Oxenfree II: Lost Signals - Hands-Off presentation
After 30 minutes with Night School Studios' upcoming mystery adventure, we wonder if we're on the same wavelength.
Just like its predecessor, Oxenfree II: Lost Signals is a graphic adventure that lives from conversations, sparsely used music and the decisions we make. Night School Studios mixes a complex and supernatural narrative with simple puzzle elements, to build a stage on which the game's story and its characters develop slowly over time. Most of the time we walk from one point to another, while listening to what seems like an endless flow of thoughts from our protagonist or their party. From an interactive point of view, the studio's games aren't a particularly exciting pastime, but fans appreciate the narrative expertise of the indie team, which has produced some of the most believable conversations between video game characters in the past.
After a foray into the Booze-ridden hell of Afterparty (that couldn't grab players the same way the original Oxenfree did), Night School Studios returns to the eerie mystery realms with Oxenfree II: Lost Signals. The game starts five years after the first big hit of the Californians and it takes us to Camena, which is not far from Edwards Island (the location of the first game). This time we control the naturalist Riley Poverly, who has gone to this place to investigate abnormal radio frequencies.
For a while now, Camena has been plagued by inexplicable electrical disturbances, which are of course more than first meets the eye. It turns out that an evil cult called 'Parentage' operates in the small town and the supporters of this association are up to no good. They want to use what the teenage Alex and her friends unleashed in the first Oxenfree to bring about an uncertain change that might not only affect the few people who live on this place. After the presentation, the developers made it clear that players do not have to play the first Oxenfree to understand Lost Signals. While there will probably be references and allusions to be found, the knowledge from the previous instalment is not necessary to follow this new story, is what studio head and co-founder Sean Krankel commented.
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In contrast to the earlier works by Night School Studios, Oxenfree II: Lost Signals centres around a slightly older cast of characters. Riley is a woman in her thirties who worries about her future just the same as Alex or Milo and Lola did in the previous games of the developers. She, too, seeks answers to her questions, as most of us do. However, when she learns what is behind the current phenomena and that there are people interested in making the situation even worse, she decides to act. Uncertainty can be frightening for someone who has something to lose, but the fear of giving up control over their own future, possibly losing one's independence to act freely, can also be a good motivator.
Night School Studios wanted to show us how Oxenfree II: Lost Signals works in a gameplay presentation. In this save state Riley had been on Camena for some time already and was able to process the situation in which she is in. Together with a colleague named Jacob, the young woman sets off to explore a cave. Equipped with professional climbing gear that was previously found, the duo undertakes the difficult descent and eventually climbs into an old mine shaft. After a short time, they find themselves before an abyss that they could not bridge, but instead of starting the way back, both decide to look for an alternative way that leads even deeper into the dark of the cave.
At the bottom we find a time tear that we can make resonate using certain radio frequencies. The echo expands and opens a portal that takes us to the year 1899. During this time, the old mine is still in operation, and so are some of the tools that were left behind. For example there is a functional elevator that we use to get Jacob to the exit. However, shortly after the elevator reached its destination, the mine started to shake and falling stones threatens to bury Riley beneath them. She must solve a platforming puzzle to catch up with Jacob before the cave collapses over her head.
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What made this scene so special is down to the careful use of music. Adjusting the elevator to the correct height so that Riley can use it as a temporary platform is something we've seen hundreds of times in games like this, but because of the gentle synth soundscape that changes fundamentally and suddenly enters the foreground, this scene gains enormous power by itself. As soon as the onset of tremors begun, a recurring sequence of notes started looping and with each of Riley's steps additional elements were incorporated into the melody, giving this light puzzle an impressive, driving intensity that reverberates. However, our demonstration ended at this point.
A few scenes earlier, on the way into the dark cave, Riley was radioed by a stranger who asked us a favour. There were different options to choose from as to how she could have handled the situation and all these small micro-decisions are supposed to have an impact on the game, according to Night School Studios. We influence interpersonal relationships, might learn something about the background stories of the various actors and if we choose the wrong answer, we may even block out options that are no longer available from this point onwards. In the case of the unknown caller, we had to take a little detour to earn the trust of the local fisherman, who may or may not be able to provide interesting information about the region. Blocking chances is not a tempting thought, but I also don't particularly like choking on options, so we'll have to see how this wealth of choices plays out in the end.
According to High School Studios, the route Riley and Jacob take to get to their next destination will have quite the impact on the game. If we take a detour, we may or may not encounter certain characters (be it in person or via radio), that we would have missed otherwise. Unfortunately, I couldn't find out what exact effect the passing of time has in this game, but the developers provided another example that illustrates the importance of the chosen movement option: At one point Riley can try a breakneck jump over an abyss that might save Jacob an arduous detour. Our behaviour in this conversation can cause Jacob to make fun of us or to worry about our wellbeing, so it has an influence of our relation with him.
We haven't seen much of Camena yet, but it seems to be a large place with some complex surroundings. In the dark cave, the developers single-mindedly descended into the darkness of the abyss, which I could barely make out in the pixel mud on my screen. I don't want to rule out that the impaired visibility is also due to my internet connection, because the gameplay presentation took place in a live stream environment. Visually, Oxenfree II: Lost Signals looks reduced and less intrusive than the garish Afterparty. The game is very down to earth at this point and it seems to be staying true to its central radio theme. During the time travel sequence, for example, a purely visual disruptive effect was superimposed on the image, as it could have happened on a Cathode ray tube-TV from a time long forgotten.
In one scene, a vision interrupted an incidental conversation between Riley and Jacob to present the players with a dramatic imagination. In another situation, someone who claims to know Riley well calls her but this appears to be the first time Riley has heard this guy's voice. These scenes are supposed to confuse and unsettle us, but Riley hardly reacts to them. Her voice actress speaks rather calmly after getting such confusing messages, which sometimes doesn't quite fit the situation. I'm curious to see how that works out in the rest of the game, because otherwise the voice cast seem to deliver a satisfactory performance.
Oxenfree II: Lost Signals might be a very similar game to it's predecessor, since Night School Studios builds heavily on its origins while reiterating and expanding on those strengths. Overhearing the casual talk between Jacob and Riley and how well they adapt to the situation they two found themselves in, felt pleasant, but the mysterious callers and this strange vision were a bit too forced for my taste. I'm optimistic that they can help to elevate the mystery of Camena even more, if the studio is handling those elements with care. This requires a special editorial skill, which High School Studios shown a few times in the past already.