Oxenfree is a game full of lofty ambitions; its clever writing and three dimensional characters weave a story rife with time loops, teenage drama, and lots and lots of dialogue options. But despite its triumphs, Oxenfree suffers from technical problems, pacing issues, andan identity crisis. Oxenfree is light on the gameplay and instead focuses its energy on its vibrant cast of characters and its mystery/horror genre mash-up. There are things to enjoy here, but they seem to be buried under a heap of unfortunate circumstances.
I love well crafted stories in my games. In fact, the majority of my gaming library consists of games focused on delivering a tight narrative. Oxenfree begins with five friends, though acquaintances might be the better noun here, who just want to have a midnight shindig on a deserted island. The dialogue, despite the word "like" constantly being injected into like every sentence, captures the teenage voice rather admirably. The voice acting is spot on and the lines are delivered in a believable and nuanced fashion. The way the dialogue is written almost reminds me of a T.C. Boyle short story, which is never a bad thing. But that fun back and forth between the characters quickly dissolves within the first twenty minutes of the game. And what we're left with is a Scooby Doo-esque mystery full of time bending, the missing crew of a WWII submarine, and spirit possession. At one point, one of our characters, Jonas, says "I've had enough of this funhouse bullcrap". And unfortunately, I'm inclined to agree with him.
Gameplay wise, Oxenfree offers a mix of walking, light puzzles, and plenty of dialog options for Alex to use in any given conversation. Most of these choices are rather mundane and inconsequential, but they do a fine job of letting you tailor Alex's personality. You can be cold and aloof, bright and engaging, or completely mum. There is also a radio that factors into the game's smattering of puzzles. I use the word "puzzles" lightly as most of them just require you to tune the radio to a certain frequency and voila, problem solved. Outside of the puzzle mechanics, the radio can be tuned to random frequencies to uncover some unique recordings. For instance, at one point, you can tune to a station that plays a clip from a WWII cartoon entitled Fighting Tools or you can find FDR's address to the nation after the events of Pearl Harbor. There are also short, static filled snippets of 1940's era music. Browsing through the radio stations kind of feels like listening to a Godspeed You Black Emperor! album. It's a fascinating mechanic that helps create a sense of immersion and place.
The music and sound design are also fantastic. The kind of lo-fi, droning music that's interspersed throughout Oxenfree fits the atmosphere perfectly. It's just unfortunate that all the well crafted components, such as sound design and dialogue, never seem to gel together into a cohesive whole. For example, the 2D sidescrolling nature of Oxenfree does not yield itself well to horror. I'm not opposed to sidescrolling games by any means, but the perspective is pulled so far back that any attempts to frighten the player come off as very tame and trite.
One of the more noticeable hic-ups in Oxenfree is its rather unstable frame rate. Each time you travel to a new area of the map you're greeted with a slow, lumbering load time and the frame rate might dip to around five fps (and that's being generous). The frame rate issue happened to me about five or six times during my playthrough, but thankfully, the game will auto-correct itself after about fifteen seconds of entering a new zone. I did not play the PC version of Oxenfree, but it seems Night School Studio addressed the lag issues through patches on the PC. However, the PS4 version is still in need of the same treatment. It's not a game breaking issue by any means, but it's definitely noticeable when it happens.
At the end of my five hour playthrough of Oxenfree I was left feeling as though the developers had taken a stellar cast of characters and set them adrift into an empty sea. The overall story left me wanting more interaction with Alex, Jonas, and friends. The ending was actually rather well done, but the events leading up to it left me cold. This is the type of game where the narrative takes center stage and unfortunately, it never quite came together for me. Oxenfree has a fabulous soundtrack, well written dialogue, and it takes some bold steps into territory that's rarely tread in games. The island Alex and company find themselves trapped on holds many secrets, but none of them seem to warrant discovery.