As perhaps the first anticipated release of 2016, Oxenfree has a lot of weight on its shoulders. Too much, in fact. Because so much has been speculated about the game’s use of the supernatural and the way in which it seeks to meld that with a coming-of-age-tale, it’s almost impossible to come away from Oxenfree wholly satisfied. Still, many may consider it a game worth playing, for a few key reasons.
First it’s important to get a few things out of the way. Oxenfree is an adventure game in every sense of the word. It features very few puzzles, no flashy mechanics, and puts its focus solely on story. This is a game in which players will get to know a handful of teenage characters, as seen through the eyes of our young protagonist Alex, and by the end they will have the genuine sense that these five teens have grown in several ways. That’s all to say, if you’re looking for something more like Broken Age, Oxenfree will not deliver on the puzzle aspect.
That being said, what developer Night School Studios has put together is wholly unique in the way it melds the supernatural with a coming-of-age tale. As Alex, players will venture through the game poking and prodding interactive objects around the game world, and in turn they will uncover more of the story. Along with that, Alex has access to an old school radio that can “tune” into supernatural objects. It's a cool idea that, while clever, feels underutilized and is a little too simplistic. In fact, the game as a whole is fairly simplistic in its interactivity, at least mechanically speaking.
It’s obviously hard to point out what does and doesn’t work about the story and the storytelling mechanics without giving away key details, but we’ll just say that the game slowly peels back the layers of its mystery and by the end gamers should be surprised. However, whether or not they will be satisfied is another issue. The themes of death and loss are strong within Oxenfree, but oftentimes it feels like those themes get lost in the experience. Oxenfree's supernatural elements are a little more compelling and successful, making for an experience that can get the adrenaline pumping, but this is not a horror game. Like Gone Home, the mood and atmosphere are meant to obfuscate the headier ideas - in essence what the game is trying to be about. It's very clear how Oxenfree wants to affect the player, but it doesn't always succeed in that endeavor.
See, while Oxenfree has an intriguing concept, its execution is lacking in a few key areas. Pacing is a huge problem for the game, due in large part to the slow walking speed of the characters and the limitations of the over world. Once players land on Edwards Island, a type of beach/national park, they discover the land is split up into a handful of distinct areas, and in each of these areas is a key point for some exploration, exposition, or character development. However, moving between these areas can oftentimes be agonizingly slow, made only slightly better by the character interactions.
Those character interactions are actually some of the most compelling elements in Oxenfree, offering the same type of choice-based system seen in games like The Walking Dead. With three choices at nearly every dialogue branch, it’s up to the player to decide how Alex feels about each character at any given moment, and in turn those characters will react to the selected option. Granted, most of the reactions and choices are small in scale, but that’s what makes them standout. There’s no “good" or “bad” answer, just honest ways to react to a situation.
Because there is so little interactivity in the game, outside of the dialogue choices, the art and the music standout more than they would otherwise, and Oxenfree shines in both those areas. Visually, Oxenfree mixes muted colors with an aesthetic that feels hand drawn, making for a game that’s always nice to look at it. And the music, whether it’s hauntingly bleak or bass-y and digitized creates an atmosphere that’s undeniable. No question, this is a game that looks and sounds beautiful.
But ultimately your mileage will vary with Oxenfree, which makes it hard to outright recommend. The story is unique and the themes are mature, but the telling of that story isn’t as sharp as it could be. Moreover, the actual mechanics of the game are surprisingly straightforward for a game all about mystery; so don’t expect to face any major challenges along the way. Truthfully, the major conflicts in Oxenfree are the dialogue choices, which further influence the growth of Alex as a young woman faced with an extraordinary scenario.
For that alone, we’d venture to say Oxenfree is worth playing but with those caveats included. Pacing is a problem, but the experience can be a memorable one if you buy into Night School Studio’s concept.
Oxenfree is available now for PC and Xbox One. A PS4 release is set for later this year. Game Rant was provided a PC code for this review.