Although it bogarts its share of the zeitgeist every time a new series rolls around, Stranger Things, try as it might, hasn’t ever managed to penetrate the video game market in a meaningful way. Fortunately, Oxenfree exists for fans who crave that teenage coming-of-age, deeply analogue experience. It focused on the grief process, letting go, and tumbling headfirst into maturity, and really put Night School on the map in the process. For a quaint graphic adventure, Oxenfree had a big message.
I had concerns that Oxenfree II: Lost Signals, a sequel set five years after the episode at Edwards Island, might fall short of recapturing the spirit of the first, partly due to the studio being gobbled up by Netflix as they continue their forward march into the ‘game on the go’ space. Thankfully, Lost Signals is not only a tremendous footnote to the story put forth in Oxenfree, it’s propelled forward by relatable and real world traumas that a portion of the audience will have either dealt with, or will deal with.
While Lost Signals ties back to Oxenfree in both subtle and grander ways, its story introduces us to Riley who, while battling her own aimlessness, takes up a job in Camena helping erect transmitters around town over the course of one long night. Along with Jacob, who she meets by chance fixing his truck at the mouth of the tunnel to Garland, they plunge into a supernatural tug of war that feels very neat. Where Oxenfree felt contained to the gang itself, Lost Signals paints a broader picture of this Pacific northwest harbour town. Parentage is a zealous cult that takes root in town following the Edwards Island event half a decade earlier, led by Olivia whose hope is to harness the paranormal for her own gain.
And whether you’re living it, have lived it, or are staring down the barrel of the human burdens that these characters are ultimately fated with, there’ll be something to pull from between the lines. Some might find familiarity in Jacob’s fearful ambition, though I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of Olivia and Riley’s ideologies with one longing to retreat into the past and the other being trepidatious of their future. It all bleeds out of a well-paced narrative that packs in all of these complicated emotions. As someone who didn’t adore the writing in Afterparty, I feel like Lost Signals did settle into a groove after an awkward opening half hour when the team were still processing what teenage candidness might sound like.
Lost Signals is built upon the bones of its predecessor, and like any other narrative-focused graphic adventure it’s an uncomplicated game from a mechanical sense. With only a few actual gameplay elements to lean on, including tuning your radio frequency to tap into a paranormal ‘other side’ that neighbours Camena just like Alex before you, as well as a few others, the crux of the experience comes down to shaping stories and nurturing relationships through choices made throughout. And although the path I took was mine, the potential for permutation was evident and considering it’s a game that can be an afternoon’s distraction at around six hours mainlined, I expect both achievement hunters and those looking to towel up the story alike might go back for seconds.
As I’ve said, Lost Signals does so much well in expanding on the established lore and world of Oxenfree. One specific means of doing this was giving the player a bigger slice of Camena to play about in.
In fact, exploration feels like more of a focal point this time around and, as such, Night School has implemented a couple of gameplay hooks—one literal, one figurative—to make getting around both more efficient and enriching. Once found, a rope anchor helps in creating shortcuts around this not-so-sleepy corner of Oregon which certainly helps in circumventing a few rocky passes even if climbing is painfully sluggish. The walkie-talkie, on the other hand, helps maintain the isolated mood while introducing us to the night owls of Camena. One by one, strange cats will tune to your frequency and leave a request with you as though you’re an after hours disc jockey. Ancillary content is, of course, always welcome, although it’s debatable how integral any of it is and Riley, perhaps rightly, monologues about the main quest’s urgency as you weigh these tasks up.
Like Oxenfree before it, Lost Signals feels like a moody ghost tour. As though plucked from the mindscape of the Duffer brothers, it deftly blends lo-fi with vintage horror, not reliant on cheap scares, to create a general unease that looms over what is a dramatic character piece. I’ve always loved the visual appeal of Oxenfree, which uses strong, defined geometric forms and shapes to build its world up. Though the treacherous woods and peaks of Camena look nice under moonlight, it hits differently whenever the warmness of Riley’s analogue radio dial pops against what is so often a gloomy setting. Never mind the spectacular, triangulated voids that decorate the sky like cosmic gateways, both mysterious and humbling, and form the most notable part of Oxenfree’s iconography, which remain dazzling.
Despite the script’s opening hour doing its utmost to spoil things, it’s hard to fault either of the leads who deliver unguarded and tender performances amid a more than serviceable support cast. Despite all of that, the real star, for mine, is Andrew Rohrmann whose composition and audio design is a first class exhibition of otherworldly ambience that services both the supernatural and natural, human elements of the story in Lost Signals.
Lost Signals is a genuine feather in the cap for Netflix, with their acquisition of Night School now seeming like an inspired choice given their storytelling pedigree. Not only that, but by taking everything up a notch, it’s an earned sequel to the little, lo-fi horror indie that could.
What impresses me the most about Lost Signals is how it takes everything Oxenfree did and dials it up, delivering a bigger story within a grander, still familiar, framework that keeps player choice at the centre of it all. Riley’s story is a brilliant footnote to the strange things that have returned to plague small town Oregon once more.
A worthwhile sequel that builds out the original’s lore
Expands on the gameplay hooks of the first
Irresistible lo-fi presentation
A great character drama within a sci-fi context
First hour’s dialogue can be a bit cringe, but it settles into a groove
The rappel hook doesn’t exactly provide the swift shortcut you’d hope for