The haunting, narratively experimental Oxenfree came out back in 2016 to rapturous reviews, combining a coming-of-age story with some seriously unnerving supernatural goings-on involving radios, triangles, and something waiting beyond a rift in space and time.
Oxenfree’s unique tone, aesthetic, and setting, plus its ambitious dynamic dialogue system, rocketed Night School Studio into the leagues of other excellent narrative-focused studios, alongside names like Campo Santo and Telltale. As a result it wasn’t too surprising to find out that Night School would be the first video game studio to be acquired by Netflix, as the streaming giant prepares to make moves into game development.
But we’re not here to talk about the Netflix deal — we’re here to talk about our first look at Oxenfree II: Lost Signals, the sequel that we were given a look at during a recent online meet with developers. Announced in Nintendo’s Indie World Showcase earlier this year and published by MWM Interactive, the game is more cinematically inspired than ever, taking everything that was exciting about the first game and turning up the volume, with the benefit of Night School’s experience coming through.
The teenage Alex and her peers from Oxenfree are replaced by an older cast: Riley Poverly, an environmental researcher returning to her hometown of Camena, and a friend of hers from the past, Jacob. The two will accompany each other as Riley attempts to learn more about a local mysterious cult called “Parentage”, who are trying to open a portal to bring something through — something dangerous.
A lot of Oxenfree II will, like the first game, involve walking from place to place, solving light environmental puzzles and making dialogue choices as Riley and Jacob chat with each other. There are moments of tension that spring out of choices you’ve made — Riley fell off a cliff at one point, because she was over-confident about making a jump — as well as different outcomes that can have a snowball effect. There’s even the possibility of missing out on particular branches because you took too long to say something… or because you didn’t wait long enough.
Of course, the art is what really set the first game apart when it came out, and that’s better than ever, too. The "painterly" feel is similar, but more detailed, and now there's a map with a bunch of notes added as you go, to remind you of quests you’ve taken on or things you’ve learned. It’s quite a lovely touch, and makes the game seem quite organic — a lot like fellow West Coast narrative exploration game Firewatch.
Of course, all of that is quite similar to Oxenfree, which is probably welcome news to those who enjoyed the first game — but what’s new? you might ask.
Well, there are fresh mechanics, first of all, which are largely centred around the Walkie-Talkie that Riley has. You’ll occasionally receive cold calls on the device, which are sometimes from inhabitants of Camena, and sometimes from mystery callers, and Riley can choose whether or not to answer at all. Sometimes these calls can guide her, or give her quests; other times they’ll just creep you out. In the preview, Riley gets a call from someone who says "you know who this is," despite Riley seemingly having no idea... and then cryptically, they say they'll "give you space to figure it out". Intriguing!
Speaking of creepy, there’s plenty of the kind of creepy goings-on that made Oxenfree so darn compelling: weird anomalies can show you flash-forwards or premonitions of horrifying futures, where bodies float face-down in the lake, and rifts into parallel dimensions can whisk you to long-forgotten times where it might turn out that Riley can influence the future by messing with the past.
In the preview we saw Riley and Jacob get stuck in a collapsed mine, and with no way through they are forced to find and step through a time portal back to 1899, when the mine shaft elevator was working... only to find out that they might have been the cause of the mine collapse in the first place. Now that's the kind of confusing time paradox stuff we signed up for!
The writing is more mature in keeping with the new, older characters, who have sassy, sarcastic banter between them. Riley seems quite deadpan and dry, and Jacob seems like a bit of a nervous nerd who can’t stop talking — in an endearing way.
So far, Oxenfree II: Lost Signals looks like it's shaping up to follow much of the same vibe that the original Oxenfree did, and indeed, the developers have even gone back to Oxenfree to add interesting updates that tie the two games together narratively.
It’s not a spinoff, or a totally different sequel, then; it’s a similar setting with new characters, new mechanics, new themes to explore, and a new colour palette, too, taking the game away from the green-and-red of the last game and into an autumnal orange. Frankly, that’s exactly what we were hoping for: a more polished, experienced take on the timey-wimey triangle horror of the first game.
Oxenfree II: Lost Signals is scheduled for a 2022 release.