First and foremost, Oxenfree II: Lost Signals is about relationships fostered by charming, witty, then seriously dramatic communication. What makes this supernatural science fiction story work well is humanity and empathy. If your thing is shooting and fast-paced action with a thin plot, Oxenfree II wouldn’t attract your attention. If you care about narrative, if you crave tension that grows like a Lynch or Hitchcock film, oh, how this game will get under your skin.
During a storm, you wake up on the dock which leads to a seemingly pleasant seaside town of Camena, Oregon. Riley, the character you play, moves into the town’s center where, via walkie talkie instructions from your boss Evelyn, she begins her job of setting up transmitters at high points along the island. She’s helped by Jacob, who knows the island’s ins and outs along with some of its secrets, and claims to know a number of Riley’s high school friends. Their banter together, whether it’s complaining about a broken truck or talking about blue-tinged sunsets on Mars, is so natural and compelling it occasionally rivals the dialog between Ellie and Joel in HBO’s The Last of Us. (Maybe that’s why Netflix (NFLX) bought Lost Signals developer Night School Studios. There could be a streaming series here.)
Within the first hour, you’re asked to place the initial transmitter high atop a mountain. To get it going you use your controller sticks to create visual geometric shapes by homing in on radio dial frequencies. The transmitter connects quickly with another across the harbor—and hell slowly begins to rain down. Portals to other times and places have been created. Above them is a triangular geometric portal of aurora borealis-inspired lights. It’s not just an opening. There’s something evil about it.
The most haunting portions of Lost Signals come when ghostly teens with red eyes are encountered. It’s utterly searing when one of them is seen about to jump off a bridge. Why would she do that? Has she been mocked in school? Are her parents to blame? Is a cult involved? It’s a complex mystery that must be solved by morning.
So much of Oxenfree II’s success depends on stellar voice acting, especially Elizabeth Saydah as Riley. Saydah’s voiced a score of video games, some in major roles, some more minor. But she always hits the nail on the head. That’s not easy in this case, because Oxenfree II lets you choose how Riley should react from three possibilities, sometimes with freaked-out drama, sometimes with Dorothy Parker-like wit, sometimes with a logical tone.
That’s not to say that Joe Bianco’s Jacob isn’t essential to the story. Often, Jacob speaks with a self-deprecating, nerdy sincerity born of slacker-like insecurity. He’s a babbler, but it’s a credit to Bianco’s craft (and the writing) that he’s never uninteresting. But Saydah has a weightier load to carry with Riley, and Riley just about always is on point, no matter which emotion you choose for her to spew.
Oxenfree II isn’t about life-like supernatural graphics à la Resident Evil. It’s a throwback to late-’90s point-and-click adventure games—you see almost everything from extreme wide shots or panoramic perspectives. The watercolor-like backgrounds, the looming mountains, the engulfing caves, the thunderous waterfall, all give the impression of a world too big to comprehend, however wondrous its natural beauty may be, however important your own self-discovery may be. The environment engulfs your soul and mind as much as the supernatural elements do. Equally potent is the music, which occasionally uses a theremin to enhance a discordant, unsettling conflict. (I wore headphones to experience the soundtrack more fully, because my TV speakers are inadequate.)
Oxenfree II does have a glitch or two. As Riley and Jacob get to know each other there’s a lot of walking and talking. There’s a combination of surface chatter and revelations of deeper tragedies as the two climb mountains or descend steps. You have to be very precise in stepping down a simple ladder to get Riley to move—mess it up and you’ll have to take time to get to the right spot precisely. Sometimes, if you don’t hit the right location, Riley might spin around and around. And the anxiety so carefully built through narrative and moody artwork goes out the window in those moments.
Some may feel there’s not enough game here, that story becomes too paramount. I disagree. True, the plot was occasionally too complex to follow as I moved from portal to portal and time period to time period. But the dialogue itself is part of the game play, and the choices you make shape the story itself, affecting Oxenfree II’s outcome. By the end, after all the emotional ups and downs and life and death events, I was a tearing mess. Riley and Jacob were no longer characters. To me, they had become friends, close friends. And I didn’t want to let them go.