Welcome back to Backlog Busters, a column dedicated to clearing our never-ending video game backlog. After a playthrough with more jump-scares than I’m proud to admit, we’re crossing off Night School Studio’s must-play supernatural mystery, Oxenfree!
In the game you play as Alex, a teenage girl on a weekend trip to a local island. Innocent enough, right? Wrong. When she and her friends accidentally open a supernatural rift in time and space, they must unravel the secrets of the island in order to escape with their lives.
Developed by: Night School Studio
Platform: Microsoft Windows
Length: 4 hours
Dialogue-heavy gameplay redefines the meaning of choice
Over the last decade, the gaming industry has chased the ideal of a perfect choice-based game. It brings to mind lesser games like Life Is Strange, where choices feel inconsequential when every road leads to the same two endings, or Until Dawn, where seemingly inconsequential choices leads to random and infuriating outcomes. Oxenfree, on the other hand, gives players the illusion of choice while maintaining its facade masterfully.
When comparing the two games, Oxenfree is much like Life Is Strange in its limited choice of endings. However, the main difference lies in Oxenfree’s dialogue-heavy gameplay. Every five seconds of the game, expect to make a dialogue choice and make it quick. These choices can make Alex friendly and understanding, dismissive and rude, or even forgo conversations entirely. Whatever decision you make changes the way other characters respond to you.
Yet, none of these choices affects the final story. Not by much, at least. The game still leads you down a relatively linear path with a similar end, but it feels more like a unique experience because of the main character you created, and character relationships you fostered. In this aspect, Oxenfree stands out against plenty others.
An ambitious story that kicks off great, but doesn’t quite hit the mark
Weaved between its impressive dialogue system is the game’s story, which merges horror and mystery elements for a thrilling experience. There is a real sense of helplessness that arises from the dark, winding forest paths and crumbling abandoned buildings that the game places you in, and it’s hard not to feel a sinister presence following your every step; something that is only pacified slightly by your travel buddy yapping next to you.
Oxenfree showcases their skill in horror by forcing players to confront the unknown. However, repetitive puzzles and predictable scares in the second half caused the game to lose its mystery. Instead, giving way to more emotional moments between Alex and Jonas as they recounted their childhoods. The shift in tone felt disjointed — albeit pleasant — in many places, and I found myself wishing for a few more scares to up the ante.
Impeccable art & sound design that rounds out the experience
When Night School Studio founders Sean Krankel and Adam Hines sat down to plan their first game, they were determined to create a story-driven game without any cutscenes. The result is what makes Oxenfree so unique, the ability to roam around as conversations go on in the background, adding genuineness and a sense of freedom without the need of realistic graphics and first person viewpoints.
It helps that Oxenfree has a gorgeous palette of painterly environments and parallaxing backdrops. The foggy, organic aesthetic of the island, paired with the vintage analog systems and military landmarks makes the island feel frozen in time. This only amplified its contrast with the bright, geometric shapes and the scratchy synth of the supernatural elements.
Verdict: Ahead of the curve, even today
Oxenfree is a close-to-perfect example of how far immersion can go in gaming, and remains a must-play even 5 years after its initial launch. Despite its flaws, the game contains a lot of heart, intriguing choices, and scares that will have you perching on the edge of your seat.
With Night School Studio’s latest game, Afterparty, making new waves in the indie scene, it’s worth checking out where they found their roots. Not to mention, Oxenfree will be finding itself a sequel with Oxenfree II: Lost Signals coming out sometime this year.
Did we add a game to your backlog – or do you have one to add to ours? Let us know in the comments below!