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Oxenfree Review - Terrifying and wonderful

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Fear is often created from the threads of ignorance. Yet, familiarity itself is no immediate cure for the perpetuation of horror: we can, after all, simply come to absorb the things that hurt us.

Oxenfree, the debut game from indie developer Night School Studio, is about pain, forgiveness, anger and being haunted by ghosts; it’s at once a horror story about high school teens and yet also the fear of adulthood; it’s about an island overshadowed by history and one that refuses to look to the future; it’s at once a gorgeous 2D platformer, but also a so-called “walking simulator”, punctuated by simple interaction - more interested in story and characters, than puzzle challenges and twitch responses; and finally a wonderful horror title.

When I first looked at Oxenfree on Xbox One (it’s also out on PC), it’s art design reminded me of a children’s book: watercolor backgrounds, somewhat faded, lush colours and young people. It’s incredible when you realise that this was made on the Unity engine, showing the creators’ talents: Any still image looks like it could come from a popular children’s author. The characters are small, giving you a heavy focus on the lovely background and constantly conveying a sense you’re looking at space - rather than a character-focused stage.

You play Alex, a blue-haired teen who seems to like old gadgets and gets high grades in school. She’s not shy or introverted, but incredibly brave and seems genuinely humorous and upbeat; she has a best friend, who is a dude (who isn’t an unnecessary, forced love interest but is afraid of everything); and a stepbrother who she’s just met. The three are travelling to a nearby island that was once a military base, that’s now a small seaside tourist attraction. Here the kids are meeting for some kind of annual party.

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Alex’s new step-brother, Jonas, allows us to learn more about the people and the island, due to his just meeting all these characters. It’s an interesting choice, since the creators could’ve easily had us play as Jonas. Alex, however, is more interesting and has a backstory that carries so much emotional weight, that is revealed as you play. It should also be noted that the characters are diverse and the character that needs the most saving is your nerdy male friend.

The game is rather simple and has a few controls. Primarily, it’s about movement, from one end of the screen to the other; you also have access to a map and a radio. And that’s about it. But don’t let it fool you with its simplicity: For me, this is almost a 2d Silent Hill. Your character is unprepared and yet expected to deal with horrific and powerful events and entities; terror is everywhere; forces want you to move forward but also fail. You feel like a pinball in a terrifying machine, battered by supernatural forces. This is epitome of Silent Hill-type experience.

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Similar to Silent Hill, the stunning environment plays with light and shadow - and yet what makes the game for me is the extraordinary sound design. There’s a heavy focus on old school radio and tapes; the game plays with rewinds, and older players might recognise VCR tearing done beautifully at the edges of the screen. The music direction, too, is magnificent: reminding me of a slow, more melancholic version of Hotline Miami’s soundtrack: Think electro, minor keys, and drawn out beats.

The game doesn’t provide too much detail on its fictional time-period: meaning this could easily fit into a nineties-themed horror film or a contemporary one. Alex’s radio is old school but there’s little talk of the technology they’re used to. The island itself, as Alex says, has technology that’s both old timey and yet futuristic. This isolation from time is a central theme of the game, representing the island itself - cut off from the outside world that, we assume, carries on marching forward.

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The game is a decent length, probably between four to six hours depending, and can be completed in probably two fairly serious sittings - considering it’s made by a tiny team. Yet, within that small amount of time, there is a great deal of story and experience.

What surprised me was that, despite being a cute game, it has moments of genuine terror that trampled even The Evil Within. There are a few jump scares, but it’s how the game balances terrifying environments and, mainly, it’s menacing sounds: radio static is alway scary, especially when there’s a sense of vague meaning behind them. Think the repetition of strange numbers or songs from radio stations that have long not existed.  

Often, a solution to a puzzle involves using the radio - when Alex takes it out, the ambient music stops and the focus becomes the static as you scroll. Scroll around and you’ll hit strange messages, Morse code, perhaps a radio play that’s long been off the airs. It’s terrifying navigating the static equivalent of a dark hallway to find that one tiny fragment of light that will help solve the current puzzle - but the game constantly sets you up for it.

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Oxenfree has one of my favourite stories I’ve encountered in games and to even describe vaguely what occurs after the kids reach the island would spoil it; there are different outcomes (there’s a rating system, similar to The Walking Dead, showing how many others made the same choices you did); there is character development and fallout.

Despite its magnificent story, I struggled to really connect with the characters - even Alex. That’s not to say her emotional journey didn’t resonate - indeed, I sobbed about three times. But given that she’s a blank slate, it’s hard to say who she is. Characters often talk about Things that She Did - but Alex rarely shows fear or any emotional reaction to the events that made me think she was there. She’s very much a player avatar - reacting how I would, not how a character would.

The other characters unfortunately come too close to stereotypes: the nerdy dopehead, the nerdy girl he’s in love with, the popular Mean Girl. To the game’s credit, it attempts depth to all of these characters: going so far as to explain why the Mean Girl is Mean, for example. All of it is linked and feels grounded, including how characters confront their issues with each other and resolve them later.

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The writing and voice direction is often excellent - sometimes unbelievably realistic in capturing how people speak. Think stumbling over words, repeating yourself, making bad jokes. It didn’t feel like recorded lines so much as natural responses to conversation - it’s a pity though that so little was placed on conveying terror and a sense of confusion. This is why I struggled to really connect with the characters: despite having great dialogue, I didn’t often feel like they were that surprised or shocked by their situation.

The game also has loading screens galore, some of which can be long. It also has strict paths through its stages, which can be frustrating if you want to explore because you could reach a point, find nothing and have to backtrack - indeed, the game discourages exploration, since there’s little to see beyond what falls in your path. (There is a map, but it can be sometimes unhelpful, since it doesn’t show paths only directions). I recommend finding the fastest way through areas - backtracking is never fun.

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In the end though, this matters little to the wonderful experience of playing the game through.

Not only does it contain one of the best stories - remaining mysterious all the way through - but it’s well-written, beautiful to look at, terrifying and wonderful to listen to, and slots perfectly into the recent young adult-themed adventure games that appear to be making heavy strides (Until Dawn, Life is Strange, etc.). It’s not very long and makes for a welcome focus amidst the overtly bloated, unending games we’ve been surrounded by for some time. If Oxenfree is Night School Studio’s debut title, I can’t wait to see what these talented folks create next.

Tauriq: Twitter / MWEB GameZone: Twitter | Facebook

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