Oxenfree reminds me of my youth. A time when I'd go adventure with my friends, find stupid stuff to do and just be a teenager. It also reminds me of even further back when I had fear of the unknown, the supernatural and ghostly ideas that would haunt me in the night. It feels like a meditation of being young but not necessarily at any one point. Just the adventure, the hopefulness, the fear and the loss that all permeate us as we form into the adult people we become. I know that sounds very grandiose, but these ruminations are the patch work quilt that come together to create Oxenfree's make up.
The debut game from Night School Studios certainly has roots in a new kind of game movement emerging, less about the fierce action that rules AAA game spaces, but rather reflections on youth and the people in the game. This is much more in your Life is Strange and Gone Home pool, and boy oh boy is it a great innings from the game on that front. Much like those two previous games though, the notion of supernatural elements hangs over proceedings like a silky spectre. The game plays like an adventure game of yore, having you explore a large space, find clues, make decisions and solve environmental puzzles to progress.
Oxenfree puts you in the shoes of Alex, a teenaged girl on her way to a rager on an abandoned military island with her newly legally binding step-brother Jonas and dorky-ish best friend Renn, On your way you meet mean girl Clarissa and her friend Nona. These characters serve as the group you'll social navigate in the game. Things do turn though when you soon find yourself party to some supernatural shenanigans.
These supernatural happenings are one of the key highlights of the experience. The game has a very definite backbone doused in horror, and it is so delightfully strong, it looms over the entire proceedings. The way these entities manifest themselves are genuinely eerie in a way that crawls up your spine, especially as you never quite know their intentions or what they want with you. While the game isn't necessarily "scary", it instead trades more in the "creepy". This is a campfire spook story, thus again bringing back memories of youthfulness.
The island you explore during your time with Oxenfree is also a real winner. It constantly felt bigger than it actually was, with drop dead gorgeous art work done on the backgrounds. This is a place I could get lost in, looking through every nook and cranny to find more about the islands storied history. The map is still ironed into my mind, and I could get from one place to another from relatively memory. That isn't the case for most games. This place has left a genuine impression on me, both comforting and ominous at the same time. There is so much to find and do, from straight historical tour guide entries, to deeper secrets about the game's darker undercurrent. The place, while not feeling alive, since it is mostly abandoned, feels lived in and rich.
The game is also supported again by a truly inspired soundtrack from SCNTFC. A sort of drugged out haze by way of dirty electro fitting neatly with the game's sleepy dreamlike qualities and utter fascinations with radios. It's something I can't wait to get into my hands on it for standalone listening.
Where the game does fall down though, is that it feels a little short. This isn't a complaint I usually level at a game, as I very much enjoy shorter, succinct experiences. Honestly though, these character and this world are a place I wanted to spend more time in. The game clocks in somewhere between four and five hours, which wouldn't normally be a problem. That's a great length for an indie adventure title. This does hinder the game a little though, since the ending feels particularly rushed. Things conveniently tie up, the antagonists make a sharp turn (at least in my run) contradicting what they said previously, and I just wished it had all been allowed to breathe a little more. The final points of the game got a little lost and that is a real shame.
I've purposefully used a lot of overly descriptive adjectives in this review because, honestly, that is what Oxenfree feels like it's about. It's about a time during youth, but not necessarily one time. A lost memory of a great weekend you had when you were 15 that only stirs in the back of your mind. Oxenfree is a great adventure game, mixing Life is Strange and Silent Hill into a hazy cocktail that I wholeheartedly recommend. While it doesn't stick its landing, this is something that is clearly designed to be played over and over. The beautiful art work, the ominous yet inviting island and the creepy supernatural goings on make for a dazzlingly interesting first outing from Night School Studios.
Buy it if: You enjoy adventure games and want a well-realized, creepy (not scary) campfire story supported by impeccable environmental work and a stellar score.
Avoid if: You need don't enjoy adventure games or you need a $20 game to be longer than four hours in the first run through.