Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals‘ villains are already here. They exist, in the game world, occupying the airwaves and broadcasting their sinister messages out to the masses. Five years after the game originally launched on consoles and PC, developer Night School Studios has started patching new content into the original game, hinting that the villainous group (known as Parentage) from Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals are so powerful, they can alter time, space and – assumedly – the original game’s source code. Meta.
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But we wouldn’t expect any less from the studio that had the confidence to launch Oxenfree: an uneasy supernatural thriller about a group of kids on the brink of adulthood that accidentally tap into a dimensional rift in spacetime.
The original game won over legions of fans with its introspective journey and study of grief, guilt, and – well – ghosts, and the highly-anticipated follow-up is being painstakingly assembled with every crumb of experience the team has picked up from the experience of shipping a game that became such an internet phenomenon.
The original game’s cast of characters were just finishing high school when you took them on a memorable trip to Edwards Island, and the game reflected their liminal place in society: they were hungry to see what was out there in the wider world, anxious about the realities of adult life, and conflicted about leaving behind a childish sense of wonder and awe as a supernatural mystery played out before their eyes.
The choices that you made seemed forward-looking and were both narratively and mechanically significant. You could feel the ending(s) start to slot into place as you chose to alienate your friends, conspire with ghosts or erase people from history altogether.
Oxenfree 2 isn’t like that. Not quite. Set at the start of a reluctant homecoming (as protagonist Riley Poverly returns to her childhood home to become a low-level environmental researcher), the game’s cast is older and focuses on people grappling with the decisions they made in their adolescence – people starting to question the fundamentals of who they are, and asking whether they need to rewrite their entire personalities.
These themes of reflection and introspection are mirrored cleverly by the spacetime rifts that are starting to plague Camena – whatever those kids did five years ago has plucked a hole in reality, and unnaturally occurring electromagnetic waves have been interfering with the electrical and radio equipment throughout the small coastal town. Your task, as Riley, is to plant beacons at high points in the town to monitor the anomalies. Easy work, right?
Of course not. Though the game takes on a fairly open structure – head up, plant beacons, return to camp – strange places tend to attract strange people, and the waifs and strays of Camena will start contacting you on your walkie-talkie. Much like in life, the developers tell us during a hands-off preview that “there’s no right way to get to your goal”, either. A network of caves connects a lot of the game’s environment, linking points of interest up like a subterranean nervous system. So, at any given time – as the night progresses, constantly – you have the option to explore or converse with the inhabitants of this eerie world.
Some of them just want to chat, some of them would rather convince you something more nefarious is afoot, and some of them have tasks for you. You have, more or less, free reign to choose who you want to interact with: does that guy asking you to hunt down his backpack sound like a creep? Ignore him. Don’t want to make your way to the seafront to chat with this vague weirdo? Fine.
Just be aware that time moves on, no matter what you do, and someone you ghost early on in the game might just get eaten up by a rift if you freeze them out for long enough. Night School Studios wanted to layer on more complexities than you found in the first game by loading the title with both friends and frenemies – it helps with the adventure game side of things, after all: one person may help you finish up a quest better than another, so choosing to talk to them makes sense.
But it also rounds the experience out narratively; getting to know Riley via her interpersonal relationships, even in our brief session, allowed us to glean so much about her – about her values, her priorities, her neuroses. Some of the ragtag misfits you’ll hear on the walkies you’ll meet in person, some you’ll only hear from their voices, and you can flip channels to choose who you interact with – it takes everything you had with the radio in the first game and evolves it. Matures it, if you will.
Even in a brief demo of the game, it’s clear what Night School is doing with Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals. It wants you to get drawn into the anxious, self-doubting myopia of its cast (Riley, in particular) in order to highlight what could be taken away by the creatures plucking at the edges of reality.
A satire of real life, the game moves on as you agonise over whether to tend to your relationships or finish off the last bit of that job you had to do. As the characters reflect back on their lives and wonder whether they made the right choices in getting to where they are today, so too will you as you wander back to finish off that quest you started, only to realise the NPC has vanished into some weird space-time continuum.
The pressure of being a confused adult in today’s world, compounded with the pressure of making the most of your brief time on this failing planet, might strike a bit too close to home for those of you that like your video games to grant you a brief reprieve of escapism. But we think the direct, well-written, and endlessly intriguing way that Night School Studios goes about making it all work – and seamlessly link together – is nothing short of genius. The fact the studio is even making us loop back to the original game to get some more context and insight into its villains and their motivations shines a light on just how much the theme of looking back to go forward permeates this game.
Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals looks primed to be the first game’s older, bolder and more neurotic sibling… and we can’t wait to play it.
Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals arrives on PS5, PS4, Nintendo Switch and PC (via Steam) in 2022.