Ox­en­free

PC

EDGE - - GAMES -

Five teens visit an ap­par­ently aban­doned mil­i­tary is­land to drink, party and in­ves­ti­gate weird sig­nals em­a­nat­ing from nearby caves. What could pos­si­bly go wrong? Ox­en­free’s premise is Teen Hor­ror 101, but there’s some­thing more in­ter­est­ing bub­bling be­neath the sur­face. Its early stages in par­tic­u­lar are rich in in­trigue and hu­mour. Pre­dictably, the group is soon sep­a­rated; as Alex, you’re asked to re­unite with your friends, while fig­ur­ing out what’s go­ing on. Are they deal­ing with a tem­po­ral anom­aly, an ex­trater­res­trial pres­ence, or ghosts? Should she search for best friend Ren or try to mend fences with the as­trin­gent but clearly un­set­tled Clarissa? And when will hang­ing around with her new step­brother stop be­ing awk­ward?

This ad­ven­ture is at its most con­vinc­ing when deal­ing with the so­cial pit­falls of ado­les­cence. The script is oc­ca­sion­ally a lit­tle too know­ing, with the kind of whip-smart ex­changes you’d ex­pect to hear in a post­mod­ern Hol­ly­wood com­edy-hor­ror, but at other times it car­ries the ring of au­then­tic­ity, deal­ing skil­fully with each char­ac­ter’s anx­i­eties and frail­ties, with a fine voice cast bring­ing this dys­func­tional five­some to life.

Its di­a­logue sys­tem, mean­while, is in­ge­nious. Choos­ing be­tween up to three re­sponses in a given By co­in­ci­dence, one plot de­vel­op­ment is closely rem­i­nis­cent of a re­cent nar­ra­tive ad­ven­ture – though it would be a spoiler to re­veal which one. That’s not a crit­i­cism, but its re­cur­rence may not have the de­sired im­pact sit­u­a­tion is noth­ing new, nor is be­ing af­forded the op­tion to stay silent. But you can in­ter­ject when things get heated or you’re in the mood to quickly take charge, or even reg­is­ter your dis­in­ter­est or dis­ap­proval by wan­der­ing off – and your friends will re­spond if you do. As a re­sult, con­ver­sa­tions have an or­ganic flow, with in­ter­rup­tions sound­ing much more nat­u­ral than usual. The in­ter­face is sim­i­larly el­e­gant, spar­tan of­ten to the point of in­vis­i­bil­ity: tiny cir­cles de­note in­ter­ac­tive ob­jects, while a small dial ap­pears when­ever Alex tunes her por­ta­ble ra­dio into var­i­ous strange fre­quen­cies.

Al­though it’s not un­ex­pected that the setup should be more per­sua­sive than the pay­off, Ox­en­free stum­bles well be­fore the fin­ish. Its pac­ing is hin­dered by slow move­ment speed, and nu­ance is lost as the in­ci­dents in­crease in fre­quency and top­ics of con­ver­sa­tion shift from the so­cial to the sit­u­a­tional. Its tone, too, is in­con­sis­tent. De­spite a strong un­der­cur­rent of hor­ror, no one ever seems suf­fi­ciently per­turbed by their predica­ment. The cam­era doesn’t help, ei­ther, cre­at­ing a lit­eral and metaphor­i­cal dis­tance be­tween player and pro­tag­o­nist, while di­min­ish­ing the clout of the oc­ca­sional shock. Con­sid­ered in iso­la­tion, there’s not an aw­ful lot wrong with Ox­en­free’s com­po­nent parts. How­ever, like the dis­parate per­son­al­i­ties thrown to­gether on Ed­wards Is­land, mak­ing them gel is an­other mat­ter.

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