It's nice when something comes along, seemingly out of nowhere, and is a pleasant surprise. Oxenfree, from developer Night School Studio, is one such game. After initially impressing with a lovely art style, which somehow manages to echo 50s Disney while at the same time looking ultra modern (clean lines, slightly abstract artwork and distorted perspective), I was sucked into a supernatural adventure that feels part Scooby Doo Mystery Inc, part X-Files and part conversation simulator. Yes, conversation simulator.
You play Alex, a teenage girl who agrees to go to an island with her friends to have a party. When she gets there it ends up being only a few of them: her new step-brother, Jonas; old friend, Ren; bitchy girl Clarissa; and Clarissa's introverted friend Nona. On arrival they all head to the beach, play some games around a fire, down alcohol and get into arguments. This leads Clarissa and Nona to become cast aside as the other three head into a nearby cave to investigate some spooky, some might say supernatural, radio signals.
What happens next over the course of four or five hours is best left for you to discover, but the whole thing is a really cool mystery, with new info slowly revealed to eventually fill you in on what's going on, and it's made all the more believable thanks to some truly excellent writing and voiceover work. The characters are almost always talking to each other as you move through the game's relatively small island setting, with conversation choices popping up so you can direct the flow and also shape the outcome of the entire story.
The dev team must have watched a lot of The West Wing, as they've totally nailed walking and talking, so much so that when there was silence I wondered what was up. Thanks to some simple gameplay mechanics you're always free to carry on chatting, and it helped me connect with the characters (even the less prominent ones) far more easily than in the majority of games (some of which I find myself wondering about names, hours after starting). They mostly have some resemblance of a backstory, a reason for why they are who they are and behave as they do. You get a real sense of what these people think of each other, far beyond the superficial layer usually found in video games.
It's fair to say Oxenfree is more interactive story than it is a game in the traditional sense, but you do enough to have some sense of control, apart from when the game plays tricks on you. You have access to a radio that can be re-tuned in order to solve 'puzzles' that aren't so much challenges as they are devices to move the story on. While the isometric viewpoint and restricted path movement certainly resembles a modern point and click adventure, you'll never struggle to make progress: there's no ball of yarn or goat here.
Oxenfree grabbed more more than I anticipated, but it does such a good job at creating believable characters that small problems seem like much bigger ones. At times I wandered silently past characters who moments before I'd been talking about rather seriously. The fact Alex ignored them felt wrong and suddenly the atmosphere was broken and I was playing yet another 'normal' game. There are also times when characters don't behave in a way I'd expect them to, given the situation at hand, acting somewhat blase about some pretty serious and terrifying stuff. A bit more fear and panic wouldn't have gone amiss. It's worth noting that on Xbox One I suffered numerous crashes back to the dashboard, but never lost any progress.
I can't think of many games like Oxenfree. It's simple if judged purely on gameplay mechanics but wonderfully accomplished in terms of storytelling, characters and dialogue. If you fancy a supernatural adventure mystery with a smart plot and clever ideas, don't ignore this.
Version Tested: Xbox One