Certain things play well in dealing with ghostly tales—teenagers, a deserted island, and a staticky radio all fit nicely into the category. Add some temporal rifts in to mess with the protagonists’ heads and you have the recipe for something quite spooky indeed.
Such is the premise of Oxenfree, the debut game from Night School Studio, a developer made up of alumni from Telltale and Disney. And what a debut it is, giving us likeable and well voiced characters playing out against stylized painted environments on a 2.5 dimensional plane and an interesting story that has branching dialogue to lead us to multiple endings. It’s not a perfect home run, but it’s close and delivers quite effectively.
The game focuses on five friends—Alex, a spunky blue haired girl; her friend, Ren; her step brother, Jonas; the less upbeat Nona; and Clarissa, former girlfriend of Alex’s deceased brother, Michael. The five hop a ferry over to Edwards Island for an annual beach party. To their dismay they find they are the only five who have shown up, but decide to make the best of it. Ren has Alex bring a small radio along, as certain areas of the island seem to tune into mysterious transmissions, according to local folklore.
After entering a cave, Alex tunes into something, and that something opens a rift in time and space, allowing for some unusual and spooky events to happen. The teens need to solve the mystery and try to escape the island with their lives and sanity intact. It’s a story we’ve seen before but it is well told, unfolding as the teens explore the island and its forests, town, and abandoned military facility.
It helps that the characters are fairly likeable, though some may exasperate some players more than others. The game does a nice job of defining each character as things progress through conversations they have with Alex. You’ll have a choice most times of two or three responses from Alex (I played the game on the Xbox One, so for me the answers were keyed to the X, Y, and B buttons), but you do need to choose quickly or Alex won’t respond at all (which, of course, is another viable option).
How Alex interacts with the others alters how they feel towards her and in return affects how the game unfolds and ends. You’ll also get onscreen prompts for objects to interact with (using the A button), with LT bringing up your map so you see where you need to go. The radio is activated by RT, and the right stick is moved from side to side to tune in the stations.
You’ll hear interesting snippets as you move through the dial, picking up old cartoons, music, and voices. There are twelve anomalies to be found on the island that give you further insight, and the radio is also cleverly used to activate door locks. The static does give things a creepy vibe (sort of like Silent Hill, but without the perpetual fog and demonic creatures).
And you’ll need to pay attention to those voices you tune in, as often they offer clues to puzzles and how to proceed. The game does do certain things to mess with your head. I won’t spoil them here, but they are clever and offer up some nice surprises.
Gameplay is relatively simple, consisting mainly of using the left stick for walking and climbing along with the A button to jump. Character movement isn’t very fast, which can make exploration a little slow, something that may exasperate some players. On the plus side, it’s during these walks that we get plenty of conversation between the characters, which fleshes out their personalities.
The time slips also add another layer into the game, where in certain sections you’ll repeat actions, though there are subtle changes—a fire appears where there was none before or lights turn themselves on. These slips highlight the spook factor, and allow you to react in different ways. They do throw off the pacing a bit, however, especially towards the end of the game when there seems to be an urgency to complete something yet the game holds you back from doing what needs to be done.
The reasons for the slips do add to the story, so the effect on my enjoyment wasn’t marred too much, though it would’ve been nice to have the choice to skip the temporal events and just get on with things. At least they were made to mean something to the overall story and spoke to the character of each of the teens, making them worthwhile to experience. Still, for some this will prove to be a sticking point.
The game is also not very long. My first playthrough took me around 4.5 hours. Exploring every nook and cranny could expand that to maybe 5 or 6 hours of gameplay, while others may speed through things in less time. The game does have replayability with its multiple endings, so that should help some get their twenty bucks worth. Others less sure may want to wait for a sale or price drop.
On the technical side the game ran pretty smoothly on the Xbox One, though it did freeze on me at one point and boot me out of the game to the Xbox’s home screen. It only happened to me once, but others have reported multiple occurrences.
In all, Oxenfree delivers an engaging funny, at times sweet, and at other times spooky story of five teens dealing with supernatural events. Its simple gameplay makes it very accessible and dialogue options allow for multiple playthroughs and endings. The painted environments are quite pretty to look at, and the game makes good use of its musical score.
Some pacing issues late in the game and the odd technical hiccup hold it back a little, but still it makes for an impressive debut for Night School Studio. It makes a worthy addition on your Xbox One or PC, and it is set to be released on the PS4 at a future date. Oxenfree proves to be an enjoyable game of ghosts and time trips, and while it won’t be to everyone’s taste, those who enjoy narrative driven experiences should be well pleased with their purchase.