There was something quite special about the original Oxenfree. Night School Studio’s walk-and-talk adventure game lets players uncover the mysteries of Edwards Island, fall for (or be sassy to) its ensemble cast of characters, and make plenty of dialogue choices along the way as things got creepier and creepier.
Thanks to a hands-off preview session with Oxenfree 2, the sequel isn’t looking to break what isn’t broken. Instead, it seems the developers, nearly all of whom are back from the original, have found clever ways to deepen the base of Oxenfree’s world and spin it out into surprising new attempts to break our brains a little, and introduce some endearing new characters to boot.
Oxenfree II is set in the same world as the original, but focuses on a brand new cast, with players taking on the role of environmental researcher Riley. She’s come back home to the town of Camena to figure out why electronic equipment is being affected by strange radio signals. Unsurprisingly, Camena isn’t that far from Edwards Island, and the supernatural events that begin to unfold over one night threaten this charming coastal town.
A new cast doesn’t mean your time with the original Oxenfree will be for nought, whether you played years ago, revisit before the sequel, or are just picking it up now. There will be plenty of acknowledgements to the first game’s story, and in fact, the developers have even been updating the original Oxenfree on PC with new audio clips that help bridge the story of this sequel’s villains, Parentage, with the original game.
But the focus seems to primarily be on Riley’s story. Her confident tone, mixing a bit of snark with an undertone of warmth, fits right at home in Night School’s chatty world. The first game’s dialogue blended West Wing-paced chatter with Veronica Mars-esque wit, and though these characters are older, that blend still feels right at home as Riley and her friend Jacob explored Camena in the section of gameplay I saw.
At the end of the day, a game like Oxenfree will live or die by how charming, or at least interesting, these characters are, particularly given that players are constantly making dialogue choices. Thankfully, Oxenfree II seems to continue to nail that tone of realistic, casual conversation that Night School excelled at in both the original and Afterparty, and Oxenfree II looks to make the player’s choices matter even more this time around. A small example we saw involved Riley trying to cross an ultimately un-jumpable gap by, well, jumping it, falling to a rock a little below. Jacob takes a much safer route, climbing down a rock wall to help her back up. Even a small decision like that could lead to new permutations in conversation, and I’m fascinated to see how scenes can play out differently, as a moment like this was something emblematic of what the developers strove for in the sequel.
“It was definitely an initial goal of ours: we wanted more choices that aren't dialogue-based. We wanted you to be making choices with your physical decisions about what you're doing and how you want to go about that,” Studio Lead Writer Adam Hines told IGN. “It also pushed us to design the environments in ways that would allow those types of moments to actually occur. There's very few times when there's just one path to get up or down. You always have more forks in the road and more micro-choices on how to get to certain spots.”
Another particular highlight demonstrating the relatable nature of the characters came when Jacob and Riley played a game in which they told each other a story word by word.
I love moments like that, and have in Night School’s past games, so if the team can continue to deliver those personal, witty scenes like they do here, I can’t wait to see what else we might discuss while exploring Camena.
That little game, more importantly, stems from a character beat – Jacob is pretty freaked out by everything happening, and the game helps to calm his nerves. It’s so key for moments like that to not feel kitschy and to be rooted in who these characters are, and it made me appreciate the scene all the more. I guess it’s also worth mentioning that Jacob was nervous because, well, he and Riley had ended up in 1899.
Gotta Go Back in Time
You see, time tears have started opening up around Camena. They’ll allow Riley and her companions to journey through time to a point that will hopefully offer some assistance in their journey. In this case, the duo, while venturing through the tunnels that spread all throughout Camena (a surely handy exploration device for a world the developers estimate is about 2.5-3 times bigger than Edwards Island, though they noted players shouldn’t necessarily expect a sequel that’s three times as long to play), discovers a time tear that brings them back all the way to 1899, back before the mines were abandoned after a major collapse. Thankfully, in this time period, there’s a working elevator that, through a bit of quick puzzle solving, Riley and Jacob get moving in order to help them reach another time tear and return to their point of origin. There’s only one problem – they’re trying to pull off this bit of platforming and puzzle solving as the mines are, indeed, crumbling around them.
I’m certainly a sucker for interdimensional rifts, and while Oxenfree is using them on a much smaller scale than, say, Ratchet and Clank, it seems no less integral to Oxenfree II’s story. Not only does it allow for a game so focused on its characters and location to deepen our understanding of those facets in ways that just couldn’t be done on a standard timeline, it also lends some appreciable grey area to Riley’s actions. Did her and Jacob’s meddling happen to cause the mine collapse, or did they just happen to be in the right place at the wrong time? I hope Oxenfree II doesn’t necessarily answer questions like that – it’s the type of time-loopy rabbit hole a story like this allows for, and I love the potential this one sequence promises.
The time tears are as exciting a potential route to explore as a player as they seemingly were to develop. “In the first game, the lion's share of choice and interaction came through dialogue… but these time tears have become something really exciting for us, because it is the type of thing where, as the night degrades and as things are breaking down, all of those spaces that you're seeing will have some new things that pop up inside of them that change contextually based on where in the night the game is,” Studio Lead Sean Krankel said.
“You can conceivably go explore most of Camena and then come back to a space that you're in and things will have been changed a little bit,” he continued.
This time tear is one placed along the main narrative path, and while the tears will certainly come into play there, players can expect to find some of them, as well as other sidequest opportunities throughout Camena.
“[Time tears] are definitely not all directly tied to the exact story that you're going through now,” Hines explained. “A lot comes out of the walkie talkie side quest that you can encounter and choose to do. Those side quests will all be roughly related to the event that's happening in the night, but the people's specific problems go off in wild and weird ways that you have to sometimes go around the beaten path to solve.”
But my introduction to time tears also represents a scene coming about an hour or so into the sequel’s story that feels bigger than most of what the original Oxenfree could pull off. Years later, Night School seems to have learned plenty about how to bring these characters and this world to life, not just in terms of the obviously improved character model fidelity, but in the complexity of sequences that also retain the haunting, beautiful art style of the original.
And it’s not just the scale that seems to be a focus for Night School; the more expansive size of Camena doesn’t just make for a bigger world – it lets Night School fill the town with more interesting objectives, side quests, and more. The demo showed a couple of ways in which the developers are pulling this off.
The first is the use of a walkie-talkie that not only allows for a wider group of characters to interact with the player wherever they are in Camena, but also gives the player agency in initiating conversations, whether to remind them of side quests, or learn more insight into characters along the way. It’s a nice bit of expansion to Night School’s underlying theme of choice – not only do you get to choose what to say in conversations, now you have a bit more choice in when you want to talk to some characters.
“Having the walkie talkie in there and allowing the player to start conversations with people that aren't on screen, with characters that they've met and want to tag in with and see how they're doing or ask for advice or something, was a big nut that felt great to crack, the ability to start a conversation to drive it in the way that you want to,” Hines said.
Additionally, movement and exploration has been expanded thanks to the inclusion of a rope players acquire early in the game. Riley having an ex-military background gives some plausibility to her more adventurous leaning, and players can rely on that skill and the rope to navigate to bits of Camena you wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach. It doesn’t suddenly transform Oxenfree into a twitchy platformer, but it again offers the player more choice, and, just as importantly, more methods of satisfying their curiosity about what secrets Camena holds.
“There's absolutely more traversal built into the design, but it's not heavy platforming and double jumps and swinging across things,” Krankel explained. “It's more about wanting the player to parse out the map differently and not just feel like they're pressing from left to right and talking.”
My short time seeing Oxenfree II certainly indicated that there’s a lot more than just walking left and right and talking. As Night School noted, Oxenfree isn’t transforming into some unexpected genre, unrecognizable from its predecessor. Instead, it’s aiming to deepen the promise of player agency and choice within an authored world and story, and do that in ways that extend beyond choosing dialogue options during a conversation. I, of course, still need to play Oxenfree II, and see how that sense of choice extends to the full adventure, but the promise of its expanded potential seemed clear in just this brief section. I hope the rest of Camena is just as memorable a place to explore.
Jonathon Dornbush is IGN's Senior Features Editor, PlayStation Lead, and host of Podcast Beyond! He's the proud dog father of a BOY named Loki. Talk to him on Twitter @jmdornbush.