Oxenfree is an unsettling game.
The word "unsettling" can be used to imply many things though, so we can't just leave the review there. Nonetheless, that doesn't mean that we'll come up with a more fitting descriptor by the time we reach the conclusion. In order to bolster our attempt though, we'd best provide an overview of the game as a whole.
You play as Alex, a blue-haired girl who heads off on a party quest with her close friends Ren and Nona, her new step-brother Jonas, and Clarissa, who's the ex-beau of Alex's deceased brother Mike. They jump on the last ferry to an island with a cooler of beers in tow, hoping to chill out on the beach with a campfire, drinking and being merry until the sun comes up. However, close to where they've decided to lay their hats for the duration, is a cave. Legend has it that if you have a radio to hand in the vicinity of the rockpiles near the cave, you can tune to some spooky stations that otherwise don't exist. Naturally, Alex takes out her portable radio and tries exactly that. Then it all goes a little bit pear-shaped.
From there, we'll try not to spoil the story too much.
Oxenfree is a 2D adventure (more or less) where you're given direct control of the main character. Conversation is very much the focus, with the story being fleshed out through discussion and your responses at key moments. Rather than breaking into the gameplay, choices for Alex's responses appear above her head whilst other people are talking and are mapped to the X, Y, and B buttons on the controller and more often than not, pressing a button will get her to instantly jump in and roll all over whatever someone else was saying. The choices disappear after a short amount of time though, so you do have the option of not saying anything at all and letting the cast of other characters talk things through without your input. Of course, your responses do influence the ways in which the story plays out over time, so paying attention and making careful decisions is the order of the day.
There are issues with this system. Over the course of your playing time, there are many instances where you'll want to listen to what somebody is saying, but also want to respond with one of the options that has appeared. If you take the time to listen to them, your choices fade into nothing and you lose the opportunity to say anything. If you press a button to say what you want to, the other person stops talking so you miss what they're saying. Sometimes, Alex will politely wait until the end of the other person's sentence, but you're never sure as to whether or not that will be the case. It's a minor frustration, but a frustration all the same. Fortunately, when this does occur, there's a lot more conversation just around the corner, so you'll forget the inconvenience pretty quickly.
In terms of traditional gameplay, Oxenfree is somewhat light. A run through clocks in at around four hours and during that time, you probably won't have been taxed all that much. Aside from stopping to tune a radio when an object or door requires you to do so – and these points are relatively obvious – you feel almost as if you're on a conveyor belt. The conversations do introduce alternative options as to the order in which you approach things, but the game as a whole is still a case of heading to one point, tuning a radio, taking part in a conversation, heading to the next point, more tuning, then another conversation, repeating until the game is over with only relatively minor deviations from that path. An optional scavenger hunt to find some letters is available, but it is exactly that – optional.
But the gameplay was never going to be the focus. This is a heavily narrative-based game for sure, and there's gameplay to be had within the conversations that occur between the stranded friends. Oxenfree does a great job of baiting the hook and drawing you in to the story as a whole, using a whole host of techniques. The most immediately obvious are the paranormal effects that come into play. You'll be asking yourself if what just happened was related to something that happened earlier. You'll find yourself trying to put the pieces together in your mind and not being able to without assistance from the other characters. Not only that, but due to the number of jump scares and paranormal occurrences that take place, you'll find yourself mistrusting the game. What should be a nice walk down a serene-looking pathway turns you into a nervous wreck as you edge along, wondering when the next "event" will occur, your heart pounding all the way along. Rather than constantly trying to freak you out, the beautiful art style and fantastic soundtrack do a great job of settling you back in after a scare, but not to the point that you're ever sure of what's going to happen next. This keeps tensions high through what is a gripping and compelling story. At one point, you may find yourself – as we did – shouting at the screen as the game takes a turn towards the dark.
Without a doubt, there's depth and darkness here and it's the sort of depth that you won't reach if you just rush through to get to the final credits. Take your time (as much as you can at least, what with the limitations of the conversation system) and listen to what's being said, and you'll get a lot from the game. Repeated plays are rewarding too, since Oxenfree does a good job of hiding a few secrets from you on the first go round. You will have to suffer through a number of crashes though, sadly. On no less than four occasions during our first five-hour playthrough, the game decided to drop away to the dashboard. On the very last word of the game in fact, we were unceremoniously booted out to the dash, only to find that we had to play through the last twenty minutes again when we had fired it back up. That's not great, but the fact that you will fire it right back up and jump in again is testament to the quality of what's on offer.
Oxenfree is truly unlike any other experience that you can pick up for the Xbox One right now. While it isn't heavy on gameplay, the narrative and aesthetics really build a superb atmosphere and give a great sense of weight to proceedings. It doesn't necessarily score a direct hit with every story beat and we could definitely live without the crashes. There's also an argument to be made that at around four or five hours, the game is a tad short in the grand scheme of things. It feels shorter still when you pick up the controller to make a quick bit of progress late in the evening, then find yourself staring at the rolling credits at 3am with all the lights on because something just doesn't feel right.
As we said, Oxenfree is an unsettling game.