Tuesday, April 19, 2016


   Indie games have been killing it lately, in the best way possible of course. Firewatch blew me away, and so did a handful of other games which included Anatomy and The Static Speaks My Name. Of course, Anatomy and TSSMN are both straight up horror, and Firewatch is an intensely dramatic mystery. The game I'm reviewing right now is a timely blend of both. The style of Oxenfree might look like art from a YA novel, but the themes running through the game are often much darker than that comparison would allow. But, don't get me wrong, the game is not some gritty survival thriller- despite being trapped on an abandoned and potentially haunted island... the biggest theme of all in Oxenfree... is friendship.

   You play as Alex, a young woman with some troubled waters behind her, and hopefully a peaceful evening of fun and adventure ahead of her, as her best friend drags her, and her new step brother along to Edward Island, for their annual 'beach bash'. This time however, harmless fooling around with eerie radio frequencies in an even eerier cave leads Alex to accidentally open a dimensional gateway- unleashing... something on the island. The game only gets weirder from there, letting players explore this creepy island, and at times even explore the pasts of the main characters. Oxenfree places equal importance on it's ghostly scares and it's character drama. A rare but outstanding balance that I didn't expect from this game.

   I was surprised at how invested I became and how well written most of these characters were. Of a cast of roughly... five characters? At least three were very well developed, with two of those three being the most realistic and engaging out of the bunch. This was an ensemble story, in stark contrast to the also-awesome Firewatch, which was more or less, a one-man show. Oxenfree is in someways similar- having a big wilderness to explore, and only one or two items to help you achieve your goals. Which in this case is a radio and a map (again, not unlike Firewatch). On the other hand, while Firewatch was content to just about reduce the player to the role of... active observer? Oxenfree gives you legitimate choices that shape your relationship with the other characters, and even the outcome of the game.

   This is never more evident than in the dialog system. Some people might dislike it because of the summed up multiple choice options being occasionally misleading, and the incredibly short amount of time you have to pick a response... but silence in Oxenfree can be just as powerful as any reply. I could choose to simply not say anything, and the other character would react to my silence instead of abruptly letting the conversation go dead. This made me feel like I was actually participating and making decisions, rather than just moving things along. Ergo, when you're more invested in the characters you're more likely to give a damn when something dire could potentially happen to them.

   Anyways, while I loved the characters (most of them) and I dug the dialog, and the stories the game was telling, I found the gameplay to be a bit over-repetitive. And, no that's redundant. I have a point to make, which leads me to another Firewatch comparison. Firewatch is often labeled a 'walking sim', and whatever, okay, but while the gameplay was a bit tedious and a bit repetitive it fell within acceptable limits. That game was played in sections, labeled 'days'. Sometimes a tedious hike back across miles of overly familiar (or not at all familiar) terrain was often spared by the day simply coming to an end and the game would move you on to the next important piece of the story.

   Oxenfree NEEDED something like this. Most of the walking around in the game is tedious backtracking with no form of shortcut available. If you're lucky, the game might cut to a cinematic, which when it's over, you just might be a little nearer to your destination. There's no 'sprint' key in the game, and it's a game full of hills, slopes, and climbing- all of which are slow actions. Sure, sometimes it's no bother because you're conversing with another character while you travel, other times... ugh. It's just exhausting. The overall map of the game is big, but also kind of small. Each location is spread far apart, but often by nothing more than needlessly long walkways which are so constrictive to your movement, the game might as well be a sidescroller. Who needs anything more than two dimensions amirite?

   Furthermore, the majority of the puzzles in the game are solved not with your intellect, but by something as simple as spinning a dial. Which, while the concept behind the actual mechanic is admittedly cool, the game- again, never offers a shortcut. Tuning in to a correct frequency becomes nothing but a test of patience, like the walking, climbing, and all the rest of the mechanics comprising the core gameplay. Also, the game is never show-stoppingly gorgeous like Firewatch. The atmosphere and the story made me extremely curious to see what's next in Oxenfree, but when it's just backtracking and long walking paths... the game loses out to Firewatch, lacking the stunning visuals that kept me wanting to explore just for the sake of simply seeing more.

   I don't mean to slam Oxenfree, I personally found it to be exceptionally engaging and inclusive of a few gameplay elements that Firewatch was sorely lacking. And while Oxenfree might not be visually stunning in the same way that Firewatch was, it's still a beautiful looking game in it's own right. The production company behind it, Night School studio, is full of people who used to work for Disney and Blue Sky studios. Which makes sense. Oxenfree is visually unique and stylish and the chosen style works for the story they're telling. I never once stopped to think, hey this would be a better game if the perspective or style was different. I loved it as is.

   And speaking of things the game got right, it definitely knows how to be creepy. It generates rich atmosphere and raw suspense when necessary. I was genuinely surprised by how serious, dark, and unsettling some elements of the game were. I could ramble on for another four paragraphs, but I'll spare you- the reader - and start wrapping things up. The game is good. Really good. I liked it and it has a surprising amount of replay value that might not be apparent at first. This is due to choice- a crucial element in games like this that ever hope to have replay value, something that Firewatch really lacked. Ultimately, I loved Oxenfree. It's a mysterious little sci-fi game that's as emotional and engrossing as it is creepy and chilling. It's moment-to-moment gameplay might come up dry if you play through it all in one sitting (like I did) but I never felt once like it wasn't worth it.

   Fully recommended.

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