I’ve never been a massive fan of the butterfly effect; every choice matters sub-genre. I love a narrative-driven game as much as the next guy. I’d even say I’m one of the few who still yearn for more walking simulators. But for the most part, I really struggle to categorize these specific narrative titles as games.
They are effectively interactive stories where you can guide the content, but you never really feel like part of the story. At least not in my experience.
Games like Life Is Strange, Until Dawn, The Quarry, and Heavy Rain did little to change my view on this gameplay format. However, there was a plucky little indie game that would come along in 2016 and act as the exception to the rule. Courtesy of Netflix-owned game studio, Night School Studios, came an ARG-fuelled horror, Oxenfree.
Oxenfree was effectively the product of Netflix buying a game studio and presumably saying to them, ‘Hey, you know Stranger Things? Well, do that, but as a game.’
An arduous task, but one that the studio took to with aplomb, creating a format that would work for Netflix gaming’s streaming service, akin to projects like Black Mirror Bandersnatch. Yet still offering a refined, artistic, and compelling game that wasn’t diluted down to suit their platform.
Well, after this roaring success, Night School Studios got to work, aiming to catch lightning in a bottle once again with Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals.
The good news is that it’s more of the same for fans of the first game, and it’s a competent sequel. However, I have to say, it doesn’t hit the lofty heights of the original, offering a weaker narrative and a lack of new and innovative ideas.
I know you are looking for details, so I won’t keep you waiting any longer. This is Indie Game Culture’s Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals Review, conducted on PS5.
Camena By Moonlight
We begin with the visual stylings and world design of Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals, which has you explore a new area called Camena, a quaint little coastal town in Oregon. Which, surprise, surprise. Is just a short boat ride away from Edward Island, where all the madness of the first game ensued.
The main difference in world design between this game and its predecessor is that the map is much larger, and in theory, this gives you more to explore.
However, this has good and bad qualities. On a positive note, this means you won’t be returning to the same locations over and over again like the original. However, it does mean that there will be lots of sections where the dialogue will cease, and you’ll just be wandering the coast in silence.
This isn’t all bad, because the game maintains the artistic charm of the original, with a 2D watercolor approach. Not to mention that the visuals as a whole are much sharper, meaning that character models don’t look like blurry androgynous blobs like they did in the original Oxenfree.
This means that, even when there’s dead air, you’ll still have some eye candy on screen. However, overall, I think the choice to scale things up really hurts the pacing of the game without any tangible payoff.
Also, the game feels like it’s pulling a lot of its punches from a visual standpoint. With the benefit of seven years to learn from the original and take advantage of leaps forward the industry has made technologically, I expected the set pieces to offer a lot more than they did here.
There were no big swings at all, really, and it feels like the developers were resting on their laurels. In short, the scaled-up map and refined visuals flatter to deceive, as this is just more of the same.
A Netflix Original
The one benefit of being Netflix’s sole successful game studio is that you can lean on their expertise, which usually equates to creating original IPs, uncovering stars for unique roles, and adding production value through incredible sound design.
If the original Oxenfree is anything to go by, this game really had nothing to learn in terms of nailing video game audio, as Oxenfree already had stellar voice acting, and a unique ARG approach to sound design. Well, the good news is that the second game in the series maintains this level of audio quality, with authentic performances, surreal ARG additions, and a subtle but effective soundtrack.
The standout performances unsurprisingly come from Elizabeth Saydah as Riley and Joe Bianco as Jacob. However, even though the other characters aren’t as well-written, there isn’t a weak link in terms of vocal performances here.
The delivery always feels grounded and authentic, providing adequate pauses, awkward stumbles over words, and emotional reads throughout.
My only small hangup is that due to the constant dialogue, accompanied by the game’s goal to have you use your Radio and Walkie-Talkie in moments of silence, the soundtrack rarely penetrates through. However, all in all, Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals sounds every bit as good as the original.
More of the Same
We jump over to the gameplay within Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals, which has the potential to really upset a few keen fans. I say ‘the potential to’ because the gameplay was never the main selling point of Oxenfree. The look, the feel, and the narrative are what made the original such a success.
However, the original felt like a success against the odds, where budget limitations and the studios’ debuting status forced certain choices.
Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals, in contrast, felt like a new opportunity. With an established gameplay format, and a fanbase hungry for more, there was room to explore new avenues, try new things, and make this more than a walk-and-talk adventure.
Well, I hate to break it to you guys who expected more, but this is practically an Oxenfree DLC, as the gameplay has barely changed at all.
That’s not to say there haven’t been any additions. In terms of narrative features, the game does add a new Walkie-Talkie feature that allows you to get to know characters that you never meet in person throughout your adventure.
However, this, in my opinion, feels like filler content to fill those quiet stretches between key story beats, as these characters feel pretty paper-thin, and with no interaction aside from brief encounters over comms, it’s hard to really create any sort of emotional attachment to them. Not to mention, it’s pretty easy to forget to check in on them at all.
Then speaking of the non-narrative mechanics added, the game adds some depth to the climbing mechanics by adding abseiling points, and the game adds a time tear puzzle mechanic, which allows you to go through rips in the fabric of time and space and travel to the past. These sound interesting, but in truth, they are pretty half-baked and superficial additions.
I hate to label an indie studio as lazy. Especially one that has created an IP I hold so near and dear, but that’s really how this comes across.
Every addition to the game feels so safe and uninspired. Like a solution to a flaw they’re reluctant to admit needs fixing at all. The radio and walkie-talkies feel like a band-aid to solve the long silences, and the time-tears and rudimentary puzzles feel like an illusion to make players feel like they are playing rather than simply experiencing a story.
It makes you wonder. Why does this studio not want to take a risk; because it might have been the difference between good and great on this occasion.
Leave. Is. Possible.
So, with no clear gameplay changes in sight, it meant that this game would live and die by its narrative. This was always going to be the case anyway, but even more so when it became clear that there was practically nothing else to support it.
Thankfully though, this is where Night School Studios shine, and manage to put together a compelling time-traveling epic that doesn’t rely too heavily on the original, which is something I was quite worried about going in.
This story has you play as Riley, a former Camena resident who has reluctantly returned to her hometown and taken a role as a Ranger’s assistant assigned with aiding an experiment with electromagnetism in the area. She’ll be accompanied by fellow assistant Jacob as they get more than they bargained for, inadvertently opening up the portal first opened on Edward Island.
This naturally means time loops, kids getting possessed by lost spirits, and you can bet Maggie Adler is involved somehow too.
The most pressing question you probably have is, can you play this as a standalone adventure? My answer to that is, you can, but you probably shouldn’t, as the story really does cater to returning fans, meaning a lot of the callbacks and subtle story beats present would sail right over the head of a new player.
That being said, it is a cohesive enough story with mainly all new characters, meaning if you really wanted to, you could start here.
Then comes the arguably more pressing question. Is the story as good as the original? Well, in a word, No.
The original Oxenfree succeeded on a number of fronts. It was a compelling story about time loops and trapped souls. It had a bone-chilling and mysterious setting to explore. It had a colorful cast of teen characters which were all as strongly written as the last.
There was a distinct horror vibe throughout the adventure, and your choices really felt like they had weight. On pretty much all of these fronts, Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals either comes out second best, or fails to provide a matching counterpart at all. It would be fine if the game was trying to set itself apart and try new things, but it really isn’t.
The thing I lament the most is that the game simply cannot be labeled a horror game. The title is to horror gaming what Scooby-Doo is to the horror genre. It has occasional eerie moments, but never comes close to being as unsettling as the original.
Then as for the setting. The game aims to give Camena the same ominous and cursed feel as the mysterious Fort Milner military base with things like Parentage, a cult that occupies the town, or the collapsed mineshaft that prompts the harrowing story of those who were killed within.
I get what they were trying here, but it all feels a little bit paint-by-numbers to try and achieve the same thing they managed before. It’s like building a shack in the middle of a field and calling it a village. Where’s the substance?
This weak writing permeates into the core narrative too, as while the main characters Riley and Jacob are just as strongly written and interesting as their counterparts Alex and Jonas, the other characters like Violet, Charlie, and Olivia all feel like convenient prop characters to keep the narrative moving.
One of the strongest aspects of the original was the group of characters and the teen-bop drama that came with that. The relationships between characters felt real and worth expanding upon. Whereas here, every encounter feels lackluster, to the point that, aside from Olivia, I believe the story could have existed without all the other characters and lost absolutely nothing as a result.
It’s clear the goal here was to tell a more grounded, adult story, and in spells, the game hits it out of the park. Riley is a fantastic character, her respective time-loop revelations were intriguing, and while I wasn’t mad about Jacob’s introspective nihilism, I can see the appeal of his character too. However, there just wasn’t enough time and care put into fleshing out the characters and world around them.
Let’s Do The Time Warp Again?
Then before we close things off, I need to rant about the replay value of this game, considering the game seems to pride itself on its multifaceted and branching narrative.
One thing I hate in games of this nature is the omission of a chapter selection function, because no matter how diverse your dialogue trees are, a second playthrough will rehash large portions of the first, and time is finite, so I don’t need that in my life.
I simply want to see the forks in the road and how different actions would alter them, and that isn’t an option in Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals. Meaning if you want to unlock more endings, or approach things differently, you need to play the whole 5+ hour adventure again, and if that doesn’t make you boot up a let’s-play on Youtube instead, then you are a more valiant and resilient gamer than I.
The saving grace is that, when you know how the story goes, and you aren’t collecting Adler’s Letters, things are a little more streamlined. However, aside from unlocking a new ending at the end of the game, I just don’t feel that the game offers as much replay value as the developers would have you believe.
I will concede that I did appreciate the player stats at the end of the game that showcases choices that you and other players made throughout; it goes some way to highlighting the limited forks in the road you can actually take.
Unlike the first game, where I was more than happy to play again just to get the achievement where you play through the game without offering a single response, I just don’t have that same desire to experiment with this game’s narrative, and perhaps that goes some way to showcasing just how much the story of this sequel pales in comparison to its predecessor.
Before we close up the portal and repair this fracture in the time-space continuum, we need to highlight a few games that you’ll probably enjoy if you were a huge fan of Oxenfree, or Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals. Here they are below:
- Life is Strange
- Until Dawn
- The Quarry
- The Dark Pictures Anthology
- Heavy Rain
- Killer Frequency
- A Night In The Woods
- Coffee Talk
When all is said and done, Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals is a wonderful narrative-driven romp, and a fitting sequel, but ultimately one that plays it a little too safe to be considered as epic as the first game in the series.
While the series maintains its excellent ARG sound design approach, looks much better than the first title, and adds a little bit more interactivity through rudimentary puzzles and climbing mechanics, the game fails to push the gameplay aspect of Oxenfree beyond walking and talking. Which means the game relies solely on its narrative offering.
The good news is that the story is a gripping one that is anchored by two very strong characters in the form of Riley and Jacob. Not to mention that there is a lot of fan service and fun tidbits included for returning players.
However, the holistic quality of the first game isn’t present here, as there are a lot more quiet moments due to the expanded map, the supporting characters are not nearly as interesting as the likes of Ren, Clarissa, and Nona that came before, and the horror present in the original is nowhere to be seen in this eerie but far from scary sequel.
I went into this experience fully expecting to love this game as much as the original. After all, the format didn’t need much tweaking.
All that was needed was a blockbuster storyline and some cool additions to keep things fresh. Sadly though, Night School Studio fails to make enough tweaks to the formula to make this feel like an upgrade on the original, and while the story is compelling, it falls just short of being good enough to carry the rest of the game on its shoulders.
Long story short, if you want more Oxenfree and you’re willing to overlook the lack of effort to improve on the original, then this will sate your appetite for narrative-driven adventure. But just like those aboard the U.S.S. Kanaloa all those years ago, this series remains stuck in the past.
- Improved Visuals without sacrificing the original’s charm
- Amazing ARG implementation, and stellar vocal performances
- Relatable, likable, lead characters
- Familiar gameplay format
- The story pales in comparison to the original
- Distinct lack of horror throughout
- Gameplay additions feel like filler content
- Secondary characters have no depth
- Frustrating replay options due to no chapter selection
Oxenfree 2:Lost Signals Review: FAQs
Question: Is Oxenfree On Netflix?
Answer: Yes, if you are a subscriber to Netflix’s gaming streaming service, you can play Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals on mobile.
Question: Do Old Characters Appear In Oxenfree 2?
Answer: Without spoiling too much, yes, the teenagers of Edward Island play a key role in the story of the sequel. Specifically Alex.
Question: Can You Date Jacob?
Answer: Unlike the teen romance themes present in Oxenfree, the sequel isn’t at all concerned with adding even a tinge of romance. So the furthest you will get with Jacob is the status of ‘3 AM Food Friends’.