Halloween is coming in just a few short weeks. Maybe where you are in the world heavily celebrates the holiday with cute, cheery decorations and adorable ghouls and ghosts. Maybe your neck of the woods is the insane gore personality where it’s not Halloween unless someone is screaming and traumatized because they thought the prop dead body on your lawn is real. And maybe you’re somewhere in between, with enough bumps to make you jump, but not actual terror to leave you with bile in your mouth. A good ghost story can be told again and again, not because it’s scary, but because it’s well crafted. And a tale that has multiple versions only means that it’s good enough to be heard from many ears.
Oxenfree is a curious and unique story about what happens when old and new friends go for a beach excursion in the dead of night and end up tangling with forces they couldn’t possibly fathom or imagine. Throughout the course of the evening, Alex (our main heroine) finds that she can communicate, to some degree, with the spirits who may be “haunting” the island, and uses an old radio to solve mysteries and unravel secrets. Only time will tell if Alex can truly get to the bottom of what is happening, or if the teenagers stuck here, alone with the true ending/explanation, will simply vanish with the rising sun.
Oxenfree is described as a graphical mystery adventure, and I suppose the label works well. Had the tale of Oxenfree been put into another’s hands, I could easily see it splintering into either a full on visual novel or going total survival horror. Instead, Night School Studio gives it a real finesse in walking a line of gaming that helps deliver this style of story in a really accomplished way. For example, the pacing of the game is incredibly important: for Alex to fully understand the mysteries around her, there’s a lot of exploration and back tracking. The need to actually walk around also allows the player to help control the narrative a bit. When you enter some areas with certain characters in tow, dialogue gets triggered, and you can choose to stop moving and drink in everything that’s being said (and respond in turn) or simply walk into the next area, very akin to walking out of a conversation that you don’t want to be a part of. The walking also allows you to explore the land a bit and comment on various items, as well as search for hidden items that help expand on the mystery of the island a bit more. I know I keep talking about “the mystery” in a vague way, but I was properly surprised the first time I played Oxenfree, and I don’t care that the game has been out for a year on nearly every other console, this could be the first for many people.
One thing that really carries Oxenfree is the writing. The interactions between characters, even the choices that Alex is given to respond in turn, feel incredibly natural and really well thought out. You can seriously imagine the conversations that Ren, Jonas and Nona posit taking place (but not Clarissa, because I couldn’t stand interacting with her longer than I had to). It also helps to make the game more compelling in terms of replay value, because the different reactions, much like visual novels, lead to different forks in the way the story unfolds, but not necessarily the core story.
As much as Oxenfree is a story about ghosts and spirits, it’s equally a “coming of age” story about Alex and the people she’s chosen to surround themselves with. As you very quickly learn, Alex and Jonas have now been thrust together as step siblings after tragedies on both sides of the families create this new and awkward alliance. Everyone has been affected in some way, and Alex really has no idea how to deal with her inner turmoil, which manifests itself in several very interesting ways. Oxenfree gives the impression that the spirits you encounter are feeding and reacting directly to the poltergeist energy that these teens are pouring out, and Alex is at the epicenter of it all. I really felt for her, and the voice actors and actresses did an amazing job of matching deliveries to the script that was written. I did understand a bit more about Clarissa’s demeanor after I found how the tragedy affected her, but I still don’t excuse overly catty behavior for the sake of being a jerk.
Audio does play a huge part in Oxfenfree, so I recommend to carry headphones with you or at least be able to play with the sound up, because it’s worthwhile to not miss a thing. The aforementioned old radio has a good mix of weirdly appropriate old stations that can be tuned into, and is also super important to unlock the “true” ending of the game. There’s a lot of ambient sound and music that comes into play, and the way the spirits communicate through the radio is an utterly eerie effect of mashing together audio clips from other broadcasts. The first time I actually heard the spirit speak “Oxenfree,” I got a massive shiver up my spine.
This is the part, however, where some horror game fans may balk. As intense as the atmosphere is and as scary as things get, there’s no combat or need to protect yourself in Oxfenfree. You are never in any danger that can’t be worked through. I think the horror genre has become equivocal to the survival aspect, and that’s not necessarily at play here in Oxenfree. In fact, the multiple endings all center around you getting off the island, just with whom and in what state of mind are ultimately the deciding variants. If you become truly engaged with the cast here, then it’s incredibly worthwhile to see how each of the endings affects the crew overall, with some being heartbreaking and some being almost too sweet for words.This level of replay value adds up to hours and hours of gaming.
Oxenfree has landed on the Switch at the perfect time. There’s a change in the seasons and a frost developing, and ghost stories are already being passed around in whispers between children and adults alike. This story, a story which tells itself, is one of terror, awe, loss and redemption. It’s not a traditional ghost story, but it’s one that deserves to be told to any who’re willing to hear it. Sure, you can buy Oxenfree on your phone or tablet, but this is a game, first and foremost, and games play best on a gaming system. Skip going to the godawful remake of Flatliners and get yourself a real fright for this Friday night.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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