With the recent increase of ‘old things that are now cool again,’ both television and video games have experienced a resurgence of the 80s-retro genre. The genre seems to adhere to the idea that the more 80s you can make something the better- and honestly, I’m loving every second of it. The faux-80s style of super neon colors, chrome, and enough synth keyboards to make Daft Punk jealous is one of my favorite styles of movie and video game. The most popular of this genre in the gaming world is a game called Far Cry: Blood Dragon, which had you shoot giant house-sized neon lizards with a neon tipped bow all while rocking out to Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ as a man named Rex Powercolt. It gained such acclaim because it was something that had never been done before and was almost entirely unique in the genre; a place that should also be reserved for a game called Oxenfree. Now if I were to guess, I would say that most of you have never heard of this game and I’m not surprised. I found it somewhere in the backlog of my Steam account, probably gained on a Humble Bundle long-past but I am honestly so glad I found this gem of a game hidden among so many others.
This game is about dimensions and whooo boy do I love entertainment about dimensional theory. You play as a girl named Alex who is going to Edwards Island, a disbanded, old military base in the Pacific Northwest, for a local high school tradition of camping after tourist hours, drinking, and generally just having a good time. She is accompanied by her newly arrived step-brother Jonas, and her best friend Ren. After introducing the tension between Clarissa, an ex-girlfriend of Alex’s brother, and Nona, the somewhat shy bookish girl who tags along, the story starts to unfold like a normal teen ‘party night out’ movie. I think for that reason this game really got my attention: it felt like a good movie. Sure, I was directing the dialogue choices and moving the story along in the way I wanted it to go but it felt very organic and fun. Shortly after some obligatory drama, the story then take a turn into the weird. Alex, Ren, and Jonas go off to explore a cave that is rumored to have really strange properties- if a radio is tuned just right you can pick up radio stations that don’t actually exist. From this point onwards the game turns into an awesome episode of Stranger Things.
From a gameplay standpoint, it has all the normal problems of being a 2.5-dimensional game; sometimes your character doesn’t go the way you’re trying to point etc., but none of that is game breaking and doesn’t necessarily hamper the gameplay experience. The benefit of this style though is that the game is remarkably easy to play. Almost anyone can pick up Oxenfree and play it with a controller or mouse and keyboard (but I recommend controller). However, shortly into the game, whoever is playing will be on the edge of their seat and engaged into an intense mystery-thriller from start to finish, which is entirely feasible in the roughly 5 or so hour campaign. Not to mention, this game is a great jumping off point for playing other video games in general. My wife has a very short attention span when it comes to video games, but this one captured her attention from the start and never let go. Now, let’s get into why this game is so darn cool.
The radio is singly the most important object in the game and they use it extremely well. The game gives you a span of about 50 or 60 possible radio bands to tune in to, and then later in the game opens the radio to an additional 40 or 50 bands. As I played the game I had the radio open constantly and was tuning in left and right just to pick up any scraps of information about the island or something to give me an edge when dealing with the entities following me. Often the game will give you hints or even hide some of the soundtrack inside of these radio stations that are scattered around the island and the discovery that comes with finding new radio stations was often exhilarating and occasionally terrifying. This is what the game does so well: they make you want more through curiosity but then force you to go through genuinely scary situations to get there. That, in my opinion, is what a horror game should be. The game should present you with a story that is just so darn interesting that you can’t help but throw yourself at a greater adversary to figure it out. One of my favorite moments in the game that was genuinely scary was a moment when I got trapped in a military base. I was walking around, again following an entity against my better judgement, and out of nowhere a door slams shut and locks behind me. The room is a dimly lit classroom with a chalkboard and some disheveled desks scattered around the floor all with differing coats of mold and grime. Having nothing else to do, I started tuning into the radio flipping through station after station until I found one that glowed on the receiver. After tuning into this station for a few seconds, I was catapulted into the most terrifying game of trivia in my life. The station was an old army broadcast that was asking trivia questions about Edwards Island and threatening death if answered incorrectly too many times. I had scanned a lot of the stations so I felt pretty confident and by the end of the quiz I had *just* scraped by with my life. However, the one thing that stuck with me the most was the tension- I was genuinely fearing for my life- even though I was only playing a game, I didn’t want Alex to die. This fact is super important because this game thrives on its bonds and characterizations of every character.
You end up knowing these characters by the end: you know their history, their wants, their crushes, their attitudes, pretty much everything about these people and you start to bond with them. This bond makes the game a “less is more” situation because the developer can do a lot with very little, often scaring you with the smallest sounds and glimpses until a grandiose reveal that tops it all off. I think what makes this game so great is simply the fact that it doesn’t try to cheap shot you. There are very few jump scares, very few loud audio cues that make you jump, yet you will always be on the edge of your seat and will constantly make be making plans for attack and escape only to have all of that thrown to the side and dashed in the dirt. If you are a fan of the horror genre or even a fan of Stranger Things or anything like it, then you should pick up this game give it a try and immerse yourself in the horror of Edwards Island.
Update: There is a New Game + mode and it is currently blowing my mind.