There’s no bridge to the mainland.
No phone reception.
And not even one adult to tell you what to do.
So Edwards Island is a “perfect” place for a high schooler named Alex and her group of friends to sneak off to for a surreptitious getaway. In the game Oxenfree, no one lives in this little corner of the world—that used to be home to an Army base and later an old recluse who recently passed away. And so we join Alex, her childhood best friend Ren, and brand-new stepbrother Jonas, as they step off the final ferry for the evening to meet up with a couple other kids already kickin’ it with a few brews by a beach bonfire.
This is something of a coming-of-age tale. But, no, it’s not that kind of coming-of-age story.
The tale takes a spooky twist almost immediately when one of the teens suggests that they enter a nearby cave and start tuning frequencies on a handheld radio. There were rumors that something weird had happened in the past when somebody tried doing that, and sure enough, the mysterious cave begins to light up and send back odd bits of ancient radio signals to the teens’ eager amusement.
Is there something out there trying to communicate with them? Does it have to do with the closed military base? Or is it something much more ghosty? A strange environmental conflux of past and present, perhaps?
As Alex and her peeps dig deeper, they find themselves suddenly embroiled in a late-night nightmare that sends them searching around the nooks and crannies of their unpopulated island perch. Secrets must be soon uncovered if they all hope to make it out alive.
As much as this might sound like a Nancy Drew mystery, it’s actually something a little different. There is quite a lot of light puzzle play and mystery solving in the mix, but the game has been labeled a “walking and talking simulator” by some, because that’s the main action here.
As might happen if a bunch of real-life teenagers found themselves stuck in a strange time-looping weirdness on an isolated island, there’s a lot of organic conversation going on. The story builds and emotions peak as you discover relationships and shape emerging events with Alex’ response choices. And then there’s that clever twist of using the radio to tune into the “otherworld” messages swirling around you.
Ultimately this character- and relationship-driven drama is compelling and immersive. And the world we walk around in is graphically appealing. But, as you might have already suspected, Oxenfree comes with a few downside issues as well.
Unlike Nancy Drew, these teens are a much more rebellious gang. They lie, smoke, hand out marijuana-laced brownies, spit out crudities and profanities, and hint at dubious choices in their sexual pasts.
We see someone commit a leap-from-a-great-height suicide in an alternate-reality time loop. And then, again, there’s that supernatural component. The spiritual oddness at play is abstract and hard to totally pin down—and used mainly to get the kids to face up to coping with loss and broken relationships—but it’s definitely not biblical, either.
It would be reasonable to suggest that this T-rated game’s content problems aren’t as severe as, say, looking down a gun sight and splattering digital brains all over some M-rated open world or plunging into the very pit of hell in, say, Diablo III. But what these kids do and how they do it is still well worth weighing before calling out a hearty “Ollie Ollie” to one and all.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.