and teen characters who don’t sound like they were written exclusively by a room of thirty year old men who long since burned that time in their lives out of their minds. The end section does enough damage to stop Oxenfree from being truly fantastic, but for me, it’s one of my favourite games of 2016.