A midway interesting narrative stymied with utterly numbing gameplay.
Oxenfree is a 2D narrative adventure game developed by the indie Night School studio. It puts the player in control of Alex, a high school student who inadvertently opens a mysterious rift into a spectral plane while on an escapade to an out-of-the-way island for an overnight drinking party.
Oxenfree is in spirit a classic ghost story with a science-fiction twist, and it succeeds on this front, both on an atmospheric and narrative perspective. The environments are beautifully rendered 2-dimensional canvases that seem gravid with a creeping sense of foreboding. The narrative has all the elements of the best ghost stories – in which the protagonist isn’t just hiding from the external threat of the paranormal, but also grappling with her own personal demons. The mirroring of the internal and external gives the best ghost stories their particular capacity to disturb.
The game excels at making the player feel boxed in and threatened at every turn. There are events that might have been called jump scares in other horror games, but are deployed every so often in the narrative to keep the player on their toes, always tensely on the lookout for them. Alex is usually accompanied by an NPC, either her step-brother Jonas or her best friend Ren, and the dialogue between them provides a kind of normalcy to the situation, so when the game contrives to suddenly take them away, the player is discomfited.
But this is where the game’s greatest weakness – the lack of gameplay – comes in. Oxenfree relies on the conceit of gameplay challenge to sustain the dread the player feels. When weird things happen, the game usually has Alex complete some sort of task to bring things back to normal. However, the vast majority of the time these tasks have no intrinsic challenge – mostly performing some rote action or locating a frequency on a radio. The game has very little in the way of gameplay to sustain itself.
This would generally be okay if the game played well in general – if it was responsive and fluid in its controls, like Tales of the Borderlands, it might have seemed like playing an interactive movie. But Oxenfree can’t simulate that immersive feeling because it’s a 2D platformer. Navigating the gamespace is a chore and feels like busywork – the characters move slowly, there are a lot of climbing sections, and Alex doesn’t always go where you want her to. It discourages exploration because it feels like it takes forever to go from point A to point B.
The other thing I found frustrating was the dialogue system. You can choose what Alex says by clicking speech bubbles over her head when they appear. But when you click them, she interrupts what someone else is saying, cutting them off and preventing you from hearing what they wanted to say. Wait too long to click, however, and the bubble disappears. This is compounded by the fact that it’s hard to tell when people are done talking, so a character might say something and pause, and you click the speech bubble, then the character starts speaking again but is cut off by Alex’s dialogue. It’s an unintuitive and clunky system that compromises the delivery of the game’s most important asset – its narrative.
Ultimately, the game’s a short, 4-5 hour adventure that offers some, but not particularly compelling, replay value due to a narratively-justified game plus mode that allows you to test alternative narrative choices. While I liked the story, the clunky gameplay was a big factor for me in not replaying the game.
I give this game: 3.5 out of 5 radio keys