As should be evident by now, I am very specific about the games I play and subsequently enjoy, barring a few exceptions. Those exceptions are often made due to curiosity over the specific concept of a game or the reception behind it. Oxenfree falls into the later, being a critically acclaimed narrative driven adventure game renowned mostly for its dialog. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t really like it that much.
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux, PS4, XBO
Developer/Publisher: Night School Studio
Oxenfree centers around a gaggle of teenagers who wander onto an unpopulated island that serves as a tourist attraction in hopes of spending a night of their youth indulging in some sort of party, or whatever it is teenagers like to do. A plan takes an awkward turn based on the small crowd that showed up to get drunk on the beach, and results in the main character, Alex, retreating into a cave with her recently met step-brother, Jonas, where the two discover a strange anomaly that responds to the frequencies emitted from Alex’s handheld radio. Things take a turn for the bizarre, and the group of five end up scattered across this island, which also happens to be a former military base, where they must discover the source and purpose of the anomaly that is both haunting them and manipulating space time.
It is a novel premise for sure, but I really did not find it all that compelling, and through no ill effort from the game or real fault with the story. The story is well structured with a sense of mystery and confusion running rampant throughout the game, and even beyond its conclusion. The characters, while archetypical to an extent, do feature a level of depth that is established as things go on, and their voice actors really do a great job bringing them to life along with a well written dialog. Even the backstory manages to be well woven and used in a way that blends genres and makes the story feel more unique because of it.
At the same time though, I found the story rather boring and predictable with regards to its general progression and ultimate conclusion. Despite the characters being well executed, they remind me of people I avoided or ignored throughout high school, and were worsened by how they seem contrived into indulging in foolish teenager behaviors. As for the backstory, I just find most fiction based around government conspiracies to be a bore outside of Metal Gear Solid. To the point where I would have rather had zero backstory for why these children are being haunted.
I tried to fight through these things and enjoy the game regardless, yet thing simply were not clicking for me due to my limited interest in what the story was doing and the mechanics the game is built on. Selecting conversation choices in order to advance the story and determine the conclusion. Travelling through a winding linear road from place to place. Along with pinpointing oddities and interactables with Alex’s radio.
On its surface, the conversation system seems notably similar to that of a modern Telltale game, where the player is left to choose between three choices or silence while trying to gauge the reaction and personality of another person as well as its effect on the fairly linear storyline. However, the context of these choices are presented as a conversation between friends who have relationships that the game simply thrusts the player into and asks them to manipulate and control. Which is something that I found alienating, difficult, and genuinely confusing in many spots.
I’ve been thinking the reasons why I had such trouble with this system over for a while now, and the conclusion I reached is that I am genuinely bad at conversing with people who I do not know well or are in a situation where I know what should be said. It’s one of the way my autism manifest itself, and whereas it does not prove to be a hindrance to my enjoyment in other games, Oxenfree often felt like a social examination of some sorts, where I had to delicately determine what the right thing to say in a given situation was. Which is made all the more difficult due to how the game doe snot provide any visual distinction between a character liking what Alex said or disliking it.
This is made more difficult by an often limited reaction time and a brief descriptor of Alex’s response that does not always correlate to what I assumed it would have. Meaning there were times where I failed to make a response and times where I felt I was misinformed of my actions. Though, that only happened a few times across this 4 hour long story.
A story that does admittedly offer some variability and replay value because of it, but said value is greatly deteriorated by how there is no way for the player to fast forward the dialog, and the realization that the world is basically designed as a branching corridor from story beat to story beat, where all the player can do it walk in the direction of their destination. This prevented travelling from place to place from being enjoyable beyond the dialog, and feel all the more tedious when revisiting areas, especially if it was in an attempt to find the handful of collectibles on the island. Which itself should only be attempted near the very end of the game, as it often needlessly closes the door back to prior areas for, really, no reason.
Oh yes, and the radio tuning is a rather basic way to interact with various objects by changing radio frequencies in hopes of observing a reaction, which, if you are playing with a controller like I was, takes the form of a rubble feature that could not be toggled off for a bizarre reason.
As for the presentation, things take a more limited route, with character models being lightly detailed and the game’s environments being 2D backdrops with notably limited quantities. While I understand that the game is trying to pursue a unique style, it honestly looked a bit dull to me, especially considering how far back the camera is, making it difficult to make out environmental details or much about characters beyond their colors. To the point where I think the main character was given a red jacket and blue hair simply so she would be easier for the player to spot on screen.
While I often try to make a greater stance with my opinions on games I review, Oxenfree is a game where I could tell it was not something for me, and I still feel that way after seeing it through to the end. It’s mechanics either bore or fill me with anxiety and confusion, its story held little appeal, its presentation was fairly bland beyond some points of visual distortion, and the well written dialog made me want to stop playing the game because it reminded me of people who I actively avoided for a large portion of my life. The most that resonated with me about this game was how much I dislike playing games I feel so ambivalently about, and how much of a drudge it can be to try and review them.