You know the story by now: a group of lusty teens sets out to party in an abandoned/secluded location before being preyed upon by mysterious forces, serial killers, each other or any combination of the three. It’s a tried and true formula that can still eke out a few thrills when done right, and Oxenfree happily manages to present an original spin on the tale, but not before wading through its fair share of both gaming and movie cliches.
Players are given control of Alex, who begins her journey on a ferry with best friend Ren to the desolate Edwards Island, where a group of fellow high-schoolers are having an annual party. New step-brother Jonas tags along, as does the bitchy Clarissa and sweet-but-bland Nona, Ren’s crush. With the small party underway, Ren convinces Jonas and Alex to use a portable radio to tune into strange broadcasts found within an eerie nearby cave. A creepy transmission is received, and the teens wake up on different ends of the island.
From there, the mystery begins to unravel as bonds are formed, trust is broken, and supernatural beings stalk the island. The team behind Oxenfree, Night School Studio, features alumni from both Telltale Games and Disney, and the influences from both are easy to spot. Although it deals with a few heavy topics and conversations towards the end, Oxenfree is as purely PG-13 as they come, coming off like a Disney spin on an 80s horror flick. The decently realized story and dialogue options come courtesy of Telltale, with early decisions and conversations coming back to either help or hurt you in various ways.
Unfortunately, it feels like much of the challenge in Oxenfree comes from making snap decisions and trying to keep everybody together and alive rather than from puzzles. Billed as an adventure game, there’s not much to do beyond going to various ends of the tiny island, finding anomalous transmissions or letters and talking. Lots and lots and lots of talking. The hardest a puzzle will get is finding the correct radio frequency, and there’s no time limit or punishment for fumbling even that.
Oxenfree manages to somewhat overcome this, however, by refusing to pad the game, which clocks in at around four or five hours if you enjoy scouring the island for the scant number of hidden items. It’s somewhat hard to be frustrated by the lack of puzzles when the game surprisingly tells its story and then stops before wearing out its welcome. The dialogue choices create their own puzzles, though, as Alex is tasked with figuring out how her friends are feeling and just what to say to keep them on her side and even keep them alive.
Written by Adam Hines, lead writer on Tales from the Borderlands (arguably the finest Telltale Game to date), the story is both intriguing and obfuscating. Oxenfree is intentionally tight-lipped about giving too much away, but as the credits rolled I was left with wondering how I’d come to the ending I’d reached. There’s also a huge loss presented at the beginning that, while somewhat confronted in a few short scenes, doesn’t pack the emotional punch or decision-making influence I’d hoped for.
Where Oxenfree faces the most criticism aside from a lack of challenge is the plot. Intriguing as it is, the various endings that can be arrived at take something away from the proceedings. While the ending I received was most likely the best possible finale, it is possible to lose characters along the way or even bring others back, which raises more than a few logistical questions. It’s not easy to air my main gripe without revealing major spoilers, but just know that the use of time manipulation isn’t handled very delicately towards the end.
Luckily, one aspect of the writing Hines nailed is the dialogue, which might be this game’s saving grace. Each of the characters (aside from Nona) has plenty to say, and most of it is genuinely interesting. A personal tragedy that haunts Alex is also brought up by Jonas, Ren and Clarissa, as they are all affected in their own ways as well. Dialogue options allow you to either confront the issue head on in anger, sadness or completely beat around it if you wish. While the voice acting isn’t quite Troy Baker quality, it’s convincing enough that I never got pulled out of the experience. The script never devolves into obnoxious millenial speak either, making it easier to empathize with characters than in games like Life Is Strange.
Dialogue isn’t without its downfalls though, as a few technical issues made choices difficult at times. When choosing what to say, Alex will sometimes cut off the others before letting them finish their sentences, forcing you to choose between answering or hearing everybody out but not responding. Because of this, I eventually turned on the subtitles so I could read ahead before choosing my words, but the subtitles themselves were poorly translated and don’t even show up for informational radio transmissions that are part of a walking tour of the island. It’s not a gripe I normally have for games, but the fact that it was so noticeable makes it enough of a problem.
It’s hard to call Oxenfree a poorly designed game, though, as both the art and the sound design are excellent and memorable. While the camera is often pulled back too far to showcase the characters, the environments and lighting designs tied to the portable radio are absolutely gorgeous and suitably creepy. On top of that is an excellent soundtrack backed by superb sound design, full of eerie radio static, voices and beautiful music.
Many games will claim that they are meant for multiple replays, but to fully enjoy Oxenfree, playing the newly introduced New Game+ mode is a must. Completely new dialogue options are introduced which acknowledge the sense of deja vu characters are experiencing, and entirely new explorations and endings become available, making subsequent playthroughs familiar but full of enough fresh material to warrant a few more attempts. The history of the island and, in turn, the story are fleshed out a bit more, as are the characters’ fates, and since I’d become so attached to them by the end, I couldn’t wait to immediately dive back in.
It doesn’t feel fair to criticize a game developed with this much passion by such a small team, but Oxenfree just doesn’t offer enough in terms of gameplay to interest anyone but devout Telltale fans or the most patient of gamers. While the dialogue serves to flesh out some pretty entertaining characters, the story requires multiple plays to fully understand, and while this makes the title more enjoyable in my opinion, some people may take issue with the game at face value. That being said, fans of this type of game (myself included) will find plenty to love given they can put in enough hours to discover it all and see past more than a few warts.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 copy of the game, which was given to us for review purposes.
Although light on challenge and gameplay, Oxenfree offers rich dialogue options and an intriguing story that unfolds over multiple playthroughs while following characters that are easy to become attached to.