Being a teenager is hard. Especially if you’re Alex. Let’s see…your dad’s just married somebody else’s mum. You’ve just met new stepbrother Jonas which is great because your only other brother just died. But now you have to drag him along to some weird party on a deserted island. Oh yeah. And then there’s the supernatural. Welcome to the world of Oxenfree.
If you’re one of those fully grown human beings who enjoys high school dramas a little more than a fully grown human should, let’s just say you’ve come to the right place. Oxenfree puts you back a couple decades in the shoes of high school girl Alex who, by the way, rocks her green hair. Slightly awkward best friend Ren is the one who dragged you along to this overnight party in the first place. The festivities kick off the way any proper teenage party should: with “Truth or Dare”…or some version of it at least. And that’s about the only normal thing that happens.
I’m trying not to spoil too much here. So let’s just say that Edwards Island is the perfect backdrop for this game. It feels both sleepy and full of secrets. It’s the kind of place you’d want to go to on a seaside day trip, but maybe not stay overnight. One of the game’s mechanics involves the use of old technology. Projectors, tape recorders and in particular, radios. Alex brings along her old radio which, as a player, you can use because the island is said to have certain spots where you can tune into frequencies that aren’t supposed to exist. The whole thing has a bit of a “Stranger Things” vibe to it. If you’re a fan of the show, let me just say that the game probably won’t disappoint.
One of the most enjoyable things is the conversation, which flows very naturally. Characters rattle on fluidly to each other no matter what you’re doing and you really felt like you’ve stepped on to the scene of a high school drama. Dialogue options come thick and fast and generally you have a choice of three options. This is a great distraction because the game involves a lot of travel time. Running uphill, running downhill, running between places, running to find stuff. But to the game’s credit, I only noticed this about three-quarters of the way through when, for some reason, the characters stopped talking to each other and I still had a bunch of running to do. I was like, “What the heck, talk to me!” But no, they just trailed me in silence, which was creepy in its own way. Thankfully, after a certain point, the banter resumed and I stopped feeling sorry for myself.
At its very core, Oxenfree is a decision-making game. The story is somewhat on rails, but you can still make some pretty significant changes depending on your choices. These changes affect both the ending and character relationships so there’s some replayability, even if you play it all the way through. I was a bit confused by the relationship meter, which took me awhile to figure out. Faces appear in speech bubbles to signify if there’s a change in a relationship. However, it’s never clear if this change is a positive or negative one, which I would’ve liked to have known. How else am I supposed to know if it’s finally okay to make inappropriate jokes with Jonas?
Awkward relationships aside, Oxenfree borrows quite a bit from horror movie tropes. The jump scares. The thing where characters touch something instead of running away. The other thing where people decide to separate when you’re yelling, “What are you doing? Just stay together!” And I enjoyed every bit of it. It’s not a long game, but I came away feeling like I’d experienced a pretty complete story. I also kind of wanted to play again with other people. I wanted to see if they’d jump in the same places, make the same decisions or…uh…okay, get the same characters to hook up. What? It’s a game about teenagers, okay? And, I’m glad to say, a very good one at that.