As we close in on October 31, AiPT! will be reviewing and recommending various pieces of underappreciated scary media-books, comics, movies, and television-to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.
Indie horror games have become increasingly popular over the past few years. A quick peek at the Playstation Store proves there is no shortage of titles intended to scare those brave enough to play them. Unfortunately, many of these games fail to entertain. For every Outlast there are more Layers of Fear. Oxenfree from Night School Studio is an engaging game that will impress anyone who plays it.
Oxenfree is set on a lonely island and takes place in one night. You play as Alex, a high school student who has come to Edwards Island with a group of her friends to have a weekend party. As the group settles in for their night of debauchery, the island’s secrets decide they want to have some fun too.
In my recent review for the survival horror game, Claire, I wrote that the great setting and character were essentially wasted due to horrible gameplay and that the whole experience would have been better suited as a “walking simulator.” Oxenfree is what happens when a great story and characters come together with perfect gameplay.
Oxenfree requires less action than many adventure games. There are no battles, for example. But I never once thought of the games as merely a “walking sim”. As soon as the game started, the player is part of Oxenfree’s world.
The game seems simple at first. As Alex you are free to walk around and talk with your friends. The game does not include any cutscenes and word bubbles appear over Alex’s head when you have a choice to make. This is the first way the game keeps the player engaged. Oxenfree is filled with conversations that require the player to answer. However, there are no inane discussions. Everything that happens is part of the vast world building of Night School Studio.
The writing is the glue that keeps the game together. Conversations are easy since there are not good, bad, or indifferent choices. Instead, you have a free flowing back and forth or you can choose to remain silent. Everything you say (or don’t) has some sort of effect on the which of the game’s endings you receive. On my playthrough, I made every conversation choice I would in real life. I even got all my friends off the island safely. Yet, the epilogue made it clear that I had somehow alienated everyone.
And that is where the true genius in Oxenfree lies. It is common in video games to make a decision just to realize it is not really the one you wanted. You reload a previous save and continue the game, this time making sure to make the right choice. However, while playing Oxenfree I was also thinking of what I would do during my next run. I never wanted to redo specific parts; I wanted to replay the whole thing.
The voice acting adds to the game’s immersion. Oxenfree was obviously inspired by teen movies, and the cast is familiar without ever becoming annoying. Erin Yvette (Alex) and Gavin Hammon (Jonas) get a bulk of the lines and have great chemistry together. Aaron Kuban also has great moments as Ren. One of the reasons Oxenfree is so easy to play is it sounds like you are having real conversations with real people.The game’s atmosphere is perfect for its difficult to follow plot. Graphics consist of 3D characters moving against 2D backgrounds. The camera zooms in and out make sure the player is always aware. During the moments when you are not moving, the screen seems to be swaying slightly. The game is never really dark and ominous but is definitely filled with a constant sense of tension and regret.
scntfc does the music for the game. It is a great complement to the supernatural happenings of the night. Much like the story, the music is never so much scary as it is anxious. Even during the music’s lighter moments that convey exploration and curiosity there is an underlying tone that something just is not right.
Oxenfree is a great game that is held together by an engaging story and interesting characters. The plot can be hard to follow (ghosts? time travel? government conspiracy?) and the map is more aesthetic than functional, but the characters in Oxenfree are worth spending some time with.