It's a bit sad that, as more and more of us seem afflicted with ever shorter attention spans, more and more games are becoming truly epic in scope. Oxenfree, on the PS4, Xbox One and PC, is a game which some have described as a masterpiece. But I don't agree at all. Possibly because it was a different game to what I expected. Possibly because it's all too deep when basically what I want from a game is to be entertained without having to think too hard. Most likely because I despise games that mess with time itself, especially games which don't originally have a sci-fi premise.
Oxenfree is a game about decisions. It starts with five teenagers heading to Edwards Island, for a gathering of sorts. The idea, initially at least, seems to be your standard horror movie plot. There's no real plan other than to build a campfire and sit around it, playing Truth Or Dare, drinking a few beers and watching the sun set that evening and rise the next. You play Alex, a green-haired, wise-cracking but big-hearted heroine and the game looks rather like a souped-up Lucasfilm graphic adventure, viewed from the side (and slightly above). You can move left and right and jump from platforms with the fire button. You can also solve several puzzles in the game with the same game controls, and others by tuning a radio (which Alex carries around with her) to a certain frequency.
Edwards Island has an odd legend associated with it. It is said that radios on Edwards Island pick up discordant noises, signals that cannot be heard anywhere else; spooky phenomena with no scientific explanation. And Alex's stepbrother Jonas, wastes little time leading Alex into one of the island's caves to demonstrate this phenomenon. And, well, from that point on it all gets very weird indeed.
To focus on the aesthetics of Oxenfree, it's a great-looking game. The fact that the action is viewed from a wide angle is surprising but quite pleasing. Likewise, there's nothing really to fault with the music and sound effects. There's a brooding feel to Edwards Island. The five characters are quite clearly the only people there, but its world feels relatively compact. For sure, you might get lost a couple of times but a handy map is available when you do, and a quick glance at it will put you right very quickly.
Your friends hardly ever actually stop talking. The voice acting is superb and you are able to interrupt, interject, stay silent and/or choose from three different responses. If you're interested in the conversation and listening intently, you'll know if you're about to 'lose' your ability to keep it going by a slow(ish) fade that begins to fade the three responses from view. If you're anxious to advance the action, you can often just walk away from the conversation and look for the nearest object you can interact with, shown by a circle floating in front of that object.
These dynamics are not perfect; there's a quirk that, if you move Alex to the extreme left or right of the playing area, you will no longer be able to see one of the responses. Although that's not game-breaking, it can result in a missed opportunity to react to something said on occasion. And I have to admit that I found the relationships between the characters a little bit hard to discern, even though I was concentrating hard. I think the issue is that some conversations actually advance the plot whilst others are just plain goofy, and you're never completely sure whether you really need to concentrate on what's being said or not. The jokes aren't funny, and the whole game is actually deadly serious, so when there is some humour injected, it felt completely inappropriate. For example, Alex saw a vision of one of her friends being thrown from a window... and a few moments later told a joke about the ocean 'waving' to a lighthouse.
On some occasions, it also becomes very hard to hear the characters. Without giving too much away, a great deal of dialogue is delivered coupled with the sort of effects you might remember from the days of the old transistor radios. There are visual effects too - fuzz, static, and the tracking mismatch you might remember from your old Betamax video. There are a few jump scares too, with unexpected, and sudden reflections, in mirrors and even parts of the game where the transmission is interrupted by a somewhat mysterious still image filling the whole screen. These untuned interruptions made a lot of Oxenfree difficult for me to follow. I felt that, yes, I was doing things, and the in-game time was increasing, which it only does when you do something right, so I guessed I was making some progress. But I was really scratching my head over a lot of what was going on. The heartbeat of Oxenfree's plot seems to beat a regular pattern of aliens, submarines, familiar relationships, demonic possession and time-travel, all advanced by tuning a radio to different frequencies and hoping for the best.
Like I said, I have a real issue with time-looping games. In fact, I have a real issue with time-looping films too; I didn't like the films Looper or Triangle (and the less said about Tenet the better!). I can just about deal with a character going backwards or forwards in time to a certain point, a la Back To The Future, but when movies start messing with different timelines and multiple decisions in the past affecting multiple relationships in the present, I tend to dismiss the rest of it with a blanket "Well, this is just stupid now." Which is a shame for Oxenfree, because this is the path that it goes down after leading the audience in a different direction in its early scenes.
I thought, from its packaging and its premise of five teenagers go to camp on a deserted, and possibly haunted island, that Oxenfree was going to be a sort of platform version of Until Dawn. However, it's not. It doesn't belong in the horror genre at all. And so, after a while, it did lose me. The constant shifting timelines, and the fact that there were so many decisions and the consequences of those decisions reflected in different timelines and different relationships made me throw up my hands in much the same way as those movies I despise. Oxenfree didn't make sense to me, and even trying to collect together my thoughts to put together this review, it still doesn't make sense. Too many of its scenes felt ultimately totally pointless - too many of the predicaments into which Alex was placed seemed far too contrived. For example, of all of Alex's friends, her relationship with Clarissa seems to be the most confrontational. The aliens (if that's what they are, it's never really explained) more or less ask Alex, "Why don't you sacrifice Clarissa to us?" No. A few moments later: "We want Clarissa. Give her to us." No. A few scenes later, again: "Are you sure you don't want to sacrifice Clarissa to us?" *No already, I don't!*
I wouldn't go so far as to say I didn't like Oxenfree. Despite the fact that it wasn't really my kind of game, you can't deny that it's interesting. Depending on the choices Alex makes, you can end up with one of seven different endings, and the permutations in the relationships seem to be over a thousand-strong. This is a similar game mechanic to Until Dawn, and The Dark Pictures' anthology games, but the multiple timelines does take the concept a step further. The radio, and its use in solving puzzles, is one of the most eerie things I've ever seen in a video game, and you could probably spend a lifetime just wandering around the island, tuning it to random frequencies and shuddering your way through all the weird shit it picks up.
However, regarding Night School Studios' insistence that Oxenfree's true spirit only comes alive with repeated plays, I'll have to decline. There's certainly a beauty to writing something this deep but, like the submarine that sits in the seabed just off Edwards Island, it's so deep that I just can't swim deep enough to appreciate its undoubtedly finer points. So once around the Oxenfree time loop was more than enough for me.