Upon first sight one would be forgiven for mistaking Oxenfree for a typical 2D indie game due to the somewhat simplistic yet beautifully drawn art style but it’s precisely this juxtaposition of the simplistic art style to the true creepy nature of the game that provides some genuinely heart-pounding moments evoked not by generic jump scares that seem to be too often found in many games nowadays, but a real and sometimes nail-biting build-up of suspenseful horror.
The story starts as you might expect a typical teen movie to start with the female protagonist of the game, Alex and her eccentric friend Ren and new step-brother Jonas who are on their way to a party but this particular party takes the group to a spooky decommissioned military island that was used during WWII called Edwards Island to fulfil an annual tradition of partying at the beach there as a way of honouring the time before graduating. However, the generic part of Oxenfree’s story really does stop there as the originality of Oxenfree’s story is introduced by something as simple as a radio tuner.
It starts when you, Alex, your best friend Ren, and your new stepbrother Jonas split off to experiment with tuning the radio near a cave because of local myths and rumours that you would sometimes hear weird sounds when tuning the radio to certain frequencies which, conveniently, other kids who had held the same party years past had left little rock piles identifying where to tune the radio in order to, supposedly, hear some weird noises. It seems innocent enough, right? But, once you begin exploring the cave and following the sounds you quickly end up unleashing mysterious supernatural forces which are awakened when Alex tunes into the wrong frequency and these beings didn’t exactly give the impression of being friendly spirits.
However, these beings or ‘ghosts’ remain, for the most part, unseen. They’re shrouded in mystery and it’s this which brings out the intrinsic fear of the unknown we all have within us, these ‘ghosts’ manifest themselves through possession of characters in the game, or literally forcing moments in time to replay again and again as you, the player, are stuck in a ‘time loop’ and it’s these more subtle manifestations that give Oxenfree a sense of suspense that one would find in Paranormal Activity films where, like Oxenfree, the ‘ghosts’ remain mostly unseen but slowly and in increasing magnitudes torment their victims, and it’s in these tense build-ups coming to their conclusion that Oxenfree can really provide a heart-pounding experience of a horror game that literally left me on the edge of the seat, as you’re repeatedly tormented by these beings and even forced to watch your friends suffer in a twisted and creepy game-style which definitely had me recalling the Saw franchise.
Additionally, the authentic feel of Oxenfree is largely due to the genuine conversation dialogue in the game which features a Telltale-like system of choosing your response and having a set amount of time to do so. The dialogue system then allows for you to decide Alex’s approach to the other characters, who you decide to take with you in certain situations, and ultimately even whether everyone makes it out of the situation or not. This is a system that has failed in some games before Oxenfree but it’s the authenticity of how these teenagers behave and interact that provides a genuinely original and refreshing experience with Oxenfree. Furthermore, the realistic dialogue also helps to capture the intimacy between these characters which allows the player to feel a real sense of sincerity when helping to decide a characters fate.
However, it is the gloomy, gothic, yet surprisingly realistic location of Oxenfree that really makes the game suspenseful as you adventure across Edwards Islands which, thanks to the very distinct artwork done by the team at Night School Studios, gives the environments a very realistic atmosphere and when things start to go bad, and even the environments are manipulated to further torment you, this is where it becomes clear that the distinct art style is heightened in the creepier moments of the game which is superbly supplemented with an original score from SCNTFC which really pulls together the whole atmosphere of the game in a way that, were this music missing from the game, I’d wonder if I would’ve enjoyed it even half as much because the music really did that well of a job in setting the scene. The only thing that detracted the game for me was the pacing which, while I can’t put my finger on exactly, just felt off at times but other than that I really can’t think of many other studios that have made such a fantastic first game that has me looking forward to whatever it is Night School Studios brings out next.
+ Atmospheric, creepy, suspenseful and genuinely heart-pounding moments
+ Very distinct and beautiful art style
+ Excellent score from SCNTFC
– Pacing seems a little ‘off’ at times