You’re probably familiar with the phrase “lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice.” It holds true for most media. Spin-off series are never quite as good as the series that spawned them. Movie sequels often don’t capture the magic of the first one. So on and so forth.
Games are no different, especially when it’s the sequel of a game that was a surprise success. Such is the case of 2016’s Oxenfree, a smash indie hit that’s become a cult classic. Its blend of drama and horror, quippy and interesting characters, fantastic visuals, and stellar dialogue decision system wowed its audience. So, naturally, they wanted to recreate that.
Oxenfree II: Lost Signals picks up five years after where Oxenfree left off. Riley has arrived back in her small hometown of Camena to take on a new job: putting up radio transmitters. After being told that her gear is in the now closed general store, Riley instead sets off to find Jacob, the man she’s been partnered with due to him having a vehicle. After a number of missteps, the two end up going to place the first transmitter when they notice something strange. There’s a large, triangular portal over Edwards Island.
Suddenly, everything goes haywire, and Riley finds herself stuck in a time loop. Armed with a radio and a walkie-talkie, Riley and Jacob must find a way to save the town from destruction.
If you enjoy puzzles, you may like aspects of the gameplay. Rifts open up across the island that will let you move between time periods. Each one has a puzzle associated with it, and these can range from riddles to mazes to perspective games. They aren’t necessarily mind boggling, but they’re okay, and they help break up the monotony of the dialogue portions of the game.
Honestly, the game could have used more of these puzzles, because the decision making and exploring portions of the game are long, tedious, and become boring quickly. As you walk with other characters, you will see dialogue choices pop up frequently, usually with 2-3 options each time. The game boasts that every decision you make impacts the story, but it doesn’t feel that way when you’re constantly choosing a response to irrelevant chatter. Not to mention, most of the dialogue in the game is flat out boring and hard to sit through.
This is only worsened by the fact that you never move faster than a slow walk, so getting around takes forever. This is a weird choice for the game, as it involves heavy backtracking and very little actual exploration of the landscape to keep the walk interesting. I found myself having to take breaks after barely half an hour of playing because things were simply too slow and frustrating.
Which, by the way, is not a smart idea, because this game has no manual save option. You have to play until you hit the end of a dialogue sequence or move to a new area, otherwise you’ll be stuck replaying the piece you just went through. This is a strange omittance to me, especially as someone who plays a lot of decision based narrative games. Typically, games like this have a manual save and multiple save slots so players can save at each decision and pick up in that area during subsequent playthroughs. Perhaps Oxenfree II omits this because it simply contains too many moments of dialogue choices that (supposedly) matter.
Lastly, the walkie-talkie and radio are meant to be a large part of the gameplay. The walkie-talkie comes with nine stations that you can use to call people, such as Evelyn, your boss, and various others. Talking to people over the walkie-talkie can help you uncover new lore and secrets, but like most of the dialogue in the game, it sometimes feels like it drags. The radio, on the other hand, is used to tune into the various frequencies around the town (and sometimes catch a ball game or Maria’s radio show.) Unlike the walkie-talkie, though, the radio serves little purpose other than tuning to supernatural frequencies.
The problem is that neither of these features feel very underdeveloped. The radio was introduced in Oxenfree as an important tool for learning lore and frequency puzzles and Oxenfree II relegated it to only being used for frequencies and being used far less often. In addition, I’ll be honest, using the walkie-talkie was a chore. I didn’t like taking time out of my already slow and tedious treks to hear more dialogue and make more decisions. The walkie-talkie also overshadows the use of the radio; the walkie-talkie is where you can talk to others and learn more about the world of the game, and unfortunately it puts Oxenfree’s original mechanic in the land of forgotten toys.
The plot doesn’t find much footing, either. Just like the dialogue and gameplay, it’s kind of boring. The horror elements don’t build terror or suspense, the story is buried beneath a lot of exhausting (and sometimes simply unnecessary) dialogue, the characters lack chemistry and personality – it’s just generally underwhelming. There’s very little to sink your teeth into, especially in the beginning, and it just never finds its hook at any point.
However, Oxenfree II does have great visuals and sound going for it. The aesthetic of the game is great, and in this sense, it nails the spooky, small town atmosphere. I can appreciate the voice acting, though it’s often expressively flat. Given the rest of the presentation, I think it actually fits well and adds to the gloomy tone.
Oxenfree II: Lost Signals tries hard to make lightning strike twice, but for both fans of Oxenfree and for those playing it as a stand-alone, it fails to hit the target. Updated gameplay features would have been better left the way they were, meandering dialogue and oversaturation of decisions that feel pointless become annoying and boring, moving from area to area is slow and creates frustrating backtracking. However, most egregious is that it never manages to tell a proper story because it lacks suspense, charm, and characters to support it. Don’t let yourself get struck by this one; you’ll only be disappointed.