Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Oxenfree (2016) Game Review - NO SPOILERS!


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Only recently have I started playing indie games as opposed to traditional mainstream games like Fallout and Grand Theft Auto, just to try something a bit different. With less of a budget, fewer people, and with less expectations about what the game should be or who it should appeal to, the games indie companies develop and release are obviously worlds apart from mainstream games. Instead of talking more widely about the differences between the two, though it would be interesting another time, I’ll focus more specifically on Oxenfree, a new 2016 adventure game that was a pretty amazing surprise, for being so understated and quiet. The game popped up a few times for me in “New Games” lists or “2016 Games” and after seeing its icon so much I felt I needed to look into it some more. The reviews are overwhelmingly positive on most well-known games review sites, and the screenshots portrayed the game as well made. The trailers I saw, without saying too much, featured an attempted suicide and some trippy graphics that got me really interested. I had no option, I had to download it.

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I got it for Xbox One and though I could be wrong, I feel like the game was designed with console in mind. There are a few tasks within the game that aren’t hard but they are quite satisfying (to wind tape players with both analogue sticks at the right pace to get the song playing properly). It’s a sort of platform set up, but with a bit more freedom than that to shift around the roads a bit left and right, and to climb up and down, so the game doesn’t feel so restrictive. The geography of the game, though well planned out and realistic to the point of seeming like it was based on the blueprint of a real island, was ultimately just too confusing for me. It was ridiculously hard to get a grasp on the layout, how to get from A to B without first visiting C, E, F and G. This is alluded to in the dialogue as a joke about the island being confusing though, so I have to assume it was a conscious decision like The Shining, or something. Regardless of that the scenery is seriously beautiful and it’s a joy to explore. Some of the graphics are pretty magical and it every aspect works in harmony to brilliantly unify the whole experience of the Oxenfree.

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The map itself was an interesting idea. It didn’t help much, but it looked good and kept you on track with where you had to try and find, but it was also glitchy at times. The bugs are what really annoyed me; there were only a few but they were big enough to be distracting and take you out of the zone. For instance the first mission you have to choose between two people. You choose. If you then start walking in the opposite direction to that person, the dialogue shifts to something like, “But Person Z is the other way! Guess we’re going for Person X, then.” (The conversations, by the way, are amazingly intricate, delicate, naturally flowing and organic.) Which is a nice touch that you aren’t cemented into following through with a choice once it’s made, but then once I’d gone for one person the map glitched and said I had rescued the other person and my mission was to rescue... the person I had just rescued. There were another few things like that, bugs in the plot or the dialogue, or being punished for choices I didn’t make, while the game said I did. I know, it’s petty, but I don’t expect things like that to happen in professional games that should have been rigorously tested; especially when the choices you make impact so heavily on the ending.
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The characters you get the opportunity to explore with are a bright and interesting bunch. Something that strikes me about the whole game is how amiable it is, how the apparent realism pervades every aspect of it, how stereotypes are shunned in favour of uniqueness and originality. The teenagers don’t feel like a recycled shadow of the ones used in films, they are whole and have their own quirks and traits and personal back stories. Your choices matter and after I finished and researched all the possible options, I was majorly impressed about how deep the intricacies go, and how much power you have over all storylines; past, present and future. Would it surprise anyone to learn I found this game shortly after playing Life Is Strange? The choices don’t matter quite as much as that, but still enough to make the effort worthwhile.
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The premise of the game revolves around time and sound, two wide subjects that are honed into elements that set it apart from the crowd, make it unique and a surprisingly enjoyable experience. Nothing is too complicated, nothing gets too deep. The controls are basic, the mini games are  appropriately difficult but given weight because the consequences can be dire in such a personal game where you really do care about all (well, most) of the characters. The mini games are even contextualised to not allow them to become jarring within the storyline, and actually though having fun should take away from the creepy experience, it pulls you deeper in. The creepiness is only added to by the fact you have so much control over the outcome. Someone dies? Probably your fault. Someone hates you? Definitely your fault. 

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Now I need to talk about one of the best things about the game. I’ve been waiting patiently to do it and now it’s time. This was a scary game! And not in a shock value way, in an extremely creepy way you can’t quite put your finger on that seeps out through the sound, the glitch time loops, the shadows, the darkness, the weirdness that nothing is as it seems and the possibility that the whole world can be turned upside down in the blink of an eye really gets to you! You sit on the edge of your seat, really wondering about what is going to happen next because you can’t even guess. It’s trippy, it’s crazy, but it’s simple and well executed. Special congratulations to the audio/sound people involved. The next best thing? The ending. Wow, the ending. Not often does an ending EVER live up to my very high standards, but this one blew my expectations out the water. Wow! I can’t say much without spoiling it for you, but let’s just say nothing gets tied up into a convenient bow to put your mind at ease conclusively. It’s clever and more of a wry wink to the player, one final twist, something to take away with you so the game never quite leaves your mind even when you’re done with it.


Overall, Oxenfree is well planned, well executed and well designed, a high quality game that, despite its short play time, is enjoyable and thrilling. Creepy without relying on shocks, the setting and characters bring you into a personal journey that runs alongside an accidental expedition to a different kind of world. Brilliantly written, Oxenfree is worth it for the conversations alone. Also, excitingly, a web series is development based on Oxenfree, so watch this space!


9/10