Monday 25 September 2017

Oxenfree review: Spooky speak

Oxenfree (PC/Mac/XOne/PS4); rating: 9/10; Age: 16+

Oxenfree: Teens trapped on an abandoned island
Oxenfree: Teens trapped on an abandoned island
Ronan Price

Ronan Price

“SHALL we split up or stick together?” The answer, as everyone who’s ever watched a spooky movie knows, should be “No!” – but at least Oxenfree gives you the illusion of choice.

The supernatural thriller riffs on this cliché and many more like it while you unpick the story of four teens trapped on an abandoned island. Yet far from descending into a parody of low-budget shockers, Oxenfree takes these familiar building blocks and fashions something much more distinctive and fresh.

Oxenfree: branching dialogue
Oxenfree: branching dialogue

The debut game from a new studio comprising former Telltale and Disney alumni, it weaves a pleasingly weird tale of a sunken ship, a handful of kooky characters and the who-knows-what collection of paranormal presences.

It has something in common with recent PS4 chiller Until Dawn, thanks to its torrent of sarky Buffy-speak dialogue and the potential for multiple endings based on your decisions. But its art style couldn’t be more different, a hand-drawn landscape of autumnal colours and gawky stick figures.

Oxenfree’s most compelling design lies in the atmospheric audio – a well-acted, whip-smart script complemented by an eerie soundtrack full of ethereal tunes and found-sounds.

The studio wisely steers clear of jump scares and shock tactics, concentrating instead on creating an unsettling undercurrent of mystery. That’s not to say there aren’t some genuinely unnerving moments.

Walking and talking substitutes the space which a typical game would fill with guns or axes or elaborate action. Most the plot’s five-hour running time involves listening to the angsty teens argue with each other as they encounter spirit possession, time loops and ghostly echoes of the past.

Perhaps we could have done with more puzzles or a little edge to the encounters with the supernatural. But Oxenfree has the feel of an interactive radio play and it’s possible to love it for being just that.

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