Night School Studio excels at creating living, breathing characters who thrive in spite of the simple, side-scrolling format of their games. The original Oxenfree placed these characters in a familiar feeling beachside town, driving them through all too relatable circumstances of youth and teenage frustration amidst supernatural goings on. Their follow-up title Afterparty swung in an opposite direction, delivering equally relatable young adults within an outlandish facsimile of Hell. Oxenfree II lands somewhere in the middle with characters that are tangible in some ways, but unrelateable in others, environments that are sometimes grounded and realistic and other times the most vivid, hauntingly outlandish sights the studio has ever crafted. Oxenfree II doesn’t feel quite like anything Night School Studio has done before, and that’s absolutely for the best.
Despite being a sequel, Oxenfree II kicks off in a very not-sequel-y way. The game opens on Riley Poverly, a new character who’s returned to her hometown Camena to help an environmental research group install electronic equipment in the surrounding area. Even Riley herself is thrown into the middle of things, waking up on a park bench in the middle of town with seemingly no idea how or when she got there.
There are small, ominous tones vibrating in the periphery of the game from the get-go. It’s clear that the events of the prior game mattered, for example – Edwards Island is just visible in the distance, and RIley’s partner on the job Jacob Summers shares rumours of dead sailors and paranormal activity that are hauntingly familiar if you’ve played the last game.
At first, Oxenfree II felt cold and distant, and not entirely gripping. The original game was a teen coming-of-age adventure with a dark twist, ramping up slowly but surely as you followed the characters. There’s nothing sure about the sequel. Your protagonist is an unreliable narrator, and with ghostly distortions and decades of whispered history haunting the town, everyone else has a hint of unreliability to them, too. There aren’t familiar archetypes or backstories to immediately latch onto here, but those complicated characters allow for the slowly seeping horror and mystery of the game to ramp up higher and higher as you progress. Incredibly familiar territory is covered in this game when it comes to the cosmically-horrific twists and turns, but if you’re a fan, the fact that this territory is being covered again at all is the biggest mystery of all.
And if anything else, Oxenfree II is an undeniable improvement over the original game in the category of scares and horror. There are no jump-scares, and certainly not of the cheap variety. There are some moments of sudden loud sounds or unexpected imagery, but they’re just as earned as they are effective – and in many cases, they play with the presentation and rules of the game in ways the original never tried. You’ll be hit by sudden TV static, glitching character models, moments of unresponsive screens where a button tap simply makes your character crumble into bones. The fourth-wall breaking nature of those scares kept me engaged, but it also kept me confused in a couple moments where conversations looped or stopped awkwardly in ways that felt more like actual glitches instead of artistic choices.
Other scares are subtle, and soft. You carry a radio with you in this game, and can tune it to various frequencies whenever you want – catching public broadcast stations, pirate radio frequencies, and even a highschool music station. On my way to solve some scifi snafus at the top of a cliff, I paused in the middle of the forest to have Riley fiddle with the radio. There’s no ambient music here, just light tree rustling and infrequent bird chips in a dark, moonlight-bathed park. The silence was almost deafening, and cutting through it was a creepy broadcast that felt like a sermon, going on about true evil and worldly injustices. The lack of sound in my surroundings made an already ominous radio feel even more-so, and I couldn’t help but feel my heart sink deeper into my stomach the more I listened, imagining terrors in the corners of the screen or a sudden ghostly glitch to startle me.
There’s another bit of ingenuity to the portable radio, as well as your new portable walkie-talkie – with nine channels on it, you can scroll between them all at any time to keep in contact with a bunch of different characters. Oxenfree II is as much of a walking-simulator as Night School’s other games, with puzzles mixed in that engage but rarely frustrate. Trekking through the quiet town of Camena was rarely dull, though, because between my face-to-face conversations with Jacob and the numerous walkie-talkie calls I’d be getting or receiving, there was always someone talking about something. And those moments never disappointed. Dialogue in this game is so masterfully written, with every line carrying that perfectly realistic tone that makes you think, wow, Jacob really is just that greasy younger brother from the country that never quite left his hometown.
Oxenfree II is a choice-driven experience as well, and it does an amazing job of making those choices not only feel important, but natural. Despite being the kind of game that some players will assuredly go through with a guide to try and get the “best” ending, experiencing it all raw makes you feel even more immersed in the unfolding moments. I was never quite sure when a moment was a scripted hallway of horrors or a genuine chance at forging my own path forward, so every time the narrative stakes rose – a character close to death or an interrogation on the brink of failure – I felt myself at the edge of my seat making sure I gave it my all, whether it ultimately mattered or not.
And I think it all does matter, no matter the outcome I achieved, because Oxenfree II managed to make me feel so invested in these moments, and find passion for the lows and highs of these characters that felt so alien in the beginning of the game. This isn’t as cleanly defined a genre-adventure as it’s predecessor was, but that helps every beat of the story feel that much more intriguing. You never quite know where things are going, and by the time you think you do, it’s already gone in a different direction. Some technical issues and slow opening moments hampered immersed, but once it got it’s hooks in me, it ended up becoming one of my favourite sci-fi horror experiences yet.