With its deft mix of lively characters and casual conversations, Oxenfree is one of the first must-play games of 2016.
The star of the game is Alex, whose mom has just remarried. Alex barely knows her stepbrother, and her own brother died under tragic circumstances. The game’s biggest challenges deal with communication — among friends and, occasionally, with ghostly, scary beings. Oxenfree mixes terror with playfulness, creating a game in which wonder and ambiguity rather than pure frights are a priority.
One night, Alex and her friend travel to a deserted military island that may or may not have a mind. Naturally things go horribly wrong, though everything that happens is more weird than catastrophic. As Alex struggles to get to know her new stepbrother — she can be polite or aloof or a mix of both, depending on the player’s choices — the island starts to come alive.
Oxenfree never cuts away for cinematic or choose-your-own-adventure-like sequences. Walk, talk and play at once. Direct Alex away from her friends, and she’ll be called out. Feel free to have her interrupt someone else who’s already talking. If Alex says one thing and then does the opposite, she’ll be questioned. What stands out in early plays of the game is just how free-flowing its conversations are.
Cleverly, the game’s mysteries are unraveled by instructing the characters to use an old radio to dial into what are perhaps otherworldly frequencies, but often the teens prove to be just as out of tune with one another as they are with the game’s supernatural elements.
Some players may not appreciate a talk-heavy game with supernatural elements. Those who do, however, will be in for a treat as Oxenfree makes old-fashioned storytelling interactive and compelling.