When I got a hands off look at Oxenfree II: Lost Signals, my analysis was that it looked a lot like Oxenfree and therefore if you liked Oxenfree you would like this. I have now played through a small bit of the game, a slightly extended version of the area I saw in the hands off preview, and my analysis is… largely the same.
I know that’s very boring, but it’s also positive, isn’t it? Oxenfree was good, and Oxenfree II looks to be doing those same things that made Oxenfree good. A 2D, side-on supernatural thriller with radios. Good thing remains good! In a world where sequels to beloved media seem to only get progressively worse, I’ll happily take it (especially since this one is a Netflix-published project now). And although it’s directly related to the first game, the characters and happenings in Oxenfree II are distinct enough that it’s going to be accessible if you’re new to the series. And even if you did play the first game, it’s possible that Oxenfree II will be more thrilling and unsettling to you now, five years later.
The main characters in Oxenfree II are Riley and Jacob, who are actual adults rather than teens out for highjinks and fun. Riley and Jacob are investigating some strange radio signals and a weirdo cult (both required elements for a supernatural thriller), and Riley discovers she can open tears through time. As one does.
Practically speaking this means that you use the time tears to navigate traversal puzzles. Oxenfree II is a bit more open ended in the routes you can take around levels, and in this case I found myself – that is Riley, who I controlled, and Jacob tagging along – stuck in some underground tunnels that were once part of a working mine network. All my scrambling down ropes and up rock walls came to naught, but by manipulating radio waves I was able to step through a rip and into the past. On the other side of it everything was a tea-stained golden colour, the mine was still operational, and I could use a now-working lift to get outta there.
As with Oxenfree, your choices matter. Jacob will advise caution in some situations, pointing out that it’s safer to climb down a cliff and go the long way around than it is to leap a gap. And you could, if you wanted to, disagree and make the jump. It’s natural to assume that things you do in the past could have unintended results in the future, although I haven’t actually seen that happen.
Similarly, the patented Night School Studio method of conversation makes a return, where you have a range of speech-bubble choices to respond to others’ questions or comments. It’s not perfect, but it’s a decent approximation of how you approach conversations in real life, with the potential to interrupt or divert things a little, and is rightly praised as one of the best things in Night School’s stuff. Riley and Jacob’s budding dynamic is a fun one. I chose to make it friendly, the best showcase being when I agreed, as Riley, to play a round of One Word Story with Jacob to calm our nerves. We told a story about a rabbit named Jacob. This kind of free-flowing, chatty vibe was part of the studio’s last game Afterparty as well, but it has perhaps more importance in Oxenfree II with the mysterious radio calls coming in.
Riley has a transponder, and sometimes, when she and Jacob are surrounded by a sudden impenetrable mist, a call will come in from a stranger. There are different frequencies for different callers, and the thing is that they might be from, you know, the wrong time. You can choose to not answer if things are getting a bit weird. But then maybe you’ll miss out on a vital conversation. I only had one in my hands on, but it was pretty creepy. The guy knew Riley’s name and said he had been trying to get through for ages.
This feeling that time is bleeding into itself is another commonality with Oxenfree, but I think characters being older – not to mention players – makes it more disconcerting. Studio co-founder Adam Hines said, during the hands off, that Riley and Jacob being older is partly an example of how “everyone goes through major changes at different points” and that you can have “a coming-of-age story no matter how old you are”. Which is true. But the older you are, the closer the past is. Where backwards time travel is concerned, a 17-year-old is statistically less likely to meet themselves coming from the other direction than someone in their 30s, and that’s just worrying. Plus, and speaking entirely from personal experience here, when faced with a difficult situation as an adult there’s a new and different fear in realising that the person who is supposed to know what to do is already here and it’s you.
Now, in complete fairness, your general common or garden adult problems are usually to do with unpaid bills or tax returns or what have you, rather than supernatural voice memos or time travel. Part of Night School’s success, though, is that they can make players view extremely unnatural situations through a more normal, relatable lens. It could be that Oxenfree II is going to be well placed to capture the hearts of tired adults trying their best. But, you know, with added ghosts and that.