Adventure Gamers Awards
Using the radio—deciding when to take it out, then tuning to the correct station—is the closest Oxenfree comes to puzzle-solving, but that’s not saying a whole lot since all you really need to do is turn the dial until the gamepad starts to shake or on-screen cues indicate you’ve hit the right channel. I liked this from a pacing standpoint—the story keeps moving, with few stop-you-in-your-tracks obstacles—but there’s no challenge here. I have a feeling I missed many radio-related clues on my first playthrough; you may understand the backstory better if you take more time to play around with it.
Considering the teens came to the island hoping to wake the dead, it’s not a big surprise when strange things start to happen. What did surprise me was how truly scary Oxenfree can be, in spite of its cartoony aesthetic and fun writing. The supernatural goings-on relate to radio signals and frequencies, a theme well supported visually and aurally. At moments of extreme weirdness the screen goes staticky, as if reality itself has been tuned out. As you scroll through the channels in any given location, a mix of old-timey music, spoken messages pieced together from disparate recordings, Morse code, and indecipherable voices make the hand-held radio more than a gameplay gimmick—it’s a vehicle for storytelling. I’ll admit I couldn’t always follow Oxenfree’s narrative, but even when I wasn’t sure what was going on, I was genuinely freaked out thanks to the powerful audio and visual effects.
But this is more than a ghost story. It’s a people story, and in the end I found what’s going on with the characters more interesting than the ghosts. To varying extents, each of the teens is dealing with a personal struggle, from divorce to death to the ache of young love. You can learn someone’s backstory by asking the right questions, and once you do you may have a deeper understanding of their behavior toward the others. Some late revelations will make you want to go back and replay the early parts differently. Alternate outcomes reflected in the game’s closing scene, overlaid with a pie chart that shows how your ending syncs up with other players’, will make you curious about what you could have done instead. I ended up sharing one ending condition with only 4% of other players—but I didn’t do it on purpose, or even realize the game was keeping track! This made me question how I’d chosen to direct Alex and I wanted to immediately replay so I could make different choices and experience the nuance that many other players saw the first time.
Sadly, a second playthrough was not to be. My first time through, Oxenfree crashed a few times but I was still easily able to finish. (My computer meets the minimum specs but it’s getting up there in years, so a few crashes to desktop are kind of par for the course.) Then an automatic game update happened through Steam. Ever since, numerous crashes have prevented me from progressing past an early scene, sometimes preventing the game from launching at all. I don’t know if the Steam update broke something that worked before or if my saved game is corrupted or what, but the takeaway is that a game I desperately want to play again and again until I’ve uncovered all its secrets—a game that invites and encourages this sort of replay—is now totally unplayable.
These crashes highlighted some other issues. Oxenfree has only one save slot, and you can’t save your game when you want to. Instead, the game auto-saves when you leave certain scenes… but not all scenes. So if the game crashes, or you regret a choice and want to backtrack, or you decide to quit midway through a lengthy sequence thinking the auto-save has your back, you’ll be forced to replay a portion. (There is an on-screen indicator when the game saves, but it can be easy to forget how long ago you last saw it.) Even if you never experience a hard crash, you might have to restart a scene if a navigation glitch causes your companion to get stuck somewhere and become unable to follow, as happened to me a few times.
Replaying a scene isn’t the end of the world, but it’s tedious because you can’t skip dialogue. Even if you choose to have Alex stand around and say nothing, the other characters’ conversation continues and you have to wait it out. In a game that’s virtually all dialogue, I can understand why the developers wouldn’t want people skipping it willy-nilly, but combined with the restrictive save game system it can make for a frustrating experience.
I finished my initial playthrough feeling very positive about the game and eager to pay Edwards Island another visit, but the technical difficulties I’ve experienced since then have unfortunately dampered my enthusiasm. Still, Oxenfree is a game I recommend for story fans, especially if you have a soft spot for teen drama. The larger story is at times hard to understand, but the superb writing, acting, audio, and visual effects more than counterbalance the occasional “wait, what just happened?” story gaps. It’s a game I would have loved to have played twice.
What our readers think of Oxenfree
Posted by thorn969 on May 26, 2017
There's very little game play here. Puzzles are extremely simple and frequently don't even have to be solved for the game to progress. The story was... decent. I was still a bit disappointed... but it was good enough. The review gets it right that the...