“Oxenfree II: Lost Signals delivers another narrative hit for the series, even if its gameplay isn't quite as engrossing as its mysteries.”
- Strong story
- Nuanced heroine
- Eerie visual sequences
- Standout art style
- Tedious backtracking
- Lack of engaging gameplay
There’s a thin line between dead and dead-end.
That tension is at the heart of Oxenfree II: Lost Signals, Night School Studio’s worthy sequel to its 2016 breakout hit Oxenfree. Set five years after the events of its predecessor, the narrative adventure sequel stars a researcher named Riley who returns to her hometown of Camena to study an unusual series of electromagnetic interferences. Though that sets off a supernatural story that isn’t far off in tone from Stranger Things (fitting considering Netflix owns Night School now), there’s something far more grounded nestled between the static. Over the course of one eerie night, Riley won’t just confront the ghosts of missing sailors but come to terms with the fact that her own life is similarly lost at sea.
Oxenfree II: Lost Signals is another narrative hit for Night School, delivering a slow-burn story that expertly weaves together supernatural horror with an introspective story of self-discovery. The sequel does find itself struggling with its own identity crisis though, as tedious interactivity leaves me wondering if the studio’s heart is more in movies or TV than video games.
If the original Oxenfree was a coming-of-age story, Lost Signals is more of a midlife crisis. The four- to five-hour tale centers around Riley, a thirty-something-year-old tasked with placing transmitters around the quaint coastal town of Camena, Oregon in the dead of night. At first, it all seems like a normal research operation. Riley teams up with another researcher, Jacob, to seek out some high ground, plant a few tech doodads, and gather some data. That easy task quickly goes awry when a triangular portal appears in the sky and the duo starts hopping through time.
It’s a refreshing portrait of a woman lost in her thirties, brought to life with a nuanced voice performance …
On a surface level, Lost Signals is a solid campfire ghost story just like its predecessor. Riley learns the weird, engrossing history of Camena which intersects with the series’ first game, while still telling a fairly self-contained tale. Over the course of one night, I was sucked in by the tale of missing sailors and a cult looking to tear reality apart in order to commune with ghosts. That creepy narrative gets a boost from a handful of eerie visual sequences that infuse it with just enough light jump scares to keep me tuned in the whole way through.
Though the supernatural story is the main hook, Lost Signals takes its time when getting to what really makes it work. The more the night progresses, the more insight we gain into Riley’s life outside of Camena … which isn’t exactly progressing in the way she’d hoped. In a climactic scene late in the story, Riley grapples with the fact that her life, spent crammed in a small apartment, has ground to a halt. A character posits that she’s not unlike Camena’s lost sailors, stuck in a sort of stasis, never moving forwards.
It’s that moment where Lost Signals really comes together, revealing a more grounded interrogation of what it actually means to grow up. There’s honesty and maturity to that story, picking away at a kind of lasting ennui that a lot of coming-of-age media tends to chalk up to teenage hormones. It’s a refreshing portrait of a woman lost in her thirties, brought to life with a nuanced voice performance from Liz Saydah.
There are moments early on where Lost Signals may feel like it’s aimlessly wandering, much like Riley and Jacob as they climb up cliff sides in pursuit of intangible radio signals. Stick with them, though, and you’ll find a validating story about how we’re never really done growing up.
While its narrative has stuck with me since playing through it, I’m also left with a lingering question: Does it really benefit from being a video game?
When the first Oxenfree launched in 2016, it already felt a little thin when it came to interactivity. Its primary contribution to the medium was a neat dialogue trick that would allow conversations to unfold more naturally, with characters picking up thoughts later if they were interrupted during conversation (it would beat God of War to that same system by a couple of years). It was the kind of feature that wowed game development nerds like myself at the time, but the slow walk-and-talk gameplay wasn’t too engaging.
I’m not sure I would have missed much of anything had it been presented in a traditional visual novel format.
Oxenfree II follows that same structure, struggling to find something for players to do with their hands. It still features a well-built dialogue system that opens the door for impactful choices that shape the story and even introduces a walkie-talkie that makes sure players can always fill dead air via conversations with far-off NPCs. And there’s quite a bit of space to fill.
The bulk of the game sees Riley adventuring around the 2.5D Camena in search of high points where she can plant transmitters. It’s almost a hiking game where she climbs up cliffs and drops ropes. That platforming element is relatively shallow, though, as Riley slowly backtracks through the same few areas a handful of times as dialogue plays out. There were plenty of moments where I wished I could take my thumb off the control stick and just focus on Jacob and Riley’s conversations. The tedious movement only serves as a busy distraction from what actually works.
There are a few clever ideas peppered in here and there, like a small series of puzzles where I need to rotate objects by tuning in the right frequencies, but much of the interaction feels entirely secondary to the dialogue. I’m not sure I would have missed much of anything had it been presented in a traditional visual novel format — though perhaps I wouldn’t get to soak in as many of its sweeping, detailed Oregon landscapes.
That underwhelming marriage of narrative and mechanics leaves me wondering if, like Riley, Night School is ready for a change. In a 2021 interview with Digital Trends, studio co-founder Sean Krankel expressed a desire to see the studio’s style evolve, saying “We don’t want to be the studio that just feeds the same mechanics with a new story through it.” While there are some structural and navigational differences in Oxenfree II, it still feels like the team is stuck in its comfort zone despite a high-profile move over to Netflix. Perhaps a jump to film or TV is what the series needs to really find the next phase of its life.
If that doesn’t happen, it certainly won’t lock Night School into a dead end. Even without compelling gameplay hooks, Oxenfree II: Lost Signals delivers when it comes to telling a mature story about breaking out of the loops in which we sometimes find ourselves trapped. It’s a transitional tale for its heroine, leaving hope that the best parts of her young life are still to come. I hope the same is true for the series at large, which still feels like it is yet to peak.