I honestly feel bad for how big my backlog has gotten. While this does mean that I will not be bored for a long time, I think it is rude to not give projects the attention they deserve. Thankfully, my sister helps me to mitigate this list with her own recommendations, one of them being Oxenfree. The duo behind this game, Adam Hines and Sean Krankel, have both experiences in storytelling from different media and wanted for the longest time to make a narrative title together that you could freely move in. This is something more entries within this genre needs to do, and Oxenfree is definitely a good example as to why that is.
I think the team would love Stephen King stories
We start off this tale with you as the young girl Alex, riding on a boat towards Edward Island with your closest friend, Ren, and your new step brother, Jonas, coming along. This will be the perfect spot to party and chill at, with two other acquaintances meeting you there, Clarissa and Nona. Unfortunately, there is clearly an awkward tone between all of you, which a campfire and playing a silly version of truth or dare can only do so much to lessen. After trying to cool down, you notice something bizarre about a cave nearby.
I try to be as vague as possible with this introduction, since how the story and relationships evolve all depend on your actions, even from the very beginning. Every single conversation option you get, including choosing to stay silent, will dictate how close you are with the other characters and what their fates will be. This is because Oxenfree is really a game about consequences, with all the options you get being valid reactions. In fact, this setup is made even stronger by the believable cast, as everyone has a clear and diverse personality. Despite that they can lean towards traits like the shy girl, the troubled teenager, and so on, they do not rely on them in order to establish identities. Everyone has a past that affected them and made them into who they are today, with your choices being able to reshape them. A form of coming of age story, if you will.
Further enhancing the characters are the dialogues, as they are realistic and help to establish each of them through plenty of effective moments and lines that make them relatable. This wonderful form of immersion also comes from how your options for responding never hinder your movement. You are able to end a conversation or even take in the scenery instead and comment on elements around you at any time, providing a sense of freedom in your actions.
This fantastic focus on dialogues is really what drives the story forward, since it develops the characters, affects their relationships, and offers depth to their personalities and backgrounds. However, your choices also affect what fate each of them will go through, including Alex’s. This is where the plot comes in, which revolves around supernatural elements. It is definitely a bizarre and intriguing mystery that adds nice lore to this island. Although, this aspect of the story is rather a way to make you go on a journey, since the sole focus is on the characters themselves. While I am happy for this, the overall plot becomes rather an underdeveloped excuse for this tale to take place than a suspenseful quest.
Despite this, Oxenfree is great at making you care about the characters you meet and the areas you discover, while letting an interesting mystery unravel without obscuring the immersion this game’s freedom and choices provide. I cannot say the optional lore is really fascinating or adds to the supernatural elements, but this title knows that lovely written characters can carry a story alone and focuses on just that.
Story Score: 8/10
This project is probably among the best examples on how a walking simulator can work beautifully as a way to create an interactive experience. In this 2D multilayered side-scroller, you simply walk in the direction you want to, while interacting with the areas around you or choosing what you wish to say. You will always see who is talking thanks to a small speech bubble and answering them requires you to pick an option before they fade away, with neglecting to do so causing you to stay silent. Some choices can come in the heat of the moment, while others can linger on as you are given a moment to think, with every setup feeling appropriately paced out. After all, who is going to wait 10 seconds for a punchline versus a good answer to a philosophical question?
With a narrative driven game that wants you to explore, Oxenfree is surely a slow journey, but never to a fault as there is always something to witness or talk about. Even if your running speed is not the fastest in this huge location, I only noticed this nitpick in the end of this adventure when there is some backtracking occurring. However, I do wish this title would save after making a respond, as it only does so when you walk between areas. This is also a minor issue, but one that is easy to exploit through reloading a save file if you dislike a result of your actions.
This is a big island to explore, but you always have a map at hand to showcase where you are, the landmarks each area has, and what objectives there are to take on, giving you multiple tourist attractions to visit with ease. One of the more interesting concepts included on this trip, is that your radio can be used to receive receptions from different channels or affect the supernatural around you, as well as some locks. This is a neat idea, but more about accurate tuning in than anything else. The same goes for when you must rewind a tape at the proper speed, making these mechanics feel repetitive and forgettable.
Even if these parts are not much to brag about, the focus on creating a narrative game is. Being able to explore freely and affect the outcomes through your choices without ever being hindered by a cutscene, truly makes for an immersive experience that is enjoyable. While the concepts surrounding your radio could have been better implemented, this is still a nice stroll simulator to take on.
Gameplay Score: 7/10
Commentaries on artistic choices
It is quite hard to talk about the art style used in Oxenfree, as I am not entirely sure what to make of it. I love the backgrounds and how everything is focused on detailed colours, with subtle animations and effects conveying a sense of movement, as if the nature itself is alive. The island as well is simple, but has enough diversity to make every area memorable, such as the shipyard, military base, forest, and so on, without making any part feel less fitting for this location. Similarly can be said for the minimalistic character designs used to give them visual highlights, with the pictures taken between the chapters being gorgeous representations of their in-game models.
Going for a more comic book style look was also a smart choice by the developers due to the small speech bubbles popping up. Sadly, the 2.5D approach is hard to really make work, as this title has 2D backgrounds with 3D character models that are clearly different. The colours do help blending these two technical styles together, but I believe better lighting and attention to shadows would have made this setup work much better. This is still a pleasant game to look at thanks to the vibrant areas and colours, with some clever visual effects added in. A favourite example of mine, is whenever anything supernatural happens, providing the effects of a VHS cassette with damaged tape being played. Without spoiling anything, this is a neat foreshadowing.
Even the music is just as hard to comment on. It is definitely a varied soundtrack that can offer an unnerving atmosphere, but has a lot of repetitive songs that become rather annoying than effective due to using similar notes and rhythms. It would have been nice if these were clear contrasts to the rest of the game’s score in order to leave an impact on the setting, but due to how early on the supernatural gets introduced, you will be begging for a different track and feel unintentionally uncomfortable with the obscure scores.
The electronic soundtrack by Andrew Rohrmann was made to give a mix of Boards of Canada and John Carpenter, and while I think he was able to do so, he did not do this successfully. There is a lot of electronic focus without creating a diverse atmosphere thanks to the repetition these melodies contain. While they can fit with the radio concept, they struggles to create any clear tone throughout. They can be ambient when the scores are slow and drawn out with echo, and the soundtrack is far from bad overall, but misplaced and too short to be effective for the long walks.
Luckily, what will be the focus when it comes to the audio, are the outstanding voice actors. The entire cast gives their all with perfect directions and tone that hints at their personalities, making them all believable. I was not surprised to hear Erin Yvette taking the spotlight as Alex, as she is mesmerising at giving any of her characters a clear voice, and the rest of the actors offer the same amount of quality as she does. I also admire how natural it all feels, with how some dialogues being talked over each other being a cute touch.
Presentation Score: 8/10
Reliving the story
A playthrough of Oxenfree can take between four and five hours, with each chapter providing pictures for the events unfolding. After this, you are able to go through the game again where you can take other choices, see different endings, and even uncover a secret one that is understandably not possible to get the first time around. The short time it takes to finish this title, lends itself easily for replays and it is hard to not do so for the curiosity and its atmosphere alone.
There is the option to locate 13 letters for gaining more lore on the supernatural elements, but they are simply unneeded flavour text. Exploring for these notes is actually fun though, as you must search for clues from what you hear and through the landmarks, making this an engaging hunt! It is just unfortunate that the rewards are just nonchalant extras to the story. It is almost symbolic how there are seven pictures you can take by replaying the campaign, with the amount of letters to look for being 13. Maybe the developers wanted to tell you something?
Extra Score: 7/10
Oxenfree is a neat walking simulator that is worth an afternoon of your time and has enough content to make multiple revisits entertaining. It is certainly not perfect and could have had more to its radio mechanics or simply removed them, with the presentation being difficult to comment on overall. The supernatural aspect is also average at best, but the focus is on these lovely characters trapped on a strange island where your choices affect on how it all will be played out, with the entire journey being packed with an incredible atmosphere. This is definitely a good interactive experience, and who does not enjoy taking a stroll with a good friend by their side?
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