Tuning in to Oxenfree

The last ferry arrives to Edwards Island.
As dusk sets in, a small group of high school seniors gather around a bonfire for a night of partying before life takes them their separate ways.
But all is not as it seems on this island…

 

 

 

One last night of partying on a supposedly empty island. A chance to kick back, drink, play Truth or Slap, and maybe connect with that crush you’ve secretly had for a while. But something on the island has other plans. Playing as Alex, you explore this decommissioned military base, and uncover some restless mysteries.

 

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Your childhood friend Ren describes the island on the long ferry ride over.  Once a shortwave radio listening post back in World War 2, the island is now uninhabited except for one old woman, and a small tourist shopping area open during the daytime. On the ferry with Alex and Ren is Alex’s new stepbrother, Jonas. Although her stepbrother, he is mostly a stranger, having just moved in with Alex when her father remarried. You will spend a large portion of the game exploring the island with Jonas, and constantly looming between them is the reason that Alex’s original parents broke up; the drowning of her natural brother, Michael.

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On the island, this group of three meets up with the last two characters, Nona, who Ren secretly has a crush on, and Clarissa, who was Micheal’s girlfriend and resents Alex, and may even blame her for his death.

The writers at Night School Studios, formerly from Telltale and Disney, along with some terrific voice acting create a cast of characters that are very believable, with various tensions informing the dialogue between them. Jonas wants to make friends with his new sister, Ren wants to impress Nona, and Clarissa, well she’s just kind of mean.

This rich characterization strengthens the best part of this game, the dialogue. As you are walking and exploring the island, the characters are almost always talking. A colored speech bubble forms over the character speaking, and when it is Alex’s turn, two or three choices mapped to the top three controller buttons appear above her. You must choose quickly, as in real conversation, or she will say nothing. Conversation flows very naturally because of this mechanic. Alex can interrupt another character, climb a rock as she speaks, and it all flows and feels very dynamic. Although Bioware, Bethesda, and Telltale were pioneers in branching conversations, their interfaces feel clunky compared to Oxenfree’s smooth natural conversations.

As you wander the island and interact with objects, you will find supernatural anomalies. Many of these are unlocked by tuning Alex’s radio, which is quickly accessed by the controller’s shoulder button. The island is supposed to be out of range of any normal transmissions, but you will quickly learn that there is not empty dead air as you spin the tuning dial. Tuning the dial as you are walking gives you something else to do as you explore the island, and since you visit every area at least twice, it gives the game a fresh reason to do so.

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In between the frequencies that unlock secrets, there are also great creepy snippets of old songs or news transmissions that give great flavor to the time period of the island’s mystery. I don’t want to spoil the mystery of the game, since the game is about five hours long, but I will say that it is eerie and spooky more than frightening jump scare type material. The world around you will warp around you, as the transmissions are tuned in, and the radio is the key for the puzzles you come across. Here’s a small taste of what is in store for you:

The whimsical art style suits the game’s exploration of the island and dialogue between characters, yet still manages to be effective in the scary parts.  Between dialogue and radio transmissions, Oxenfree also features a fantastically haunting soundtrack by scntfc.

VERDICT

Highly Recommended (with qualifiers)
If you feel you would enjoy a game that mixes 80’s movies like Goonies, Stand By Me and Poltergeist, enjoy a good story and rich characterization, I highly recommend this game. If you like a lot of action in your games, or don’t appreciate games with short length, you may want to pass on this title.

Oxenfree released on Xbox One and Steam January 14-15 2016

A review copy of Oxenfree was not provided.

As always, you can hear my thoughts on this and other games on the Plug and Play podcast.