Oxenfree II: Lost Signals Review: On the Radio

Turns out, what counts as horror in Oxenfree II is adult life itself.

Oxenfree II: Lost Signals
Photo: Netflix Games

Despite the legal definition, or even what well-meaning boomers might like to tell us, adulthood isn’t some magical badge you get to wear when you turn 18. Rather appropriately for Oxenfree, it’s more of a rope, anchored to one’s youth, that you must climb down at a glacial pace while attached to a variably heavy boulder, stretching your patience and skin out of shape while the anchor at the top starts fading into the foggy distance. And ever so often, something makes the boulder heavier, and a strand of the rope frays away.

This, it feels like, is more of the plot to Night School Studios’s Oxenfree II: Lost Signals than all the business about geometric trans-dimensional portals opening over the Pacific Northwest. Our heroes, Riley and Jacob, have both found themselves at the mortifying part of their descent into adulthood where the anchor is invisible. They’re forced to reckon with what the rest of the journey’s going to look like, terrified of just how far they’ve fallen from the simplicity of youth, and outright furious when confronted with the perilous stupidity of actual youth.

That’s a lot, especially considering that the first game mostly went on about dead submariners haunting high schoolers through the radio, but it’s not as out of pocket as it seems. Oxenfree concerned five teenage friends who found themselves trapped on Edwards Island, forced by the supernatural to face the enormity of their futures in the face of their petty problems. Insofar as it’s a sequel, Oxenfree II is just about people a little further into their life’s journey.

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Riley is a discharged veteran returning aimlessly to her hometown of Camena, Oregon, and Jacob is an anxiety-riddled townie who went to high school with Riley but never left. Both signed up with an environmental research project for the duty of setting up transmitters around Camena to investigate the strange signals radiating from Edwards Island. What they find is that the island is still very much the hotbed of paranormal activity that it was in the first game, and there’s a new bunch of angsty local teenagers who seem to be very okay with that.

Mechanically, Oxenfree II isn’t dissimilar from its predecessor, aside from a few quality-of-life improvements like being able to continue conversations in progress even when transitioning to a new area of Camena. It also offers gentle, forgiving, and overly easy platforming elements, overflowing with dialogue dotted with branching responses. Once again, puzzle solving involves a radio that can be tuned to the exact right station that can interact with the beyond, but there’s also a walkie-talkie mechanic where the long walks from one end of Camena to the other are broken up by some oddball microstories happening across the town.

If anything, much of the mild survival-horror aspects of the first game have been muted here altogether, making for an even easier experience akin to a visual novel than a horror game. There are still a few legitimately jarring bits of imagery—a waterfall that starts raining dead bodies for a moment might be the peak of it all—but this is a game that settles for a nice, steady baseline of the unsettling instead of aiming for a terrifying peak every hour or so.

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Turns out, what counts as horror in Oxenfree II is adult life itself. Conversation is persistent across the game, even above and beyond how integral it was in its predecessor. For one, in an attempt to keep the eccentric, nervous-talking Jacob calm through a night’s work, Riley can choose how forthright, earnest, cagey, or, downright bitchy to be in response to his constant yammering, road-trip games, and never-ending need for emotional honesty.

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And yet, Oxenfree II’s dialogue branching is less about the right choices for the right ending than an emotional litmus test for the player. Even at her most guarded, Riley is overwhelmed during the course of the game by the very literal ghosts of her past, present, and future. And despite the mundanity of what haunts her, there’s a trauma at the heart of it all that she’s never dealt with, and the player is given the reins to navigate her through it.

That’s special in the realm of gaming, especially in contrast to the teen horror of the first Oxenfree. I can’t think of another video game with writing so keyed into the elder millennial terror of knowing that few of the milestones of adulthood that we were told about would be within our reach, and those that we do attain come with a crippling price tag, financially or emotionally. The game understands the conflict between being too old to feel comfortable around younger folks and too young to accept the labels and hallmarks of middle age.

The ever-present insecurity about the trials of an uncertain future make for some of the most affecting character building in the medium, and it’s hammered firmly into place by the game’s antagonists, if one can call them that: a group of kids, raised by Camena’s new-agey communal religion, whose staunch resistance to responsibility to the town or the people around them is the force that Edwards Island’s ghosts intend to exploit in order to potentially break reality.

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The game puts Riley and Jacob in the unfortunate position of being the responsible adults that these kids despise in order to keep the world safe, and every time they assume the roles, the gulf between their life experiences grows even more distant, their own youth harder to recall, and harder to empathize with. Therein lies the challenge every time Riley and Jacob must confront one of these kids: They’re the parents now, and neither is prepared for the burden.

That is, as mentioned, a bit of a paradigm shift for how “young adult” the original game skewed, but an important one, creating an engrossing, if more casual, experience. Oxenfree II, seven years separated from its predecessor, is all grown up, and while it’s not quite yelling at clouds yet, it’s rather pointedly a game that’s quite literally about getting the kids off its lawn.

This game was reviewed with code provided by fortyseven communications.

Score: 
 Developer: Night School Studios  Publisher: Netflix Games  Platform: PlayStation 5  Release Date: July 12, 2023  ESRB: T  ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Language  Buy: Game

Justin Clark

Justin Clark is a gaming critic based out of Massachusetts. His writing has also appeared in Gamespot.

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