Oxenfree

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Oxenfree
Night School Studio | PC & Mac Versions | Download Available via Steam

A drinking party on a desolate beach turns into a battle against supernatural forces for a group of teens in this choose-your-own-dialogue adventure game.

Alex and her stepbrother, Josh, join fellow high school students Ren, Nona, and Clarissa for a party on isolated Edwards Island. Emotional tensions between the ostensibly light-hearted revelers are exposed in a game of “Truth-or-Slap” around the campfire. Players assume the role of Alex, choosing dialogue responses from a series of pop-up speech bubbles. Clarissa reveals an early antagonism towards Alex, stemming from the drowning death of her boyfriend—Alex’s older brother Michael. Exploring a nearby cave, Alex unwittingly opens a mysterious portal, unleashing a ghostly intrusion that threatens to possess them all.

Game play is mostly limited to navigating Alex around the island to various locations, selecting appropriate dialogue options as they appear in conversation with her friends. Forests, beach caves, a deserted town, and an abandoned military base are a few of the atmospheric locations traversed over the course of the five-to-six hour game. The puzzle elements are light, with players advancing the story simply by reaching the next location. Alex carries a portable radio that tunes in various broadcasts relating to the island’s history, and unlocks the occasional sonic padlock with a twist of the dial.

For a game with constant dialogue choices, the conversations play out in a convincingly naturalistic manner. Beyond directing their investigation of the island, the interaction also reveals further emotional connections between the characters, allowing players the opportunity to advance (or worsen) their relationships. Although Ren is arguably less charming than the developers intended, the overall writing compares favorably against any current teen horror film. There were only a few moments (while fiddling with locked gates) that I thought, “Will you shut up, already!”— a remarkable achievement in a game of nearly constant teen banter.

Collectibles, primarily in the form of letters relating to the history of the island and its residents, are scattered around various locations for the completionist to extend the experience, but I was satisfied just immersing myself in the eerie atmosphere, following the escape-first-fully-investigate-the-mystery-second strategy along the branching storyline to its conclusion.

But I still didn’t know what “Oxenfree” meant [thanks, Wikipedia!].

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Darkest Dungeon

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Darkest Dungeon
Red Hook Studios | PC & Mac Versions | Download Available via Steam

Why do I hate this game so much? It possesses all the trappings to suggest that it could be a favorite—a Lovecraft-influenced mythology, evocative gothic locations, a stable of bizarre creatures, and a fantastic woodblock-style art design with a striking, but subdued, color palette. Conversely, perhaps the reason emerges all too clearly, since the game has so ruthlessly kicked my ass over the course of sixteen-plus hours of playtime. Spite.

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Darkest Dungeon is a rogue-like dungeon crawler that puts the player in charge of a newly inherited estate, composed of a run-down mansion that happens to mark the entrance to a bizarre and malignant netherworld. Tasked with exploring the mysterious, seemingly never-ending tunnels and dungeons below the mansion, players recruit a band of ne’er-to-well mercenaries who arrive in the Hamlet via the Stage Coach. Battles play out in a turn-based system, with the selected party of heroes using a variety of skills against dungeon-specific monsters.

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The twist here is that the characters suffer mental as well as physical damage, picking up a variety of afflictions—described as Paranoid, Selfish, Abusive, Masochistic—that impact gameplay, requiring a variety of treatments back on the surface. Sometimes, if the stress level becomes high enough, characters simply die of a heart attack before being able to retreat from battle.

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The game certainly exposed a troubling lack of personal empathy, as I [rather eloquently] screamed again and again, “just [expletive deleted] get OVER IT and [expletive deleted] FIGHT, you weak-willed [expletive deleted],” to my reluctant band of heroes, as they crumpled under their accumulated mental stress and stood powerless before whatever skeleton, cultist, or shuffling horror stood in the way of my glory.

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Between fights, players use resources pillaged from the dungeon locations to upgrade the Hamlet’s resources. Upgrading the Stage Coach will result in new classes and numbers of mercenaries to recruit, while focusing on the Abbey, Sanitarium, or Tavern will allow better treatment options for the suffering heroes who return damaged from their adventures in the tunnels below the cursed mansion. The hero classes cannot be personalized beyond the base categories—Bounty Hunter, Crusader, Grave Robber, Jester, Leper, Occultist, Plague Doctor, etc.—but no matter, the would-be heroes die so frequently that others must eventually be recruited as replacements, preventing any great personal attachment to any one of them.

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After giving up and quitting several times, I still hear the occasional, but insistent, siren call beckoning my return. Undoubtedly, though, the ever-diminishing light of my torch will never reveal the deepest recesses hidden at the heart of Darkest Dungeon. The Hamlet’s cemetery will overflow in the attempt, with the latest batch of fresh-off-the-stage-coach heroes marching without mercy into the game’s meat grinder—also known as, Level One.

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