I first played OXENFREE at last year’s IndieCade, and I’ve been dying to get my paws back on it ever since. The first game from fledgling Night School Studios was full of wonder and charm, even for the brief demo I played at that convention. The union of familiar, supernatural teen movie elements with some truly innovative game design meant that I was instantly hooked. Today marks OXENFREE’s release and I’m happy to say the same level of enchantment from that sample is back in full force.
You play as Alex, a girl still reeling from her brother Michael’s death last year. The tragedy split her parents apart and now she is trying to move on by getting to know her new step-brother, Jonas. The pair decide to go to a kegger on Edwards Island, an abandoned military outpost, along with stoner Ren, quiet Nona, and bitchy Clarissa, who also happens to be Michael’s ex-girlfriend. The party is pretty dead, but things really get hopping when Alex accidentally summons extradimensional beings with her portable radio, teleporting the group across the island. Now it’s up to Alex to get the gang back together and get the Hell out of Dodge before anything worse can happen.
But not before slamming a few brewskis first
On paper, OXENFREE sounds like an old school horror film and it certainly plays out like one. Not like FRIDAY THE 13th or HALLOWEEN, mind you, where blood and gore carry the day, but rather along the lines of IT FOLLOWS, SUPER 8, or childhood episodes of ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK?, where the threat of the unknown pulls the cast closer together. More haunting than scary, the main attraction here is the relationships between the five teens, rather than the supernatural mystery or the malevolent entities out to get them.
You’ll spend most of OXENFREE conversing with your friends, learning more about them depending on who you choose to spend your time with, and you’ll discover that there is more to each than meets the eye. Finding out what is weighing on each of your pals and helping them overcome their issues is incredibly satisfying. Due to the limited runtime of around five hours, several playthroughs will be required to hear all there is to be said, as well as to see all of the endings.
And it’s this mountain of dialogue, and the way it’s implemented, that really takes the cake. Where just about any other speech-driven game cuts to a cinematic or otherwise stops the action when characters talk, OXENFREE’s conversations happen real time, with time and context sensitive prompts that appear as you plod along as Alex. Players can cut other characters’ sentences off with interruptions and can have the same done to them. Alex and company will stop mid-sentence if something catches their attention, only to pick the topic back up afterwards. This seamless mesh of speech and gameplay makes the already natural sounding dialogue even more immersive. Unlike the howler-filled LIFE IS STRANGE, OXENFREE is all but free of embarrassing teen-speak, with the few alternative expletives due more to the game’s Teen rating than any weakness in the script.
“Sadface! I hella wanted to watch an awesomesauce movie, not go hiking!”
As made abundantly clear through the above screenshots, OXENFREE sports a charming art style with cartoon-like characters on hand drawn 2D backgrounds. The camera is constantly pulled back to paint a panoramic picture, meaning that character voices, not faces, do all the, er, talking. Additionally, the game sounds as good as it looks. Voicework is all grounded and totally believable, an achievement with teenage characters, and the soundtrack kicks ass, infusing the set pieces with atmospheres of mischief, adventure, and mystery. Play with your radio and you’ll come across music stations, old radio soaps, morse code, and ethereal wailing.
The only HUD cues aside from interaction prompts are color coded speech bubbles that indicate whose mouth is running, as well as your own retort options. Without the intrusive notifications seen in OXENFREE’s contemporaries (“Clementine will remember that,” “This choice will have consequences”), it’s easy to forget that this is a game that you’re playing.
That being said, it’s the few gamey elements that are here that can ruin the action. There are no puzzles to be solved save for certain devices and anomalies that react to particular radio frequencies. Surfing the waves for the right number is too easy to rate a challenge, but is just tedious enough to quickly feel like a chore. The game’s backstory, though dark and intriguing, is delivered via a scavenger hunt for hidden notes. This optional quest pops up over halfway through the game, and if backtracking across the island wasn’t bad enough, the detour ruins the otherwise perfect pacing. These tired errands, coupled with the occasional confusion on where to go next, means that OXENFREE is susceptible to lulls.
Search all you want, you’ll find no Death Grips on this radio
OXENFREE tugged at my heartstrings like few games manage to do, with characters that grew quicker on me than in just about anything else. It’s unfortunate that it stumbles so close to the end, but despite these issues, it is still able to mesmerize. OXENFREE is quite unlike anything I have played before, and I eagerly look forward to where its ideas will be taken next. Unlike Alex and friends, this is a nighttime romp you won’t regret.
Reviewed on PC, also available on Xbox One