Over the last twenty-three years, plenty of gaming developers have been interesting to watch and grow, regardless of what consoles they’re attached to. Whether it be AAA companies like Insomniac, AA companies like Platinum Games, or indie developers such as New Blood or Toby Fox. However, to me, one company has stuck out and made a name for itself as a unique player in the industry: Remedy Entertainment.
A group of Finnish developers initially established Remedy in 1995. The company’s founders, Samuli Syvähuoko, Markus Mäki, Sami Nopanen, John Kavaleff, and Sami Vanhatalo, hadn’t worked on any games prior to Remedy’s genesis. Instead, they were known for creating self-contained demos for PCs. Nonetheless, they would soon start work on their first game: Death Rally. The game is a combat racer with a top-down camera. It would receive generally positive reviews from fans and critics alike.
That being said, Death Rally is not Remedy’s biggest claim to fame. Over the years, they have created several massive blockbusters such as Max Payne, Alan Wake, Control, and Quantum Break. I’ve had a fascination with Remedy’s games since I was a kid, watching a Youtube channel playing Alan Wake. As time has gone on, I’ve looked up to the company’s unique voice, whether it be in their game design or their narratives.
So, for the last few weeks, I have played every single game in Remedy’s history. While I haven’t played Death Rally, I have beaten every game from Max Payne in 2001 to Alan Wake 2 in 2023. As such, I feel qualified in delivering a retrospective on their history and in saying that Remedy is easily one of the best developers currently in the gaming scene.
Max Payne – Where It All Began
Remedy and GodGames published Max Payne in 2001. The game is a neo-noir third-person action game where you take control of the titular DEA agent. The story begins with Payne losing his family in a tragic shooting, leading him to swear revenge against the drug trade that took his wife and daughter from him. Along the way, he unravels a government conspiracy, a drug capable of driving its users mad, and the dark criminal underworld of the so-called “Noir York City.”
On the surface, Max Payne seems like the type of stereotypical revenge story you’d see in Sin City or The Punisher. However, a few qualities manage to separate it from other entries in the genre. For one, while the game’s controls are very much dated, the game still feels satisfying. Part of this is due to Max Payne‘s signature mechanic: bullet time. With the push of a button, players can stop time and pick apart enemies one by one in quick succession. The effect is heavily inspired by the beloved 1999 film, The Matrix.
Despite this, it was the writing that drew me into Max Payne. In spite of the game’s tricky levels and frustrating difficulty (I’m looking at you, dream levels), the writing is a master class in noir fiction. Film actor James McCaffrey expertly delivers the voice of the titular character. McCaffrey brings the writing of Remedy Creative Director Sam Lake to life. Sam Lake also provides the iconic (and infamous) face of Max Payne. The marriage of both Max Payne’s voice and the lines of dialogue he delivers is what makes the game unique and memorable, even after twenty-two years.
In summary, despite the game’s age, Max Payne is still a masterclass in third-person shooters. That said, it is in desperate need of a full remake. Thankfully, Remedy is currently in the process of developing one for both Max Payne 1 and Max Payne 2.
Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (Remedy Retrospective)
Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne released in 2003, two years after the original Max Payne. For the most part, the game shares a lot of mechanics similar to the game’s predecessor. Bullet time is still fun to use, the gunplay still feels very satisfying, and the controls still feel slightly off. Where The Fall of Max Payne differs from the first Max Payne is in its story. Instead of focusing on a broad criminal conspiracy, Max Payne 2 instead highlights a far more personal story for the titular character.
We see Max Payne still reeling from the events of the first game as he is forced to hunt the first game’s femme fatale, Mona Sax. He is forced to balance his duty as a police officer with his growing love for Sax. While in the midst of a moral crisis, Max Payne is faced with betrayal after betrayal as a new evil rises to claim New York City.
As a result of the more grounded story, I actually enjoyed Max Payne 2 more than its predecessor. The gameplay feels much better than Max Payne 1, and the story once again shines thanks to Sam Lake’s writing. The Fall of Max Payne fully established Remedy as a company to keep an eye out for. However, Alan Wake is the game that truly put the developers on the map.
Alan Wake – “It’s Not a Lake, It’s an Ocean”
Alan Wake, for better or worse, is a simple game. Remedy released it in 2010, and to that point, it was easily their most ambitious game. Alan Wake was Remedy’s first original world since the original Max Payne. It focuses on a writer by the name of Alan Wake, who is struggling with writer’s block. In order to find some inspiration, he and his wife go on vacation to the small Pacific Northwest town of Bright Falls.
What starts as a relaxing break and an opportunity for Wake to reignite his writing passion quickly turns rotten as a malignant force comes for him and his wife, Alice. As he looks for his wife, he meets with old and new friends while contending against the so-called dark presence and its far-reaching influence on Bright Falls.
As I mentioned prior, the story is quite simple. However, thanks to the writing of Sam Lake and the way the game feels like a TV show brought to life, it manages to be elevated above other games in the genre. Matthew Poretta expertly delivers the voice of Alan Wake. In a surprising choice, though, the face of Alan Wake is provided by Finnish actor Ilkka Villi. The marriage of these two talents makes Alan Wake one of the most likable characters in Remedy’s history.
The main problem with Alan Wake is in its gameplay. The loop of relying on flashlights to ward off the shadowy creatures, using a gun to defeat them, only to run out of ammo and batteries and look for both while running for your life is exhausting. The enemies often play cruel tricks and appear out of nowhere to deliver an attack that you can’t counter, partly thanks to the out-of-date camera.
Regardless of all these issues, Alan Wake is still a fun time and the beginning of Remedy’s transition from more gameplay-focused titles to games that marry the story with the gameplay seamlessly. One of the best examples of this union is 2012’s Max Payne 3.
Max Payne 3 – A Dark Descent (And a Hopeful Ascent)
Max Payne 3 is brilliant. While the game isn’t written by Sam Lake and primarily developed by Rockstar instead of Remedy, it still manages to be the best in the series. For starters, the gameplay has been drastically improved, and it feels sublime. Bullet time feels better than ever, and the gunplay is incredibly satisfying to get right. Additionally, there are a few mechanics that add to the strategy beyond just “shoot first, ask questions never.” The main example of note is how if you have a healing item in your inventory when you die, you get a few seconds to shoot your killer. If you succeed, you get back up and get to continue shooting enemies.
The main draw of Max Payne 3 is its story. Instead of feeling like Sin City and focusing on a grounded story in New York, it instead sees Payne in Brazil as he attempts to bodyguard a rich family from the country’s criminal underworld. What starts as a break from the mob-filled chaos of New Jersey instead becomes a chaotic descent into the madness of Brazil’s criminal underworld. Payne struggles with addiction as the people around him continue to suffer as a result of his inadequacy.
James McCaffrey brings Max Payne’s agony and conflict to life in a way that is almost mesmerizing. The way he speaks, combined with his words popping on screen to punctuate his dialogue, creates this sort of dire and hopeless tone. The game’s tone makes Max Payne’s eventual transformation into a mostly sober “hero” all the more satisfying. With Max Payne 3, Remedy’s thesis in their games focuses on characters improving themselves and overcoming both literal and figurative obstacles. Max Payne is the perfect encapsulation of this, and Max Payne 3 cements the character as one of gaming’s best.
Alan Wake’s American Nightmare (Remedy Retrospective)
Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is a short and fun adventure. Remedy released it in May 2012, a week after Max Payne 3. American Nightmare could not be anymore different than its predecessor. While Alan Wake asks you to cower in light as you hide from shadowy creatures, American Nightmare has you meeting them halfway with shotguns, assault rifles, SMGs, and the fearsome nail gun. It’s a nice refresher from the frustrating gameplay style of Alan Wake, where I was constantly cornered by enemies and ripped apart within seconds.
In terms of the game’s story, it’s far more basic than the original Alan Wake. Here, the titular writer must power his way through a time loop in order to stop his doppelganger, the charming and deadly Mr. Scratch. Along the way, he meets figures who are in danger from the Dark Presence, the shadowy force from the first game.
On its own, American Nightmare is a self-contained adventure that has very little relevance to the broader story. In reality, though, much of the set pieces and story elements in Alan Wake’s American Nightmare lead directly into Alan Wake 2, a sequel that would not release for another eleven years.
Quantum Break – The Black Sheep of the Family
Quantum Break is weird. In the lead up to my “Remedy retrospective,” this was the game I was dreading the most. I’d heard that it was the most divisive Remedy game, that it hasn’t aged well since its release in 2016, that it’s a gimmicky mess, etc. In booting it up, I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with everything I’d heard about the game.
The good news is that, as always, the gameplay is fantastic. The way you can manipulate time to tear apart your enemies is incredibly satisfying and feels like the proper evolution of Max Payne‘s original formula. The way that players can interact with the environment thanks to Remedy’s fancy new Northlight Engine is incredible and still holds up even to this day.
The story is once again written by Sam Lake, and while it is a bit more cliche than prior games as it focuses on time travel, future, past selves, and the idea of changing fate, it still feels impactful thanks to the performances of Shawn Ashmore and Courtney Hope as the game’s protagonists, Jack Joyce and Beth Wilder. Further, the game has some really interesting segments where you play as the villain, Paul Serene, as you can make a choice that will either help or hinder the main enemy faction. The results of your choice will be revealed in a live action TV show that accompanies the end of every chapter.
Unfortunately, this is where the problems begin. As a result of Quantum Break being a seven-year old game for the Xbox One that is dependent on a built-in streaming service, none of the episodes are accessible in-game. You have to either download them all manually or watch them on YouTube. The game is also rife with bugs and visual glitches. I encountered lag in the cutscenes, several pop-ins, and even a full crash during a loading screen.
As such, Quantum Break is easily the worst game in Remedy’s line-up. Even in spite of this, it still has some quality moments, and even though I couldn’t beat it as a result of an insane difficulty spike, I still think of it fondly. Although, that is partly because it would directly lead into Remedy’s next game: Control.
Control – The Dawn of a New Era
If Max Payne established Remedy and their unique writing style and if Alan Wake put the company on the map, Control fully defined them to the broader public. Most of Remedy’s games had unfortunately fallen into a niche category, appealing to only a few devoted fans. Control is Remedy’s first game that managed to appeal to the broader public.
Remedy released the game in 2019. They created Control with the Northlight Engine once again. This time, though, they pushed it to its limits as it has some of the best gameplay in Remedy’s history. Players take control of Jesse Faden as she ventures through the mysterious Federal Bureau of Control. Along the way, she gains the ability to fly, manipulate objects telepathically, and use a shapeshifting gun. All these tools are necessary to cast out the villainous Hiss from the FBC and save her long-lost brother, Dylan.
What made Control shine is its incredible world-building. The Federal Bureau of Control is a vast ecosystem filled with several unique characters, from the gruff former Director Zachariah Trench (played by James McCaffrey) to the goofy Doctor Caspar Darling (played by Matthew Poretta). The different supernatural mysteries at play and charming characters of Control make it unique, and it fully cements the Remedy Connected Universe as it provides a bridge between Alan Wake and Alan Wake 2.
In the end, though, every game I have just mentioned is a prelude. The reason I did this retrospective in the first place is because of Remedy’s best game to date and the one that every title for the past twenty-two years has been building up to: Alan Wake 2.
Alan Wake 2 – The Culmination of Twenty-Two Years
Alan Wake 2 is Remedy’s greatest achievement. It is the culmination of all the lessons they have learned to date. It pushes the Northlight Engine to its limits to deliver graphics and physics that feel borderline uncanny, the live action segments feel seamless and add to the experience rather than taking away from it, and the gameplay is satisfying and challenging without being unfair.
The characters in Alan Wake 2 are also fantastic. The titular character is at his lowest point as he is working to escape from the dark world he’s been trapped in for thirteen years. We see his mental state devolve as his desperation and desire to escape grows at the cost of his sanity.
However, Alan Wake isn’t the only main character in this game. Saga Anderson is the game’s secondary antagonist. Melanie Liburd provides the voice of the FBI Special Agent, sent to Bright Falls with her partner Alex Casey (voiced by James McCaffrey with the face provided by Sam Lake) to solve a gruesome murder. The two main characters add to the terrifying atmosphere of Alan Wake 2, and we can visibly see how the world and its horrors take a visible toll on them.
What makes Alan Wake 2 special is the effort you can see from everyone involved. Sam Lake is once again the game’s lead writer, but he is not the only major notable figure in this story. Matthew Poretta, Ilkka Villi, James McCaffrey, Melanie Liburd, Shawn Ashmore, David Harewood, Kyle Rowley, and more all helped give this game life. Is it any wonder that during The Game Awards, Alan Wake 2 took home three awards and made an impression on those unfamiliar with the series?
Alan Wake 2 marks the end of one chapter for Remedy. Yet, as someone who is now a fan, I feel confident in saying that the best is yet to come for this company.
Why Remedy Entertainment Matters
Remedy matters, not just because of their games, but because of their stories and the people that tell them. Sam Lake has continuously told powerful narratives that highlight the power and strength of the human spirit. Art, science, love, friendship, grief, addiction, all of these themes have been told gracefully by Remedy Entertainment.
Remedy is more than just the writers and directors. It is the composers, visual artists, concept artists, designers, and everyone who has contributed to each of their games for the past two decades. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the voice talent that has brought life to Remedy’s stories. I’ve already mentioned a few, but I want to name one in particular: James McCaffrey.
McCaffrey has been a voice in Remedy’s games since the beginning. He’s been Max Payne, Alex Casey, Thomas Zane, Zachariah Trench, and more. Sadly, McCaffrey recently passed due to illness. His voice will be sorely missed, and in playing the Max Payne franchise, I realized how he was undoubtedly one of the best voice actors in the entire business.
Whatever comes next from Remedy, I will be there, watching with eager eyes. Whether it’s Control 2, the upcoming Max Payne Remakes, or whatever new original IPs they have up their sleeve, I can’t wait to see what is yet to come. So, in a year of layoffs and bad business practices, here’s to Remedy and twenty-two years of more exciting narrative/gameplay experiences.