There’s nothing quite like Oxenfree. I certainly knew this from the trailers and demos that I watched before getting the chance to play it myself. But now that I have played the game and am eager to play it again, it is clear that Oxenfree is definitely something special. That’s not to say it’s not without its issues, some of which can be a bit jarring for the player. But, through its compelling story, clever gameplay mechanics, and replayability, Oxenfree is one little indie game that deserves your attention.
For many the story is what is going to keep players engaged in Oxenfree for multiple sessions. The story plays like a teenage thriller. You play as soon-to-be high school senior Alex as she joins her friends and her new step-brother Jonas as they make their way to an island for the annual tradition of camping out before the start of senior year. Of course, the night doesn’t go smoothly. Using a handheld radio they uncover mysterious and dangerous entities on the island, and it all goes downhill from there, their night of partying becoming one of possible peril. At face value, the story is one that you’ve heard before, but the introduction to Oxenfree is about as stereotypical as the game gets. From there it’s Alex trying to save Jonas and her friends with nothing but a portable radio and the odd clues she finds on how to stop the supernatural menace. Beyond the first 20 minutes, you’re treated to a mystery that changes depending on the choices you make, which leads to one of Oxenfree’s more compelling mechanics: the dialogue system.
The only character you control is Alex. In fact, the entire game is from her perspective including her responses both physically and verbally to the world around her. Players pick from a few options of dialogue to either just comment on matters at hand or make a big impact on other characters. Each option is displayed in a cute speech bubble that suits the game’s art style. The only major flaws in the system are the amount of time you have to make decisions on what to say (if you don’t pick anything, you don’t say anything) and the constant interruptions of other characters speaking. It’s true that real-life conversations are filled with interruptions, but this seems like poor design. There were moments when Alex would wait for another character to finish an empty line of dialogue before speaking while at other moments cut off someone talking about what seemed to be necessary exposition.
At first, I thought that it was only my dialogue choices that made a difference to the flow of the story. But it quickly became apparent that even the smallest actions made a difference, even going to locations in a particular order. About half away through the game, the tension I experienced while playing Oxenfree wasn’t just from the “ghosts” of the island but if what I say or did would make things worse for Alex and her friends. But any tension was occasionally ruined by Oxenfree’s biggest problem: pacing.
The game is only three to four hours long, which is good considering the replayability of the title. But as a result of its brevity, the game can’t decide when to stress urgency or when to take your time. Later on, you’re introduced to the collectibles of the game that you can find to uncover the truth of the island. Unfortunately just as the hunt, you’re told that you need to hurry up, or you’re all going to die. Ok, I’m paraphrasing, but it’s the sudden shift in tone that makes it hard to take everything in. This problem also extends to the dialogue of the NPCs, which range from solid writing to cliche dribble. Not to mention that they’re constantly complaining that you’re not doing stuff fast enough, particularly if you’re using the radio for any gameplay sequences. Combine that with some odd bugs in the PC version and you have a game that you can have trouble getting truly immersed in.
Despite these issues, I had a lot of fun playing this quirky little adventure game. The game lends itself to being played multiple times, with multiple endings and those collectables I mentioned earlier. Oxenfree has the potential to be an indie classic, with a lovely mix of coming of age and ghost mystery and a novel choice system. Oxenfree might occasionally be broadcasting static, but for the most part, the signal is coming in loud and clear.