50 Best Games of 2016: #6 – Oxenfree


Our 50 best games of the year countdown isn’t in any order, we’re just going through fifty of the finest the year has given us. Find out more here.

The rise of the story-driven adventure game continued this year with Night School’s Oxenfree, a simple but hugely effective title about loss.

Centering around a group of teenagers who journey to an island that is more than what it seems, you play Alex, who is a blank canvas for you to decide what kind of person she should be. She can be forgiving with the relentlessly bitchy Clarissa, stubborn to open up to her new stepbrother Jonas, or take nothing seriously with group goof Ren. That’s what’s at the heart of Oxenfree: relationships and how you handle them.

Gameplay is so straightforward that it can be played with one hand for its majority, which isn’t meant as a slight. No, Night School want you to sit back, make or break friendships and stroke your chin with your free hand over what the hell is going on.

The perspective of Oxenfree is unusual, zoomed out from the action so you can never really see the expressions of its characters. That might have been unwise for other developers, but Night School have found themselves a seriously talented bunch of voice actors to maintain your interest. Video game dialogue is a tricky business; spend too long on the exposition and chit-chat and you will have an exasperated gamer on your hands. Oxenfree achieved the remarkable feat of me wanting to find every dialogue tree it had to offer, just so I could find out all background story and build upon relationships as much as I could.

Oxenfree’s plot is an ever twisting one, threatening to turn into a tragedy before looping back on itself and throwing a happy outcome at you that you can’t fully trust. You’re never too sure about what’s real on the “haunted” island: characters disappear, time distorts, and strange apparitions hamper your progress. Visually, despite being relatively lo-fi, Oxenfree is a treat, always bringing up something for you to “ooh” and “ahh” over, whether that’s the hand-drawn art found in photographs or a flashback on a beautiful summer’s day.

As you might expect, there’s no conventional combat in Oxenfree with the only tool at your disposal being a radio. As well as offering some old-school bangers for you to listen to as you patiently trundle around Edwards Island, the radio also allows you to tune to specific frequencies to unlock doors and help your “possessed” friends. That’s more or less it. You venture around the island, occasionally climb a ledge, listen to a soundtrack that refuses to budge from your ears, and talk with your friends about the banal and the life-affirming in equal measure.

The theme of loss runs through Oxenfree, but to explain how it does so would be to spoil the experience. For anyone who’s ever lost someone, Oxenfree will resonate with you and, in a strange way, put you at some ease. It’s a relaxing and fascinating journey, whether you’re playing for the first, second, or third time, and one that I cannot recommend enough.

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