NOTE: This review was originally posted following the original Xbox release of the game in January 2016. I revisited the game on PlayStation last week and wanted to include updated impressions to account for the added context from the game's "New Game Plus" mode. These impressions (alongside some minor spoilers) can be found at the end of the review.
TL; DR(eview) - Oxenfree strikes me as one of those games people might accidentally overlook at the end of the year in the Game of the Year conversation because it is a smaller title launched in the first couple weeks of 2016 but the game's visual aesthetic and storytelling should absolutely put it in the hunt come December.
As someone who was so scared of a lightbulb popping that it kept me from completing Gone Home for two years, jumping almost immediately into a 3rd-person ghost story people were hailing as "terrifying" was not exactly at the top of my list. But the art style intrigued me, as did the notion that it was a pretty short story. Having played through it three times now in two days, I'm glad I gave it a chance.
The story of Oxenfree is certainly the game's highlight and best experienced for oneself so I won't go too deep in this review. But without getting into spoiler territory, you play as Alex, a high-school junior embarking on the traditional end of the school year pastime of spending the night drinking and exploring the nearby island. Accompanying you on this escapade are her lifelong friend Ren, the object of his affection Nona, Nona's best friend Clarissa (who also used to date Alex's big brother Michael), and Alex's new step-brother Jonas, who she also happen to be meeting for the first time on this adventure.
What starts out as an innocent local tradition turns into something more when you and your friends accidentally unlock another dimension by exploring an old wives tale involving radio frequencies on the island. Then, you stumble into trying to uncover the mysteries of the island, as well as what these "ghosts" have in store for you and your friends before the morning dawns.
Similar to games like those produced by Telltale, the main mechanic of Oxenfree involves timed "choose-your-own-adventure" responses for your protagonist, Alex. I found the script to be often incredibly smart and funny, even if the characters were sometimes treating their potentially life-or-death situation with a little bit too much snarky humor to really feel believable.
As is standard with these kinds of narratives, the choices you make will affect how the other characters respond to you, both in the moment as well as later in the night. In my second playthrough, I found myself intentionally making different choices to see how they would affect the narrative.
Admittedly, I have been conditioned by Telltale games at this point to expect a drastic change in the narrative when given a "help this person or this other person scenario," but I was disappointed when early on, you are given this problem and there aren't drastic changes based on who you help first. Yes, the characters will comment "I can't believe you helped them before me," but the scenarios you encounter at each companion will play out the same, either way. Especially noticeable in the second playthrough was the discovery that both of these options introduce the same new mechanic to the player but only one of them actually has the characters respond to it. So you can conceivable experience this new element without your characters commenting on it, then experience it a second time and only then do they respond (as if it's happening for the first time). Effectively it winds up feeling like the narrative for was designed to be played moment A, then moment B, then moment C even though they give you the option to play C before B.
Now that's not to say your actions can't drastically change the games outcome because, as I learned in my third playthrough, they absolutely can. But it winds up being that a lot of little moments throughout the game can add up to a big change. In my first and second playthroughs, my endings were a little similar because I had put an overemphasis on changing what I thought were the "big" moments. But when I changed pretty much all of the "little" moments in the third session, I had an ending completely different than either of the first two. And I'm still eager to play through it again to see what else might be out there waiting for me.
Somewhat annoyingly, I did come across a few issues throughout each of my playthroughs. Once or twice per game, I would get booted from the game as I entered a new area. I never lost any progress as the game auto-saved before kicking me out. It just seems to have been a weird glitch where it would close the game instead of loading the area. When I immediately rebooted the game and hit resume, I would always start in the area I had planned on visiting.
Another issue that was identical across all three playthroughs came in a moment where I opened a chest and had some dialogue with the other characters. The game's next moment involved another character coming up the stairs to look in the chest and advance the plot. Each time I got to this spot, it took fifteen to thirty seconds for the game's scripting to realize that it was supposed to send that character upstairs. So I just sat there, unable to move but still clearly in control (I could pull out the radio and play with the dial) while I watched that character stand silently at the base of the stairs for a bit before the game seemingly caught up to what I was doing.
Neither of these were critical issues but I was surprised to see them consistently across my three separate sessions. I imagine they'll be patched eventually.
* REVIEW UPDATE: While all of these issues were resolved, I did still come across a couple of bugs in the PlayStation 4 version that led to minor skips in dialogue and at least one instance where a scene never loaded so I had to close the application and resume.
It might seem like I had a bad time with the game given the bugs and narrative points I highlighted above, but that's only because I would have to get more specific in describing the story to highlight all of the brilliant moments I experienced and, like Gone Home, they are best experienced first hand with little to no understanding of what to expect.
For a game that can be played over the course of a few hours, I am impressed at how much I know about the history of this fictional island and how much I was invested in these characters. That's all a testament to developer Night School Studio's ability to fit in an incredibly dense and rich story into such a small (and visually stunning) package. As my first new game played in 2016, I'm absolutely going to keep this one in mind for my Game of the Year awards come December.
Updated Impressions (Spoilers Beware)
Even before playing through the game again on PlayStation, my adoration for the game as depicted above landed it on my 2016 Game of the Year list. Then, finding some Oxenfree pins and ordering a Limited Runs Games physical version of the game while at PAX South provided me enough incentive to revisit it and explore the extra content Night School Studios added for the PlayStation 4 launch of the game. I could have just reloaded it on my Xbox One but I decided instead to collect a few new PlayStation Trophies and give the team more support.
One of the clever things I loved about the original base game was that the game build around the ideas of time loops and potentially changing history ended with Alex describing what would happen to her friends following their encounters on Edwards Island. Then, regardless of the outcome, we hear the all too familiar audio warping associated with the many instances time glitched on the island and Alex discusses needing to get to Ren and meet her new step-brother Jonas, thus leading the cycle to begin anew.
As a player, it made for a tragic final note before diving into the next playthrough in order to see how the relationships and story could play out differently with a new set of choices. But it was also a little disheartening to recognize that even though we, the player, knew the kids were stuck in some kind of loop (and even the ghosts seem to recognize it), the kids did not. There also was no way to walk away with a "good ending" that broke them free from this Twelve Monkeys-esque cycle.
The update's "New Game Plus" - or "Continue Timeline?" - mode remedies both of those issues. After my first new playthrough on the PlayStation 4 (in which I collected all of the Adler Letters and discovered all of the Anomalies scattered across the island), I chose this new option (you can also still reset the timeline in the Options menu). The first couple of minutes mirror the original game. It's not until you pull out the radio on the boat for the first time that you'll find something new. Here, Ren's friend on the radio wishing the gang well cuts out and we instead hear Alex's voice. You even get a dialogue option saying something to the effect of "Was that me?" - a nice nod the the fact that Erin Yvette plays both Alex and the radio DJ, making Ren's "yeah I guess it does sound a bit like you" a natural response anyway.
Further references to characters feeling a sense of deja vu are peppered throughout the story. Additionally, new glitch imagery accompanies a lot of these additions, as do a handful of new scenes, with the ghosts more overtly referencing the fact that "other" Alex-es have been through this all before. Alex begins finding radio equipment in these moments and it becomes apparent that these interactions might reflect the one overheard in that first moment on the boat. Coming into full perspective during one of the flashbacks to time with Alex's brother Michael and Clarissa, she learns that she can actually communicate with the past Frequency-style.
This leads to an optional moment before the final encounter where you can warn your past self away from the events on the island. The ending with then play out based on your actions but you'll receive a brand new epilogue with Alex, Jonas, and Ren hanging out in a convenience store parking lot, waiting for Ren's sister to pick you up and take you to the boat. As a tease for the evening's events you tune the radio on a bet and hear "island Alex" warning you away. While this ending certainly still leaves the "ghosts" trapped there on the island for somebody to find them, it seems as though it won't be you and you manage to escape the chain, for better (no ghosts, haunting, possessions) and worse (no chance to bring your brother back from the grave).
I still absolutely love this game and these added scenes gave me pretty much the exact level of closure I was looking for when I heard there was a "New Game Plus" of sorts added to the game.