Oxenfree garners a noteworthy first impression due to it’s unique art design and approach to dialogue. The tale of teenage maturation refreshingly emphasises interpersonal relationships yet ultimately falls flat. Initial promise concerning gameplay disappoints due to austerity. Despite some glaring blemishes, some players may find a way to appreciate Night School Studio’s first outing given the well-crafted characters.
Upon first getting your hands on Oxenfree, it is easy to see that the game puts its best foot forward with an elegant aesthetic and quick-witted conversations. The world is beautifully drenched in a combination of awe-inspiring watercolour and oil painting visual style. The characters fit into the world seamlessly as their individualistic personal styles are detailed with earthy textures and hues. There’s a feeling of angst befitting their appearance to match their personalities as well as the style within the game.
This style is aided by the sound design, particularly the superb soundtrack. The music hits its high marks with tracks that heavily emphasise elongated synthesizer tones and low, subtle bass lines. It often matches the 80s tone and does well to coincide with in-game events, particularly when the mood dramatically shifts to apprehension.
In the beginning, a small group of teens head to an island to stay the night in celebration of finishing high school; an annual tradition. The characters include the protagonist Alex, three of her friends, and Alex’s new step-brother. Each individual fits their own teenage trope with plenty of personality that leads to strife from the beginning. Unbeknownst to them, their night will become a much different experience from the past.
From the beginning, back and forth, raw banter ramps up hastily. The player is quickly informed they need to follow along closely if they want to keep up. Oxenfree wears its 80s teen-movie influence on its sleeve as dialogue and interaction propel plot development. The discussion system is unique as players can interrupt one another, leading to communicative diversification. It’s a pleasant, more realistic mechanic that isn’t reliant on each character speaking in turns.
Many scenes consist of walking indirect paths and exploring while conversing with friends. During these times, the protagonist is given three dialogue options. These typically range from passively compliant to confrontational. The majority of the choices are given a time limit and silence is an appropriate response. These options can have a big impact on story development and outcome. If you enjoy this system of character interaction, there’s potentially a lot of content to explore.
On its surface, conversations are well-written and should at least be commended as one of the more impressive aspects of the game. Although your group is naturally concerned with the supernatural, there are times in which conversation veers and the teens briefly fall back into their occasionally petty pubescent personalities. They also behave naturally as unusual experiences lead to stress and befuddlement.
Although communication serves as the primary gameplay component, it’s not the only aspect. The other major mechanic involves Alex’s radio. Her radio’s frequency is controlled by the player to progress the story, unlock restricted areas, and find hidden information. However, upon arriving at a spot to use your radio, the player then searches for the correct frequency by turning a dial. This isn’t necessarily terrible, but it’s incredibly one dimensional.
The world design does not help this feeling of monotony. The gameplay environment exists as a 2.5D style with confined movement. Although it looks breathtaking, it comes across as self-limiting as exploration is heavily restricted. It boils down to knowing your path and simply walking there. The dialogue helps with this process and moves the story forward but the concept of backtracking grows stale. I often found myself dreading crossing the same area for the fourth or fifth time.
The constant backtracking opened me up to some of the flaws in the game’s writing, and ultimately the story didn’t leave a great impression on me. I didn’t mesh with the protagonist and subsequently did not care for her friends or their relationships. In addition, the chosen camera distance led to an inability to see characters faces and reactions. Without seeing facial animation, it’s difficult to witness the subtleties and brunt of emotions or empathetic expression.
The more I saw relationships progress, the more they seemed contrived and empty while confrontation felt forced. I believe this was due to line delivery and the passiveness innately immeshed in a “walk and talk” style of conversation. The voice-over possesses little communicative harmony. I just envisioned each voice actor in a different room not sharing any experience, let alone the one in the story. They seem to talk at each other rather than with one another.
This was one of the first titles in which I wanted to see what happened if someone didn’t make it to the end because I simply didn’t care. My internal debate concerning whether to save someone or not was almost entirely based on personal morality and the narrative, as I believe was intended. I actually found myself much more interested in the mystery of Edwards Island but was ultimately let down by this aspect as well.
Oxenfree is a game that starts strong with a great first impression but, unfortunately, those initial feelings wears thin by the end of the journey. That statement is even more jarring considering the game took only approximately four hours to complete my first playthrough. Some may find enough intrigue to return for a second playthrough, but this ultimately depends on your desire to see the result of the varying dialogue options and multiple endings.
Dialogue galore with gameplay to bore
Although Oxenfree initially impresses with presentation, the gameplay and story fall flat. The only redeeming qualities are character conversations and relationships; that's if you can develop an affinity for them.