On paper, Oxenfree has everything I want out of a creative indie endeavor. It’s a choice based, coming-of-age story from a first time developer, Night School Studio who are trying to bring a fresh take into an industry bogged down with all too similar sequels and rehashes. It’s exactly what I clamor for, new ideas, a female protagonist and a pretty art style to boot. When you put all of these things together, it’s incredibly frustrating to say that Oxenfree isn’t what I hoped it would be, and even though it does succeed in a number of areas, it doesn’t shine as bright as it could.
While it’s world is brought to life through a terrific art direction and sound design the thing that does Oxenfree it’s biggest disservice is it’s characters, or lack there of. The group of highs schoolers, out for a their yearly beach party, are in fact where the story finds it’s biggest speed bumps. You play as Alex, the blue haired protagonist, who is the only character stranded on the haunted island that’s truly compelling. The rest of your group of friends are either bland, uninteresting or just plain unlikable. Much of the dialogue options take place during long walking segments that feel even longer as you wait to hear what cringe inducing exchanges are coming next.
Multiple endings are a feature within many choice based games and Oxenfree is no exception. It’s deviation from the norm comes though, in the fact that it’s multiple endings are pretty meaningless when you simply can’t find a way care about most of the cast of characters. When I don’t care about the relationships I’m developing, there’s no reason to care about who lives and dies at the end of this story. When I hear about a game with multiple endings, I’m the kind of person who instantly wants to jump back in and see what new choices I can make and how they might change the outcomes for these characters that I’ve built a bond with. Oxenfree doesn’t pull me in and leave me wanting more, rather it’s long rambling dialogue trees leave me with more boredom rather than real choices, who’s deviations from the main story aren’t important enough for me to really want to spend my time replaying it.
The overarching story in Oxenfree though is quite interesting. While it may seem like a ghost story through and through, it’s one that actually accentuates the game’s main character’s past and is a big part of what makes her as dynamic as she is. A big part of the mystery and the history of the island is found through collectables, which instead of being the stereotypical cop out spooky trinkets, are narrative in nature. These notes and letters bring to life characters \ you never meet but are very present in the world. This type of storytelling is far more interesting than listening to your step brother be awkward or your best friend getting high.
The world itself is incredibly stylistic and well crafted, but often feels like it doesn’t reach it’s full potential. The 2.5 D art style really shines when the game is shown close up but when the camera is pulled back, a lot of the games charming look is diluted. Gameplay features a number of simple rudimentary puzzles who’s main mechanic has Alex tuning in ghosts on radio stations. While they aren’t hard or complex in any way, they do add to eerie atmosphere the game excels in creating.
Although missed opportunities do tend to stack up throughout Oxenfree, the music is by far it’s biggest bright spot. Oftentimes when the atmosphere was on the brink of being lost the games soundtrack, produced by scntfc, really brought me back in. Whether you’re exploring a campsite or a creepy abandoned building, the soundtrack makes the tension palpable and works perfectly to intensify any feelings of uneasiness that engulf you. The radio transmissions and creepy noises constantly left me scared to go on, while simultaneously eager to see what spooky thing would startle me next.
There is no game out there that is going to do everything perfect and as much as I wanted Oxenfree to succeed, it’s just comes up a bit short. While it has it’s bright spots, I just can’t help but be left with the feeling that this game could have been so much more. Oxenfree is not a Gone Home or Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and while it might not be completely fair to judge it that harshly against it’s peers, when people are doing so much within the genre you’re working in, if you’re not raising the bar you’re missing the point. While it’s focus on art, sound design and environmental storytelling are great, it’s tiresome characters can’t help but leave me wanting more and feeling underwhelmed at what Oxenfree could have been.
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