Remedy Entertainment has always been one of the most unique players in the gaming industry. Even as far back as their very first game, Max Payne, writer Sam Lake and the rest of the company have gone out of their way to deliver narratives and gameplay experiences that frequently defy the expectations of the genre. Their latest game, Alan Wake 2, is no exception.
Remedy published the first Alan Wake with Xbox back in 2010. The game was inspired heavily by the works of Stephen King and David Lynch, with the latter’s Twin Peaks informing much of the game’s characters and design elements. Director Markus Mäki and Writer Sam Lake wanted to make a sequel for a long time. However, sales for the initial game were low, and publishers weren’t interested.
Thirteen years later, and four years after Remedy’s smash-hit Control, Alan Wake 2 is finally here. As someone who never cared for Alan Wake‘s gameplay but adored the story of both it and Control, I can confidently say that Alan Wake 2 is the company’s best work yet.
Two Stories, Two Perspectives
Right off the bat, Alan Wake 2 may not be the experience that many expected. For one, the character does not only focus on the titular character and author Alan Wake. The game also allows you to play as FBI Special Agent Saga Anderson. Players can control both characters in their own unique stories. The power of modern consoles enables the ability to switch between Alan and Saga nearly seamlessly. Further, players are also given the choice to either go back and forth between Alan and Saga’s story or finish one before moving on to the other.
Let’s start with Saga’s narrative. Saga may not be the character players waited thirteen years for. That said, her story is just as important and exciting as Alan’s. She starts as an ordinary FBI Agent, partnered with fellow agent Alex Casey, voiced by James McCaffrey and performed by Sam Lake himself. Casey is an excellent homage to the Max Payne franchise as the same combination made up the original two games. The character’s design is also likely a test for the upcoming Max Payne remakes.
Saga is a detective. Therefore, her missions are dedicated to solving mysteries. You control Saga as she attempts to solve a series of gruesome murders that quickly turn twisted as more supernatural elements begin to seep into the narrative. Saga is a fish out of water in the dark world of Alan Wake. Despite that, her character, voiced by Melanie Liburd, is a brilliant contrast to Alan’s darker environment. Her humor and relationship with the characters around her consistently brought me joy.
Speaking of dark environments, Alan’s story is far more twisted. If Saga’s story is a survival horror/detective thriller, Alan’s is like walking through a nightmare with no escape. His only goal is to leave the Dark Place, a sinister dimension he’s been trapped in for thirteen years.
To escape, he must write the perfect story to free him and protect his loved ones. Alan’s desperation to exit the loop is conveyed beautifully by Matthew Poretta’s voice and Ilkka Villi’s visual performance. The dichotomy between Alan and Saga is excellent to watch, and the moments when their two stories intersect are the best in the game.
A Beautiful Nightmare
On the subject of nightmares, I have to discuss the visuals in this game. The graphic quality at play is some of the best I’ve seen in any game, let alone in 2023. In Saga’s segments, the Pacific Northwest wonderland that is Bright Falls tiptoes between moody and warming. One second, you could walk through a sunlit diner; the next, you could traverse a forest so dark that even your trusty flashlight won’t help light your way forward.
However, the real star of the show comes in Alan’s segments. The Dark Place is a profoundly fascinating overworld. At every corner, Alan is stalked by dark shadowy figures that repeat demeaning phrases: “This is my story.” “Wake up!” “The darkness inside…” At times, the voices overlap and create a haunting effect that is enhanced if you’re wearing headphones.
It constantly rains in the Dark Place’s nightmare variant of New York. The city is adorned with an ever-present red light, and live-action footage will play to create a greater sense of uncanny within the player. Even the signs and graffiti in the game talk to you, referencing characters like “Scratch” or “Casey,” or speaking directly to Wake, telling him to “Stop writing” and that “You die here.” There’s even a behind-the-scenes video the company published that explains how they captured the atmosphere of the Dark Place. These moments instilled a feeling of terror and suspense I hadn’t felt in a long time. That, combined with the gameplay, made this a survival horror game unlike any other.
“This Story is a Monster” (Alan Wake 2 Review)
Remedy Entertainment has dipped its toes into many genres over the years. For the most part, though, all their games have been under the third-person action shooter genre. In contrast, Alan Wake 2 is Remedy’s first-ever survival horror game. Players shouldn’t expect the game to be derivative of Resident Evil. Instead, Alan Wake creates its own identity, inspired by not just other games but other movies, books, and more.
Saga’s segments lean far more traditionally into the classic Silent Hill-esque horror. Frequently, fog and night will overtake your vision, making it near-impossible to determine where you’re going. Fortunately, thanks to your flashlight and different weapons, you at least have some defense against the dark forces that seek to end your story. While shooting enemies, players may notice how the wounds left by their bullets leave a lasting and gruesome mark on the monster. It’s a visual touch that often had me wincing in awe at its brutality.
Even with evading cult members, possessed monsters, and even some surprisingly sturdy wolves, Saga is still trying to solve a mystery. That’s where the Mind Place comes in. The Mind Place can be traversed anytime you press the options/touchpad button on your controller of choice. It is a separate environment where you can access the map, look at your clue board, and even access collectible manuscripts and commercials.
Despite it being a separate level, the transition between the main game and the mind palace is seamless and, save for a few occasions, rarely breaks the game’s flow. These segments feel similar to TV shows and films like True Detective and Se7en, with the combination making Saga’s story feel like one of the best detective/investigation games in the industry.
If Saga’s story feels like a tribute to detective shows and movies of the last twenty-five years, Alan’s story feels like Twin Peaks on steroids. His gameplay segments have a similar template to Saga. Both characters fight the same type of enemies with the same tools. However, the general aesthetic and ambiance are far different. For one, the shadow beings that Alan Wake encounters aren’t always out to harm him. These shadows will surround you, and only some of them will attack, a design choice that constantly had me paranoid and on edge.
Further, instead of having a mind palace, Alan has what is called “The Writer’s Room.” The Writer’s Room allows Alan to change the scope of the “story” or world to progress. I enjoyed these segments far more than Saga’s, as experimenting with different scene and keyword combinations (like Lobby and Cult, Stage and Devil, or Alleyway and “New York’s Finest”) was a treat to mess around with.
As a whole, I thought Alan’s segments of the game were far more interesting than Saga’s. Exploring the Dark Place was unlike anything I had ever experienced in a horror game, which made Saga’s segments almost feel boring in comparison. It got to the point that I finished with Alan’s story so fast that I was forced to finish Saga’s to further progress to the end of the game. Unfortunately, it is in Saga’s story that some of my problems with the game become clear.
Stuck in a Loop
One of my biggest problems with the original Alan Wake was that the gameplay loop of “stay in the light, shine a flashlight on enemies, shoot enemies when they’re blinded, rinse and repeat” got old quickly. I had a similar problem with Control, where the game quickly got boring after the first few hours. Unfortunately, while Alan Wake 2‘s gameplay loop is far better than its predecessors, it suffers from very similar problems as a whole.
Like most survival horror games, ammo is scarce. This is good, as it ensures that players would always be at the edge of their seats during any combat encounter. Every bullet matters as you don’t know when you’re finding more ammo. In the Alan Wake side of the game, this isn’t a problem. However, with Saga, because Bright Falls is so dark, it was rare that I saw who or what I was supposed to be shooting. It didn’t help that because enemies are so bullet spongey; when wolves would leap in just off-screen before I could react, I would scramble for the trigger only to realize I had no ammo.
These problems purveyed the game’s entire ten-hour runtime. On its own, I wouldn’t have minded these issues. Unfortunately, because of frequent framerate dips and odd glitches, I ended up frustrated at the game for dooming me to be killed unceremoniously by an enemy due to no fault of mine. Even the story, which I thought would mark the end of Alan’s story, but instead only leaves more questions than answers, disappointed me slightly. The game’s end feels like most modern-day movies: setting up the sequel without a proper resolution to the current story.
Overall, I wish the lighting of Saga’s segments were slightly better, that enemies were less resistant to bullets, or the ending was more definitive. As it is, though, especially with the lack of New Game Plus or a physical release, this game joins the long list of other 2023 titles that you may want to wait for a patch and DLC before purchasing.
A Visual and Narrative Treat to Behold
Regardless of these shortcomings, Alan Wake 2 is still one of the most fascinating games released this year. Its ambition is commendable, its visuals are stunning, and its narrative is one of the best this year. With the many surprises the game holds for both long-time Remedy fans and series newcomers, any survival horror fan should absolutely give this game a try.
The game is set to receive two expansions in 2024, titled The Lake House & Night Springs, respectively. I eagerly anticipate how Remedy will continue to shape its identity as a studio, creator, and innovator through the Expansion Pass. Now, let’s hope it doesn’t take thirteen years for the next entry in the series to come out.