Time travel. Ghosts. Conspiracies. Teenage drama. Sounds like a great combination!
Lately I’ve been really jonesing for a good adventure game/walking simulator fix — something along the lines of Edith Finch or Firewatch that would tell me a good story in an immersive world. And wouldn’t take more than a few hours. I did some research, drew up a list of titles I had yet to play, and then realized that one of them — Oxenfree — was sitting in my GOG library as a free game that they gave out a while back.
Created by some ex-Telltale Games devs, Oxenfree drafts up a story of a group of five teenagers who are heading out to an island for an evening of beach R&R. Each one of the characters, including the main protagonist Alex, carries with him or her relationships and baggage. Alex, for example, lost her brother a year ago and is now grappling with the fact that her parents got a divorce, her mom remarried, and she now has a step-brother her age (who is along for the ride).
The beach party takes an unexpected turn as Alex’s radio tunes into a frequency that should have been left alone. Weird voices, time displacement, and strange happenings start popping up all over the place. Alex even sees herself in the mirror dispensing cryptic advice.
Other than some very light puzzles involving the radio, Oxenfree is mostly about exploring the island (which has a rich and occasionally disturbing history) and navigating the fivesome’s relationships via dialogue options. Alex can choose to remain silent during chats or break in with up to three options, all of which create a very natural-sounding flow of conversation. And while the game doesn’t make a big deal of it until the very end, many of these conversational picks end up influencing relationships and changing the ultimate outcome.
Fortunately for this dialogue-heavy game, Oxenfree is both written and performed admirably. The kids are genuinely interesting to listen to as they quip, argue, observe, and share history. While all of them have interconnected histories, it’s only through the dialogue selections that the player is gradually informed as to what they are. I always wanted to hear all of the dialogue and would sometimes stop walking just to make sure I didn’t transition to a new screen or trigger a script and cut off the chatter.
My greatest complaint about Oxenfree is, other than its relatively short length, the control scheme. For a game that only has a handful of inputs (movement, radio, map, use, dialogue selection), it should have been 100% controlled by the mouse. Instead — and with no options to change this — movement keys are the WASD or arrow keys, enter is the use key, CTRL is for the map, shift is for the radio, and the mouse picks the dialogue. I kept having to move my hands on and off the keyboard during the play due to needing the enter key and wanting my right hand to always be near the mouse in case one of the time-limited dialogue options popped up. It’s just an annoyance that shouldn’t have been present.
Another small quibble is that a lot of the game’s very important backstory — the overall mystery of the island — is relegated to a series of hidden letters (“Scavenger hunt! Scavenger hunt!” Alex crows) that only start unlocking late in the game when I kind of wanted to wrap up the tale. They should have been present earlier and been far more noticeable for their narrative importance.
Overall, Oxenfree is a funny, sometimes touching, and sometimes downright creepy game, even though it uses a rather distinct 2-D painterly visual setup (which — quibble number three here — can make using the island map a little difficult). There’s a little incentive to replay to make different choices and see how other dialogue options would have played out, but I think one solid playthrough gave me most of the game experience that I needed here. Definitely a recommended title.