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.