As you look into inky blackness, an outline of luminescent green warbles on the horizon. A creeping sense of déjà vu pervades your mind, causing you to involuntarily shudder. You swear you’ve been here before. Wait a second, are we talking about Oxenfree: Director’s Cut, or this website?
No, you’re not going crazy. RPGFan’s own Krzysztof Chrzastowski penned his own review of Oxenfree way back in March of this year, but Night School Studios’ inaugural adventure game found itself ported to PS4 at the end of May with some additional content. An Oxenfree virgin, I dug into this critically acclaimed horror story to see what’s old, what’s new, and how it all comes together.
Oxenfree opens with teenager Alex, her best friend Ren, and her new step-brother Jonas as they celebrate the end of the school year by ferrying off to Edwards Island, a decommissioned military station-turned-failed resort spot. It’s become a bit of a tradition for the local school-leavers to hang out on the beach and get wasted, away from the prying eyes of adults. However, this year’s party ends up poorly attended, as the only other beachgoers aside from Alex and Co. are the snooty Clarissa and her soft-spoken friend (and Ren’s unwitting crush), Nona.
After a passive-aggressive game of “Truth or Slap”, Alex, Ren and Jonas venture off to a nearby cave, where urban legend claims that any portable radio can tune into supposedly nonexistent stations. A little messing around with the dial on Alex’s pocket radio proves that there’s something to this theory, as lights shine from deep within the cave, where there’s no electricity. Someone, or something, tries to make contact from a glowing portal, before Alex and Jonas faint and find themselves on other side of the island, with no idea how they got there.
From there, the game begins in earnest, as Alex and Jonas seek to reunite with their friends and get to the bottom of what exactly is going on. You achieve this by guiding the confused teens from one end of the island to the other and back again through different routes, all the while taking in a range of picturesque, panoramic landscapes. The backgrounds in Oxenfree are truly a sight to behold, boasting a stippled, geometric style that brings to mind a gloomy take on 1960s pop art. The colors are appropriately muted, with dynamic lighting effects that add an extra layer of spookiness when things begin to hit the fan. The camera stays zoomed out for much of the game, and although this maximizes one’s enjoyment of the backgrounds, the trade-off is that the character models are never really seen up close and personal. Still, Oxenfree is a great looking game.
The traipse across Edwards Island isn’t a silent pilgrimage, which brings us to Oxenfree’s strongest feature: its dialogue system. As Alex and her companions converse, the player is often given three answers to choose from, or to elect not to answer at all. Not only do each of the actors do an outstanding job in bringing their individual characters to life, but the way the dialogue system is programmed allows Alex to convincingly answer, or interrupt her companions. If she opts to say nothing, you’ll hear her friends express their frustration at her silent treatment. The dialogue choices affect Alex’s individual relationships, which in turn affect how characters respond to you, and eventually, the game’s ending. What Night School Studios has pulled off here is easily one of the best and most natural interactive dialogue systems seen in an adventure game to date, and my only complaint is that some dialogue options disappear slightly too fast. This was a problem for me on more than a couple of occasions, and I can live with an awkward pause or two if it means a few extra seconds to fully process my choices.
It’s not just the voice-work that stands out in Oxenfree; the entirety of the sound design is fantastic. The sounds of tuning in and out of different radio stations is a convincing simulation, as signals become more and less staticky depending on your manipulation of the right analogue stick. There are a lot of signals to tune in to; pre-recorded tourist messages, distorted big band performances, old World War 2 propaganda Looney Tunes shorts, numbers stations, and certain frequencies that just sound like guttural howls from an unknown void. And that’s to say nothing of the score. Oxenfree boasts an exquisite, moody synthwave soundtrack by SCNTFC that channels John Carpenter by way of Purity Ring. Sometimes it’s laid back and groovy, other times it’s discordant and terrifying, but it’s always sky-punchingly pleasant to the ear.
Once you finish the game — which, depending on how much optional content you go after, should take anywhere between four and six hours — the Director’s Cut implements a New Game+ mode that sees Alex and friends going through the motions again, but with extra dialogue about their horrible sense of déjà vu, as well as a few new scenes. It’s a nice sentiment on the part of the developers, and it does allow you to pursue a hidden ending, though truth be told it’s not a vastly different experience from the first go-around. You probably won’t want to immediately jump back in after finishing the game once, but it’s a welcome feature to be able to return to further down the line. If you’ve already played Oxenfree on PC or Xbox One earlier this year, the Director’s Cut content was released as a free update when the PS4 version went on sale, so if you enjoyed the game earlier, now may be the time for your return trip.
Oxenfree is an extremely well put-together horror game from a new developer, and one that I can find very little fault with. Night School Studios might just be 2016’s class valedictorians, and any fan of Telltale games and suspense fiction simply must give this one a go.