OXENFREE II: Lost Signals Review
Talk is cheap. But when it comes to videogames, talk is hard. Creating good dialogue in games is tricky because it is easy to offer either too much or too little. Dialogue should be interesting but not complex. And it has to be delivered with impeccable timing. For games with lots of traditional gameplay, there is wiggle room when it comes to the talking parts. But when a game is almost entirely dialogue, there is pressure to find the right frequency. Like its predecessor, OXENFREE II: Lost Signals puts a lot of weight on dialogue, but it is not always carefully delivered. And while its story should appease fans of the original, some of the novelty has faded.
OXENFREE offered a somewhat unique adventure back in 2016. You controlled a teenager, Alex, as she walked around winding paths across nice-looking hand-drawn 2D environments. Along the way, you listened to conversations, selected dialogue options, and tuned into strange radio signals to counter hostile ghosts. Lost Signals features more of the same, but parts of the narrative are too much of a rehash and it lacks significant gameplay changes.
For the sequel, you play as Riley Poverly, a woman over 30 who has returned to her hometown of Camena to help run experiments. She is tasked with placing transmitters around the coast, overlooking Edwards Island (the setting of the first game). These transmitters will help to decipher unexplained radio signals. Since Riley is a new employee, a research assistant provides objectives via a walkie-talkie. For some reason, the first transmitter has to be placed at night but Riley has a travel companion. A local handyman, Jacob Summers, tags along for the adventure, mostly for safety reasons because the coastline has dark caves and sheer cliffs that must be scaled with basic climbing equipment.
Jacob is reserved, with low self-esteem that is paired with the typical self-depreciating humor. He also tries his hand at poetry to detach himself from anything scary. In contrast, Riley is more confident and athletic, but not without problems from her past. She’s estranged from her father and seems to be coasting through life, having joined the military for a short time. These two main characters have satisfactory platonic chemistry, with a few good jokes along the way. Jacob’s moping can be tiring though, and Riley’s personality verges on abrasive.
Once Riley and Jacob place the first transmitter, a weird triangular portal opens in the sky. This causes all that spooky weirdness from the first game: characters get possessed, ghostly figures appear, time starts to loop, and there are even rips in the fabric of space that allow them to circumnavigate obstacles. Riley will see her father during these interludes, as though she were much younger. Like in the first game, dead sailors from a sunken submarine will do anything to escape from being lost in time. The only way to close the portal is to quickly plant three more transmitters at the highest points on the coast.
Three rebellious teens also run interference against Riley and Jacob. The leader, Olivia, wants to go inside the portal, for reasons that will be revealed. Her lackeys are subservient but not entirely convinced. At first Olivia’s companions merely lock gates and refuse to talk. Dialogue choices will alter how they perceive Riley and consequently whether they continue to help Olivia or step aside. The inclusion of teenagers mirrors the first game, but they are not that interesting because we barely get to know them.
More characters can be contacted via Riley’s walkie-talkie. Although it has nine channels to cycle through, there are only five major characters to chat with, including the research assistant. One is a high-school radio DJ that offers life advice while needing plenty herself. Another is a sailor who loves to wax poetic about the ocean. A park ranger gets weird calls while she does her rounds. And a paranormal expert is drawn to the obvious. They each provide more lore and have small narrative arcs, but none are captivating. While they do call Riley on occasion, you will often have to scroll through the channel list to see new conversations. New dialogue has hidden cooldowns, and that means you can miss conversations if you are efficient at placing the transmitters.
Most of the dialogue is decent enough. There are a few pearls of wisdom and cool life observations, some of which are delivered with abstract metaphors. The game even creates some poignant moments with an apt ending. The three pop-up dialogue options are succinct but do not always make it clear what Riley will say. And more than a few times, none of the replies (or silence) seemed appropriate, with a short timer to select an option. Some exchanges were overly verbose, and while the voice acting for the whole cast is good, a few had glacial delivery. Since dialogue cannot be skipped, players who use subtitles will be well ahead of the game. The long-winded conversations are more annoying during a replay of the five-hour adventure, which is required to see alternate endings.
The dialogue is not always delivered smoothly while gadding about either. With Jacob, the walkie-talkie, those pesky teenagers, interactive spots, and cutscenes, the adventure interrupts itself often. It tries to ensure nothing is missed—by slowing Riley during major chats and resuming conversations with Jacob after the 10-second loads between areas. Even walkie-talkie contacts can be prompted to keep going post diversion. But some chats with Jacob clearly had missing exchanges and walkie-talkie contacts repeated themselves. Since many conversations go for longer than it takes to walk across a screen, the game inadvertently encourages players to wait at the precipice. For an adventure that invests so much into walking and talking, it is strange how the two are not always in sync.
Aside from dialogue, there is not a lot to do. You move Riley from point A to B, via the winding and branching paths. The climbing gear is not used for much except dropping ropes to create shortcuts; jumping between ledges and scaling cliffs requires nothing more than clicking on the path ahead. Riley will need to tune into radio signals, like Alex did before her, to open locks and break people out of a trance, but this is boring. There are signal-alignment puzzles where you adjust four levers, but they are barely used and not much better. The best portion of gameplay involved clumsily adjusting a portal to enter a specific year from the past, although it was sadly a one-off. When there is no talking, it is shocking how boring it all becomes.
At least the game looks and sounds good. The 2D painted backgrounds are a bit like paper cut-outs and similar to the first game with muted colors. It varies the setting, from strolling across a sandbank under the moonlight to exploring a ghost town near a church. The atmosphere can be spooky but it is never scary. Music helps to set the tone, with 80s-style synthesizer twangs and paranormal tinkling. Characters are represented by small 3D models on 2D backgrounds, but some animations are a bit exaggerated. While mostly stable, a few technical issues cropped up. Some interactive spots could not be used and Riley also got stuck because the camera stopped panning. All were resolved by restarting the game, but that meant returning to the previous screen transition.
OXENFREE II: Lost Signals is an adequate sequel that should satiate fans of the original due to its themes and story, but its working parts are not always on the same wavelength. The new characters are satisfactory, with Riley and Jacob being a suitable main pair that holds the narrative together. Conversations are usually fine and some of the dialogue is poignant, but there are too many interruptions and lethargic delivery. The practically nonexistent gameplay sticks out more than its predecessor because the story feels like a do-over and lacks excitement. Lost Signals may have benefited from less talking and more doing, but that is a conversation for another time.