Oxenfree is a “graphic adventure game” released in 2016 by Night School Studio, the company’s first outing. Playing this is my attempt at branching out to lesser-known indie titles. It was free with Xbox live about two years ago, so I decided to download it then, and it’s been sitting in my backlog ever since. While it received universally positive reviews (receiving no score less than a 7, according to the big names on Wikipedia), I failed to find it even remotely encapsulating.
Yes, it has a neat story with fleshed-out, distinguishable characters, and ties together elements of coming-of-age, drama, and mystery with a twist of horror. Yes, it has an incomparable art style with cool visual effects. And yes, the sound design is no less than intriguing and unnerving.
But how do I say this nicely? Oxenfree isn’t fun to play. It may seem unfit to criticize the game this way, given that its objective is to put the extravagant story on display, but there is a crucial factor of interactivity missing within its subsisting gameplay.
You’ve seen it before, but Oxenfree is a game where you’re given the ability to choose dialogue options for your controllable main character (in this case, Alex). What you choose to say affects your relationships with the other characters, and can lead to individually different outcomes. Alex also possesses a radio that is essentially a key for progressing the story. By tuning it to the right frequency, the gang discovers they are affecting a mysterious light from inside a nearby cave on the once inhabited Edwards Island. Alex and her step brother, Jonas, venture inside, awaken an unknown spiritual being with the radio, and the narrative takes off from there.
Seeing a game like Oxenfree receive nothing but positive feedback especially irks and baffles me when there is so obviously nothing interesting to offer when one factors in the player. As a player, you’re not asked to do much. Pick some dialogue. Walk all the way here. Tune your radio. Interact with this. There is no treachery involved, no excitement to experience, and no solid gameplay. I feel like a better way to experience this game would be to just watch a trimmed-down walkthrough of someone else playing it to save yourself time from its plodding idea of gameplay. Exploring for side secrets is also a time sink and simply no fun.
Since Oxenfree is a game where one can make a variety of different choices throughout, there are also a variety of different outcomes. Apparently, there are a few major alternative endings if you play it a second time. I didn’t find it worth replaying in the slightest because the gameplay was that stale, and truthfully, the story wasn’t that brilliantly earth-shattering to make me want to revisit. The writing itself is nothing exceptional, and its efforts at humor are feeble.
I also have numerous, small-scale complaints (or inconveniences, rather). The music was distracting in two specific sequences, one of them being the introduction. The loading screens were unusually long, but not overbearingly long. There was one point where my character was stuck on a ladder, and I couldn’t move. The game was lucky I was just about to call it quits at this particular point. A greater inconvenience was the fact that there was no save option. I completed this game in three sessions, and the two times I revisited, it left me at a spot I had already played through, forcing me to play it again.
While I appreciate the experience Oxenfree attempts to offer with its hidden gems of art, sound, visual effects, and tonally unsettling story, I could never fully appreciate its idea of gameplay. Those aspects are practically the game’s only saving grace, as everything else was far too uninteresting and boring for me, despite the positive feedback from other reviewers. Nothing necessarily took me out of the experience, I was never invested from the start in the first place.