I needed a few minutes to compose myself after this one. I certainly didn’t expect that going in, and I didn’t even see it coming as the connections started to click and the relationships unfolded. It might not sound like I’m even talking about a game here, but that’s because Oxenfree does something very few games manage to do. Through a combination of incredible voice acting and expert storytelling, Oxenfree connects you with the characters and makes their triumphs and failures yours.
That sounds pretty grandiose, I know, so let’s start at the beginning. Oxenfree is a side-scrolling adventure game about five high-schoolers who come to a remote island for a beach party. Edwards Island was once a naval base, and now serves as both tourist attraction and potential paranormal catastrophe. Needless to say, something terrifying gets set into motion and its up to you to guide main character Alex through the horrible night. In terms of game mechanics, there isn’t much. Every area of the island consists of linear paths and a small handful of interaction points. Alex comes equipped with a portable radio that you can tune at any time to the odd frequencies associated with the supernatural happenings of the island. The radio is used to solve several puzzles and trigger one type of collectible, but honestly I feel it could have been used more. Most of your time is going to be spent walking the island, scrambling up ledges, and searching for prompts to trigger.
What makes this so special, then, is the near-constant dialogue running over the events of the game. It is absolutely not hyperbole to say that Oxenfree features some of the best writing and voice acting in the whole of the industry. Alex and her friends are masterfully brought to life as the pithy, insecure teens they appear to be. They stammer out objections, stretch for witty retorts, and dismiss things they can’t handle with resigned Whatevers. You control much of this, of course, being giving a choice of up to three responses to most lines of dialogue, along with the unspoken option of just saying nothing. Understand that I am VERY averse to overly clever or unnatural characters, and I found myself utterly captivated by these dumb kids.
That admiration extends to the story, which is a supernatural thriller of unexpected depth. The horror elements are strong thanks to some unique mechanics to the events, as well as some incredibly well-played appearances by the forces antagonizing the Scooby gang. However, the main thrust of the plot ends up being drama between the kids, and a focus on issues of loss and remembrance that resonate all the way through to the emotional conclusion. SOMA got to me on an intellectual level but Oxenfree nailed me right in the feels, wrapping up the story with a perfect mix of sweetness and surprise.
The only complaint I really have to lodge against Oxenfree is the pacing, but it is not insignificant. Most of the game keeps you rolling with snappy conversations and plot reveals, but near the end it breaks down a bit into a backtracking challenge. You can forego the expected collect-a-thon but then you’d miss out on some significant plot points (and one avenue through the ending), so you might find yourself wandering the same maps looking for hidden gewgaws. This is also the only game I’ve ever played where the loading screens bothered me, because they’re always a shade too long and pop up at every scene transition.
Whatever complaints I can offer are easily overshadowed by the experience offered, though. I fell in love with these characters almost instantly and savored every moment of their snippy, dysfunctional lives. The art style helps make them pop, their stylized 3D models animating against the beautiful painted backdrops. More than that is the sound design, a combination of incredible effects and cues played against a rich modern synth soundtrack. The music choice is a little unusual for a thriller but it works with the focus on the kids and their issues, with horror riding shotgun. And that’s what makes Oxenfree work, having all these elements supporting the central cast and the issues that make them human and relatable above all else.