Five teenagers have found the perfect place for their beach party; Edwards Island, which at night is completely deserted and near-impossible to leave. As ideas go, that's up there with inviting Freddy Krueger to your sleepover. Sure enough, it's not long before dark forces crash the party, but this adventure game is at its best when it ignores its horror-trope premise to tell a charming story of teenage friendship and how young people interact with each other.
You play Alex, more of an introvert than a party girl (well, depending on how you play her). She's joined by her new step-brother Jonas, the outsider of the group. Ren, Alex's best friend and the motormouth comic relief – an easy character to get wrong, well executed here thanks to some great lines that the game wisely delivers in short doses. Then there's Nona, a quiet girl who seems to have been invited by Ren just so he can get close to her. Finally there's Clarissa, the sharp-tongued popular girl who makes no effort to hide her disdain for Alex.
These characters could easily be one-note, but Oxenfree shines in its excellent writing and inspired dialogue mechanics. Up to three dialogue options float above you during conversations. You can select one or let them slowly fade out, opting to say nothing at all. The difference here is you're rarely prompted to speak, the conversation happily carrying on without you. These teens will constantly ramble on, forcing you to interrupt if you want to get a word in. It's more realistic (we all have that one friend who won't shut up - if you don't, it's you), forcing you to make Alex more assertive or leave her a borderline silent protagonist. Just like talking in groups in real life, it's up to you how involved you get. But no matter how much or how little you say, the conversation flows naturally. It's the closest we've seen to an actual chat in a game.
The script is rich with great lines, perfectly delivered by its voice cast. Playing Alex as either a pleasant people-pleaser or bitchy bridge-burner results in lots of alternative dialogue and character beats, more than justifying a second playthrough. Say something that resonates with a character, and your face will appear in a thought bubble above them. Whether that's good or bad is left unexplained, leaving you to wonder if you've charmed their socks off, or they're now fantasizing about your murder. Keeping this ambiguous leaves you guessing how you came across, just like after a real awkward encounter. It's a rare game where we wish there was more talking.
When you do shut up, most of Oxenfree's gameplay revolves around Alex's portable radio. After inadvertently triggering mysterious forces, Alex has to use the radio to traverse the island, activating parts of the world and bypassing gates and doors. Disappointingly, this just involves scrolling through numbers on a dial until you feel the controller vibrate. A great opportunity for puzzles becomes a dull, guess-what-number-I'm-thinking-of exercise. Each area has different signals you can tune to, with mysterious messages in Morse code and creepy music that lets you set the ambience of the adventure. It makes the radio a fun gadget, and a clever way to give Edwards Island more character. Just a shame they didn't find smarter uses for it as a puzzle solving tool.
We're glad adventure games no long traffic in the illogical puzzles that once plagued the genre (nightmares about using maple syrup and stolen cat hair to make a false moustache still cause us to wake up screaming), but Oxenfree goes too far the other way, refusing to challenge you at all. Bar a couple of easy riddles, there's nothing here more advanced than 'find the nearby object'. Telltale have sometimes been guilty of oversimplifying the puzzles in their adventure games, but if you can successfully turn on Oxenfree, you're already overqualified to complete it.
The story gets off to a great start, introducing us to its fun cast and setting up the mystery. It's when the island's threat starts revealing itself that the narrative becomes less intriguing. Early moments when the island itself seems to change – with surreal images flashing onscreen, your radio distorting and scratch marks covering the borders, as if you're trapped in a paused VHS tape – these are genuinely unsettling.
But they repeat too often, soon suffering from diminishing returns. When it focuses on the core cast it's far more interesting. The history between Alex and Clarissa is a particular highlight with that inspired dialogue system giving a late game argument real dramatic weight.
It feels like we only got the first two acts of a great story. Just when we're getting to know these characters, it steamrolls towards a conclusion that feels rushed. Because even with character relationships giving it replay value, this is still very short. There are further rewards for searching the island later in the game, but traversal is slow and the island too small to satisfy any explorer's itch. It's also not above some cheap narrative fake-outs, which make it harder to get invested in everyone's fate. One dark moment involving Clarissa should remind us of Life is Strange's best moments, but here feels like it's just used for shock value.
Ah, Life is Strange. The hella kool elephant in the room. There was little chance we'd get through this review without bringing up the other character-driven, teen-focused, photo-snapping adventure game. Oxenfree gets a lot right that Life is Strange got wrong (you'd never catch Oxenfree's teens dirtying their mouths with dire-logue like “go fuck your selfie”). Difference is, Dontnod made a game that had a smart gameplay mechanic along with a compelling story. Great characters and an outstanding dialogue system make Oxenfree an easy recommendation for fans of interactive storytelling. It's the lack of challenge and underutilised radio mechanic that make it harder to recommend as an adventure game.