Oxenfree Review — Dial-Up Horror

by Jed Pressgrove

Oxenfree writer/director Adam Hines makes caring about people in a horror story too difficult. Piss-poor aesthetics is the primary major problem, which you can see right off the bat when the game introduces its main characters — Alex, Jonas, and Ren — riding a boat to a deserted island. The three teenagers look like unimaginative Xbox 360 avatars that have found themselves in a nice painting, and different-colored word balloons pop up every time they speak, further clashing with Heather Gross’ superior surrounding art. With this goofy, nagging mismatch of visual styles, Oxenfree appears to be stuck between a hope to be quirky and a desire to make audiences consider the ghosts that haunt human relationships.

For the first half of the game, you might wonder why you should care about the tension between the three teens and their two friends, Nona and Clarissa. Most of the interpersonal issues result from the fact that two of the characters are annoying and one-dimensional: Ren is always bouncing off walls, while Clarissa seems to harbor negativity for no good reason. This limitation is especially problematic given that you are supposed to rescue these two misfits after Alex, urged by Jonas and Ren, opens a triangular portal in a cave, transporting the teens to different parts of the island. The prospect of having to listen to Ren or Clarissa again does not serve as motivation to solve Oxenfree’s easy but tedious puzzles, which mostly amount to tuning a radio with an analog stick until the controller starts vibrating.

Until Oxenfree requires you to grapple with the death of Alex’s brother Michael (who dated Clarissa) and to consider how you should treat characters while trying to escape the island, the bits of dialogue that you choose as Alex seem inconsequential. In fact, since the game doesn’t force you to do anything when a dialogue choice appears, I sometimes didn’t select a response because the conversations tended to float around the trivial, such as whether a tree looks interesting or not. Even worse, the voice acting and avatar movements often come off as too calm and restrained during crucial emotional moments, such as when two of the friends watch someone inexplicably commit suicide. During a large part of Oxenfree, the cast acts like it is auditioning for a Wes Anderson movie, giving off a privileged, blasé attitude that runs counter to the notion of empathy.

In the second half of Oxenfree, when the characters start behaving more like people who have seen triangular portals, ghosts, and other unexplained phenomena, you start to feel something as the one pulling some of Alex’s strings. Unfortunately, Clarissa’s emotions, which drive so much of the dilemma in the story, are not explored enough despite the fact that I, by chance, triggered a revealing conversation between Alex and Nona about Clarissa’s sweet side. If anything, perhaps Oxenfree should have been about the player assuming the role of Clarissa, not the consistently straightforward Alex. The choice to make Alex the star points to this idea that female characters shouldn’t be complicated, and if they are, you should not comprehend their feelings. For playing it safe with Alex, and for not establishing aesthetics and dialogue that directly connect the audience to an uneasy realization about the effects of death on human interaction, Oxenfree is just another island to get stuck on.

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6 comments

  1. Thanks for the review. I bought this game recently and am punishing myself to finish it. I should apply myself the same rule I’m using for books and TV: before playing the novelty, go through all the classics. Lesson learned.

    1. On the subject of classics, Planescape: Torment schools Oxenfree on dialogue, and Final Fantasy III (SNES) character sprites had more emotional and aesthetic power than Oxenfree’s Xbox 360 avatar wannabes.

  2. My biggest complaint was the walking and backtracking I had to do sometimes. More than one of the scenes was big and awkward, and while that may have been atmospheric the first time, the tedium was real when I was between plot points.

    I found the characters to be fairly relatable. Some clung to type, but it seemed a conscious decision rather than lazy writing, with the characters eventually coming to understand each other… or not, if you just let the dialogue prompts fade out. I’m not a big fan of alternate endings, so I don’t know how well the dialogue paths (which seemed fairly ~experimental~) really worked out if you decided to be mercurial, or play favourites, or just be sullen-teen silent.

    I dunno. I guess it just touched me in a weird place.

    Thanks for sharing your review. I’m sorry the game didn’t do much for you.

    1. While I wouldn’t complain if Oxenfree had less walking, I didn’t think the game had too much backtracking, especially compared to stuff like Corpse Party.

      Thanks for your comment, Bieeanda! And no need to be sorry for me: I have and will continue to play a lot of games. Some will be good, some will be bad.

  3. My biggest issues with Oxenfree were the needless twist ending that ruined all character growth and, as Bieeanda mentioned, excessive backtracking. But other than that, I found it very enjoyable. The characters were engaging and defied the initial stereotypes I first perceived them to be; they felt like real people (though like you I did find it odd that they showed such calm resolve in the face of paranormal events). I liked uncovering the mystery of the island and Alex’s past, how even trivial remarks could have a significant impact later on, and how unpredictable things were once the spirits made themselves known. Sorry to hear you didn’t like it, but I still consider it a flawed gem.

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