You’ve probably heard the term interactive movie banded about when describing certain video games, well now here’s another way “interactive radio show” and that’s in the form of The Night School’s Oxenfree which is available on consoles and PC. Basically you assume the role of Alex as she and her friends head off into the night for a mysterious overnight party on an island. All is not what it seems and from the rather long winded introduction Alex tunes her portable radio into some ghostly portal resulting in unleashing some spirits who then decided to play havoc with the five characters senses. Without going into any more detail that’s the basics which really need to be seen first hand to be fully appreciated.
It has to be said there’s a lot of dialogue, in fact most of the game is dialogue with the player viewing the action from afar making one of four choices whenever Alex is able to speak – the forth choice is to remain silent and not respond at all to the time limit you’re given to press a button. The reason a radio show comparison is drawn here is because rather than opt for cinematic direction to convey the events of the night with close ups,panning cameras, action sequences etc. players are far removed from the characters as they appear tiny on the screen and act as puppets to what is arguably the most detailed aspect of the experience – the voice acting. Sure, players can move Alex around the locations, but this almost feels like lip-service where it’s the choices in the dialogue that carry the most weight. It’s not clear what responses players should make other than perhaps what fits their personality or what they think Alex would say in any given situation. It’s kind of weird especially as a lot of the choices reside on a shade of grey rather than obvious decision or action.
Oxenfree offers a chilling and remarkable soundtrack which can be interacted with by using Alex’s radio; it also doubles up as a tool for solving some minor puzzles (if you can call them that). Tune-in to some ghostly sounds, voices and music which adds to the atmosphere and can be a little creepy. However, the game’s animated visuals which offers a glorious abstract hand painted look as opposed to realism means everything is quite pleasant viewing and not in the slightest spooky. In fact, for the entire game there’s not really any moments you could describe as being “horror” or “scary”. It’s more psychological thriller to make you think. This is perhaps made even more apparent based on the rather nonplussed reactions of the main characters from the get go. There be ghosts aplenty but these kids aren’t fazed in the slightest where it’s almost like watching a dramatized episode of Scooby Doo minus the canine side kick.
Oxenfree weighs in at around 5 – 6 hours playtime but is elongated with meaningless wandering around at an exceptionally slow pace, a bit of backtracking and some dialogue scenes which drag on unnecessarily. It’s a slow paced experience and in reality can only loosely be described as a “game”. Had the fluff been cut from the game and it’s likely the playtime could have shaved in half.
There’s a slew of successful interactive movie type gaming experiences on offer on consoles and PC from Telltale Games which do remarkably well based on their subject matter and stylized presentation. Oxenfree is quite different even though some similarities can be made. Whilst the voice acting is very accomplished and is obviously the main star of the show here, the rest of the interaction feels a bit too muted to have much merit. Sure, your choices have an effect on the overall outcome and if you’re compelled to playing it again for second time you could opt for a different approach to see what happens. But the reality is, it’s hard to get invested in the characters no matter how well they are acted simply because the detachment is too much. You never feel like you’re involved but merely a spectator from a distance and with the lack of visual emotion being presented it just feels like you’re missing out on what genuinely is happening to the point where play becomes dull and non-engaging making the experience very much an acquired taste.
Gamers who want a new psychological horror adventure story will probably be disappointed with what’s on offer here as there’s not much to do outside of sitting back and listening. The story here just isn’t scary. The opening section takes way too long to engage the player to the point of being a turn off and the whole presentation (whilst accomplished) is let down by a lack of detail in the visual characterization due to the long range view at all times. You’re left with just being able to listen which might sound great on paper but just doesn’t work so well as a video game. If you want an experience where player input is minimal (and that’s very minimal) and not really offering much challenge or obvious moral dilemma then sure Oxenfree might be worth a look. Anyone else will likely find a game that drags its feet way too often and relies on its audio far too much to be a worthwhile piece of entertainment. You can probably get the same out of listening to The Archers on BBC Radio 4 because that’s what this is like although this one charges you £15.99 for the privilege which is way too much.
Score – 4/10
Review code supplied by Microsoft Xbox.