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Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals
A sequel stuck between two worlds
Welcome to all the new subscribers from my Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser post! Have You Played is normally about video games but I plan to continue covering real world games, ARGs, augmented reality games, and I even have an unusual board game queued up.
I always start with a matter-of-fact description of games so you can quickly understand what they’re like to play, even if you’re completely unfamiliar with the genre. I’ll then explore what works, what doesn’t, what’s interesting, and what it means for the genre and games more broadly…
Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals is an adventure game where you investigate supernatural transmissions in the coastal town of Camena. You play as Riley, a woman returning home after years away.
As you walk, climb, and rappel through Camena, you’re constantly talking, both in person and on your walkie talkie. You also solve puzzles, none of which are hard. This makes its gameplay almost identical to the original, well-received Oxenfree. Also identical: the gorgeous landscapes, spooky vibes, retro aesthetics, and backstory.
The landscape of Camena – its port, forests, cliffs, beach, bridges, mines – is divided into a few large areas, each being a big painted 2D backdrop with dynamic environmental and lighting effects on top. In fact, it’s more accurately described as 2.5D because characters can walk around and behind some objects. As such, while artwork is layered and the camera automatically pans and zooms to best frame the action, there’s no Disney-style multiplane parallax.
This makes Oxenfree 2 very different to normal point-and-click adventure games. You really feel like you’re exploring a continuous, beautiful environment rather than seeing a few places in detail.
The flip side is that you don’t see much in detail, whether that’s dollhouse-like building interiors, or people’s physical appearances. Since characters are so small, the usual ways in which you might learn about them – clothes, expressions, gestures – are equally reduced if not completely absent.
This is where the dialogue steps in, among the snappiest, well-acted, naturalistic, mumblecore conversations you’ll ever hear in a game. A lot of this is with Jacob, an acquaintance from high school who joins you, but there’s plenty on the walkie talkie. Since there’s very little to interact with in the environment, most of the time you’re tapping a location to walk to while listening to Riley and Jacob’s endless chats. There’s no inventory, no “use hammer on ladder”, just occasionally choosing between 2-3 short speech bubbles representing the usual nice/neutral/nasty spectrum.
Unusually, conversations occur in real time. If someone asks a question or leaves a pregnant pause and you don’t respond as quickly as a normal person would, the game doesn’t wait for you to do something, it moves on and you’ve lost your chance to find out more. In fact, conversations are so important that even if they’re interrupted (e.g. by loading a new area or a character remarking on something unusual nearby), the same conversation will resume as soon as there’s a good moment.
At first, I couldn’t tell whether my dialogue choices made any significant difference to the plot. As with most games, story-driven or not, the overall shape of the plot remains the same no matter how nice or nasty you are. Still, I noticed that characters would remembered how well I’d treated them earlier in a way that didn’t feel forced; supposedly the way you treat Jacob can alter whether he sticks with you to the end.
My only knock on the dialogue is that a lot of the actors sound the same age, despite some being teens and others middle-aged. This is a pretty big deal given that you barely tell them apart from their physical appearance, and only exacerbated my confusion about what the hell was going on.
Because, as pleasurable as Oxenfree 2 is moment-to-moment – its smooth dialogue, striking retro horror visuals, clever metafictional elements – the story is frustrating and even worse, boring. The game begins with a mysterious cold open where Riley is jumping in space and time. She then wakes up at a bus stop in Camena, where she receives a phone call from Evelyn, her manager at an environmental charity she’s joined: she needs to start placing transmitters to monitor weird radio signals.
Neither Riley nor Evelyn have the slightest idea what’s going on – but the player probably does, since the entire plot of the first game was about discovering the nature of the very same time and space jumps. Dramatic irony is hardly new but it’s stretched to the breaking point in Oxenfree 2 with Riley completely in the dark until Jacob recaps a large part of the plot of the previous game a few hours in. Quite why he doesn’t do this sooner, I have no idea; “Tell, don’t show,” seems to be Oxenfree 2’s mantra, with the rest of the mechanics explained through walkie talkie conversations and vignettes.
These colourful time-twisting vignettes are an intriguing shift from trekking across Camena in the dark and provide more depth to Riley, but they prevent the story from gathering momentum. As soon as you’re getting into Jacob and Riley’s relationship, you’re thrown into yet another weird time portal where everything happens in a rush. With Riley in full “let’s get this over with” mode and Jacob a passive, self-aware Joss Whedon-esque sidekick, there’s precious little room for development.
“Escaping” the vignettes was an exercise in repeated failure – literally so, in one case, when I couldn’t figure out what hidden spot to walk to and either the game had had enough with my incompetence and forced the story along, or I was never meant to find it. When a crowd of angsty time-manipulating teens began running in and out of the story, interrupting my attempts to place more transmitters, my patience wore thin; they were always shouting variations on “no time to explain” before disappearing, the best of which was, “even if I wrote you a book, you wouldn’t comprehend it.”
More than once, Riley replies, “what are you kids even trying to do?” Indeed, the entire drama would’ve evaporated if everyone actually took the time to explain what they were trying to accomplish for more than 60 seconds – which is more or less what happens five hours in. At that point, you just have to place the final transmitter. Yet the game stalls with more rote puzzles and vignettes, delaying the conclusion.
The puzzles would be better called vibe-delivery vehicles. They all boil down to the same thing: tuning your radio or other machines to specific frequencies to unlock gates or manipulate reality and time. In practice, this means rotating one or more dials until you hit a sweet spot where it glows and something weird happens. These aren’t meant to be challenging, which is fair enough, but neither are they engaging. They’re also very similar to the original game.
While writing this, I read through Oxenfree 2’s marketing copy, which provides much of the context that’s missing from the game itself:
Five years ago on nearby Edwards Island, a few teenagers unwittingly opened a portal, creating a rift between realities and timelines. Now, members of a mysterious cult-like group called Parentage are deliberately trying to open a new portal to pull something out. Who are they? What do they want? Are they trying to contact ghosts?
Would you believe that practically none of this is communicated until hours in? Did the designers simply forget to tell players? Or did they think their loyal fans were going to play the entire game, no matter what?
I ask this because Oxenfree 2’s flaws are plainly a product of its sequel status. What felt fresh in 2016 (a full six months before Stranger Things debuted!) – spooky red lights, spinning portals, voice collages from olde tyme recordings – feels tired in 2023. The game wants to tell a new story but can’t resist paying so much homage to the original that it alienates newcomers and bores all but the most patient and fervent fans.
I wonder if the designers psyched themselves out. The premise of the original is simple yet effective: teens stuck on a remote island experience interpersonal drama and spookiness. Who doesn’t like that? But instead of taking the easy route and making Oxenfree 2 about the same set of teens, they zagged. I get it: some artists don’t like repetition. So they made Oxenfree 2 about a woman going through a midlife crisis amid exactly the same spookiness as before, except she has zero interest in the spookiness that surrounds her and no-one interesting to bounce off of.
Some have compared Oxenfree 2’s story to The Butterfly Effect, but it’s far closer to another movie, Arrival. Arrival is based on Ted Chiang’s brilliant novella Story of Your Life, which has such a time-bending yet emotional structure that most people, including me, thought it impossible to adapt.
We were wrong: the movie was fantastic. But we were also right, because Oxenfree 2 is obvious at best and frustrating at worst.
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