Oxenfree (Switch) Review
Oxenfree begins like countless teen horror flicks. A group of kids travel to a lonely, out of the way location with some history of spooky goings-on. This isn’t your typical slasher story though, and the star of the show isn’t some all-powerful killing machine – in fact there’s very little overt threat at all. Oxenfree is a story about interpersonal relationships and how choices and conversation can shape them, with a little bit of wibbly wobbly timey wimey to mix things up.
We are introduced to our character Alex and her band of rebellious friends on a boat travelling to Edwards Island, a tourist trap with a rich military history, majority-owned by a wealthy woman who passed away days before the game’s events began. We meet Jonas, Alex’s new step-brother; Ren, Alex’s excitable oldest friend; Clarissa, a popular girl with a standoffish relationship with Alex; and lastly, Clarissa’s best friend, the quiet Nona. These characters have history with each other which is slowly revealed as you converse with them through the course of Oxenfree, where these conversations serve as the driving force behind the experience.
Whether or not you enjoy these conversations will determine how much you’ll get out of Oxenfree. If you’re the kind of person to turn up your nose at “walking simulators”, you probably won’t find much to like here. There’s no combat, minimal moment-to-moment puzzle solving, and a good portion of your time will be spent walking and listening to back and forth conversations with Alex and whoever she’s with at the time. Generally, this is done well. Character dialogue feels less artificial than it has in some other games trying to capture teenage conversation, and usually, conversations flow naturally with prompts you can select to guide the chatter one way or another.
With conversation being the main hook of Oxenfree, it’s unfortunate that some pacing and technical issues can bring this important element down. At times I found Oxenfree’s pace too plodding, you could spend minutes at a time walking from place to place leading to some sections feeling like padding. More than a few times I looked at the map and realised I would be going from one side of the island to the other and kinda dreaded it. This isn’t to say nothing happens in Oxenfree – far from it. There are some incredibly interesting narrative moments where you learn about our characters or start to understand the mysterious workings of Edwards Island and begin to ponder their implications – but slow times were regular enough that I felt they hindered my ability to enjoy the game at times. Conversation flow is sometimes interrupted by time-sensitive dialogue prompts as well, which can lead to weird unintended overtalking or abrupt pauses. Things like these aren’t game-breakers, but they do negatively affect the core mechanic of the experience.
It’s possibly only as you get close to completing the game and considering a New Game+ run that Oxenfree’s true depth is revealed. While the game’s puzzle design and gameplay feel shallow when viewed in isolation, at a certain point it dawns on you that the entire game itself is one big puzzle. Without going into spoilerific detail, you realise at a certain point that your decisions in one game could influence both how that run proceeds in addition to potential future New Game+ runs. A regular run through of Oxenfree takes a couple of hours, meaning it’s not a huge time investment to play through again and experiment with different decisions. Upon finishing the game I was immediately left thinking of the intriguing possibilities that could come from playing through again with the knowledge from my first run.
Oxenfree makes the transition to Switch without losing out on features enjoyed by its other platform versions. The game is at home on a handheld, and while I preferred the more direct analog stick control method for getting around, it’s certainly nice that you can use the touch screen to play the game similarly to a point-and-click adventure. Visuals are nicely stylised, with each character’s design reflecting their personalities, and environment design which keeps to an aesthetic without hampering your ability to actually play. Personally, I found the game even more at home on the handheld than on the TV, since characters appear tiny on screen thanks to the view being zoomed far out most of the time, but it’s not a major issue and you won’t lose anything by playing through one method over the other.
In the end I’m conflicted on Oxenfree. While I adore games with the guts to encourage experimentation and abstract thinking in decisions and new game+ cycles, even with the relatively short time to complete a run through of the game I feel that the occasionally plodding pace disincentivises players from exploring the intriguing possibilities of multiple plays.
It’s an intriguing story, and one I feel is worthwhile experiencing so long as you’re not put off by a lack of moment to moment game-like elements. It’s just a shame that Oxenfree’s design genius is at odds with its pacing.
Intriguing story possibilities & meta-puzzle
Great visual style
Occasionally interrupted dialogue