Warning: There are light spoilers that are touched on in vague detail below. I don't believe anything is ruined, but you have nonetheless been warned.
Oxenfree is a game, an experience like few others. It perfectly places you into a time and place, while also somehow remaining timeless. It poignantly and beautifully connects you to other characters and the problems and issues their facing. Everyone is special and unique in Oxenfree, no two characters even come close to being the same. Their lives, hopes, fears, and problems stretch across a vast spectrum and the game and it's story becomes more meaningful as a result. Oxenfree is special, it's that simple.
Oxenfree places you firmly in the shoes of it's protagonist Alex and her small group of friends. This is her personal story and she shines in it. Slowly but clearly the layers and walls she's built up coming tumbling down as we learn about the highs and soul-crushing lows of her life. This is a game that spreads across many genres and yet is also not bound to a single one. An 80's coming of age story, a taut mystery thriller, and a sci-fi tale of time and efforts to undo it. All of which is to say nothing of the tragic vibe lingering over the game from it's opening minutes. Oxenfree is funny, very funny in fact, yet there is unmistakably a tragic, wistful vibe to the game, particularly towards the final act. It is a game about nostalgia in the original meaning of the word, of the pain and aches of the past.
Peeling back the many mysteries of the various characters and world of Oxenfree served as a highlight of the year for me. By the time the credits rolled, next to me lay a mess of notes I had taken and decoded to help unravel the many secrets of the island. Uncovering them, learning the truth of what happened throughout the years on this island and backtracking the many paths lent a certain poignancy to the proceedings.
Particular praise has to be directed towards the games select moments in which Alex travels back in time to a year beforehand. These moments which helped to further empathize me with Alex, Clarissa, and Michael always brought a smile to my face and also quickly replaced it with sorrow as I remembered this moment was fleeting and that Micheal had passed away.
Yet, these moments revealed windows into the souls of not just Alex and the shifting relationships she is forced to deal with throughout the game, but also looks into Micheal, a character constantly referenced throughout the game but only seen in these rare moments. They also serve as powerful scenes for one of the groups members who almost serves as an antagonist for Alex, in Clarissa. It's here, in these flashbacks that you see Clarissa and Michaels relationship in full, and get a better understanding of what drew them to each other, of what life was once like, of the depths of their feelings towards each other. It's here that the myth of Michael is made real, and it's here that Clarissa is revealed to be far more then just another mean girl stereotype. Short, odd, crucially important to the games conclusion, and strikingly powerful, these flashbacks, in all their forms, were a story-telling masterclass that stuck with me long after they melted away.
Oxenfree is a game almost indescribable at times. It is a game of feelings and emotions, far more then concrete realities. You just talk and explore, thats largely it. There is the occasional puzzle to solve or action to take, but by and large this is a game of relationships and the choices you are forced to take to strength or weaken those bonds. As you dig deeper into the truth, not just of the island but of the larger group of people around you, Oxenfree soars to heights I couldn't have imagined. It subtly and quickly forced out everything else from my mind, as I became consumed by Alex, Ren, Nona, Clarissa, Michael, and Jonas. Getting to see as Alex and Jonas, new step-siblings, slowly but unquestionably formed an unshakable bond and relationship was among the highlights of the year in games for me and one of the finest crafted sibling dynamic's I've ever seen in a video game, and to think, due to the games butterfly effects it's something many who play this game may never see.
Oxenfree is emotional, it's sad and funny and piercingly real in ways I did not expect and in ways I was not ready for. Friendships are put under a microscope and examined, the past is explored and the truth revealed, destiny and a potential for greatness are discussed, explored, rejected and fought about in a way that all of us can relate to. Finally, sorrow, grief, and growth are allowed to occur, to fill the screen and show us the scars that some may bear and the ways they helped us evolve and better ourselves. Oxenfree is a must-play in a way few games this year are, and here to think I didn't even love it's ending and was unsure about even playing the game a week ago. What a wonder it is and what a joy my first impressions were wrong.