PC, PS5, Xbox Series X
October 27, 2023
In a horror story, there are only victims and monsters. In the topsy-turvy surrealist narrative of Alan Wake 2, it certainly doesn’t seem so black and white. In fact, this horror story lives somewhere in the middle, where heroes and villains are interchangeable and not everything is as it seems.
Alan Wake 2 is a continuation of the story, thirteen years after the original. Our titular writer has spent that whole time trapped in the Dark Place, after his sacrifice at the end of the first game. In the real world since then, Remedy Entertainment has steadily been refining its craft, with Control a stand-out when it comes to oddball characters, wild interconnected story-telling and compelling gameplay. Alan Wake 2, as a sequel we never thought would happen, feels like the studio has let loose. It feels completely untethered and unbound from board rooms and executive meetings about sales and marketing, uncompromising in its peculiar vision.
A super strange journey across multimedia hellscapes with plot twists set to ripple across the Remedy universe, Alan Wake 2 is deranged in the best possible way and one of the most riveting horror experiences ever devised.
Two for the price of one
Alan Wake 2 is a rollercoaster-like descent into madness, but cleverly takes a beat to warm up in the beginning. New protagonist FBI agent Saga Anderson arrives in Bright Falls to investigate strange murders that are occurring, which may or may not be involved in cults and ritual sacrifice. It’s a grisly and weird introduction, but it’s mostly played straight, as you get to grips with the fundamentals, investigating crime scenes and taking in the uncomfortable atmosphere.
Things start to take a puzzling turn when in town, total strangers start to recognise Saga. Torn pages from a creepy manuscript are littered about, describing her situation, and outlining what’s going to happen next. This isn’t a normal case, and the tension builds from there, until Alan Wake himself washes up on the shore of Cauldron Lake after disappearing thirteen years prior.
“…ultra-surrealist content that melds together FMV live-action scenes with in-game components to devilishly fun effect.”
Narratively, Alan Wake 2 bounces between both Saga and Alan, allowing you to piece together both sides of the tale at your own pace. While initially you’re forced to switch, beyond that you’re able to choose which story to spend time on, with no penalty for favouring one or the other. Saga’s half plays more like a traditional horror game, and her being new to this world gives her a relatable quality, as her excitement about a weird cult case escalates into something far more personal with her family in danger.
Is this the real life?
Alan’s half is where things become increasingly twisted and thrilling. In the Dark Place, Alan is desperately trying to find his way out, and he’s trapped in loops of strange TV talk shows, mysterious phone calls, shadowy creatures hunting him down and a world that is changing in front of his very eyes based on the edits within his own typewriter. This is where it feels like Remedy at its best, not afraid to push boundaries and include some ultra-surrealist content that melds together FMV live-action scenes with in-game components to devilishly fun effect.
This eagerness to bounce between different forms of multimedia may take some getting used to, but it’s certainly not a first for the talented studio; if you’re willing to jump on board and embrace the ride, by the end you won’t want to get off. The live-action material isn’t always just sitting and watching, either. It’s overlayed and spliced in during gameplay, discovered on television sets found in the world or even walked through like an ultra-strange museum. Its non-traditional delivery of traditional media will constantly keep you on edge yet intrigued.
Real actors in these scenes do a brilliant job of bringing the creepy twists and turns to life; Ilkka Villi is perfectly confused and determined as Alan himself, navigating an endlessly odd universe. Sam Lake plays another FBI agent Alex Casey, while also writing and directing the game himself, as if it weren’t meta enough already. Melanie Liburd does a lot of emotional heavy lifting as Saga’s story grows with intensity, while David Harewood is a stand-out for his discombobulating performance as talk show host Mr. Door. A less committed cast would make these scenes cringey, but this bunch (and the other supporting players) deliver strong performances that manage to effectively link the story together in unexpected ways.
A quiet place…
Apart from its unique way of presenting narrative, Alan Wake 2 has some other tricks up its sleeve that separate the gameplay experience from other survival horror games. As an FBI agent, Saga is constantly gathering evidence, which she is then able to bring together on a case board within her ‘Mind Place’. The Mind Place can be accessed at any time with the touch of a button, instantly transporting Saga to an office where she can collate her thoughts and make deductions based on what has been found.
It’s satisfying to piece together clues in this way, slotting them into different case files and reaching conclusions. Sometimes this is an essential step to furthering the narrative, so I found myself popping into the Mind Place frequently, which served as helpful reminders when bouncing between the dueling narratives as well. Slightly less successful is Saga’s Profiling of characters she meets. This boils down to simply choosing narrative prompts from a picture on a table, and then Saga uses her uncanny ability to find out new information… in her mind.
There is a narrative reason given for Saga’s ability so that it makes sense, but as a player, it usually just amounts to choosing prompts, listening as she figures out a solution and then moving on. I wish there was a more elegant way of gamifying the Profiling component of the Mind Place; it’s a great way to learn more in-depth information about key characters, but it’s one instance where the game simply told me answers, where the rest of the experience I felt more empowered to figure them out for myself.
Alan has his own internal area to teleport to, the Writer’s Room, where he can collect his thoughts and adjust the narrative of his own story. The Writer’s Room is less about collecting information, instead cleverly used to modify the Dark Place that Alan finds himself in.
By visiting key locations and uncovering more potential narrative paths (through ‘Echoes’ found within the world), Alan rewrites scenes in real time, changing views and shifting perspectives. Piecing together literal story threads to unlock revelations in front of you is a puzzle within itself and makes for some compelling and creative forms of scene-setting which seems quite fitting for the storyteller. It’s also crucial in uncovering secret pathways, finding key objective items, and ultimately furthering the story.
A more “in your face” version of this is Alan’s magical Angel Lamp that can be used to grab light sources, again modifying the Dark Place directly in your direct location to be something entirely different. It’s another neat puzzle-solving trick that forces you to be more aware of your surroundings, and reminiscent of the light switch in Control, is a slick visual seeing the environment change in front of you in the blink of an eye.
Baby, break the tension
A large part of what makes Alan Wake 2 so successful is the way it can build atmosphere and create tension within its dark universe. There’s a real sense of uneasiness and uncomfortableness at every turn, maintaining a totally creepy vibe throughout. It’s littered with jump scares where horrifying faces fill the screen during quiet moments, and locations are filled with intentionally disorienting visual trickery. It’s difficult to know what’s real and what’s not, which builds a truly terrifying tone that’s impossible to shake.
Combat will be familiar for anyone who played the original Alan Wake back in 2010 and is relatively similar between Saga and Alan. You’ll need to use your torch to burn the shadows off enemies, exposing weak points and making them vulnerable to gunfire. Then, you’ll need to blast them away using pistols, shotguns, or other firearms. The flashlight is also used to stun or distract enemies, either the ‘Taken’ possessed townsfolk in the real world or the ‘Shadows’ in the Dark Place Alan resides, and you can find a satisfying rhythm as you bounce between the torch and the guns.
“It’s difficult to know what’s real and what’s not, which builds a truly terrifying tone that’s impossible to shake.”
When multiple foes are coming at you at once, though, combat can feel a little bit slow and clunky. I was usually adept in one-on-one encounters, but when surrounded, it’s difficult to create distance between you and the demons. Particularly, they can close distance on you with fast, menacing teleporting abilities, and certain other creatures like wolves are inherently much more agile than you, making for some frustrating moments. Despite this, combat still feels crunchy and gratifying, with ammo supplies just scarce enough that you need to be conservative and choose your shots carefully.
Where Alan’s half of the story is unique and full of ever-changing scenes that keep you on your toes, Saga’s is prone to a few tropes of the genre. When the lights go out and you need to find yet another fuse to fix the power supply, or you need to backtrack through already-explored areas to find puzzle components, these roadblocks can sometimes slow the pacing. The upgrade system for both characters also feels somewhat tacked on, finding hidden elements in each world to then convert into your gun dealing more damage or having more health. When put side by side with the more exhilarating and unrestrained moments of Alan Wake 2, these mechanics just don’t feel as fulfilling.
A beautiful nightmare
As is becoming a trademark for Remedy, the visuals of Alan Wake 2 are absolutely stunning. Ominous red lights and strange hallucinations cut through the dark forestry that Saga explores, creating haunting shadows and potentially spooky apparitions lingering out of the corner of your eye. When she is forced to occasionally enter the labyrinthian Overlap, Remedy contrasts the darkness and light in its visuals even further, disorienting and confusing you.
The Dark Place is wonderfully recognised as a twisted version of New York, with neon signs illuminating the alleyways, flickering streetlamps, abandoned train stations and Alan’s subconscious thoughts littering the walls in graffiti. Exploring rooftops and uncovering more of the mystery through creepy hotels, cursed theatres, and eerie underground train tunnels, all with the lingering twist that the scene can be changed at any time using Alan’s ability, makes each location incredibly memorable.
The score is also intense, lingering in the background and truly punctuated by the loud interruptions that had me falling off the couch, startled. The way you hear creatures moaning and growling in the distance, or the way the shadows ominously grunt “ALAN WAKE” as they spot you never fails to keep you on edge. Thankfully, the interlude between chapters also includes some wonderful songs in the soundtrack, offering a great reprieve from the darkness and the chance to catch your breath. Some of the original songs created for this game are absolute earworms that I’m still humming days after I first heard them.
- Dark narrative with brilliant twists and turns
- Melds together FMV and in-game content with great success
- Stunning environments, full of spooky detail
- Unique puzzle-solving abilities
- A truly original mish-mash of storytelling ideas
- Profiling in The Mind Place can be unsatisfying
- Some horror game tropes in Saga's story
Alan Wake 2 is devilishly compelling from its weird opening all the way through to its astonishing conclusion. A completely bonkers horror tale with intertwining narratives, a masterful mix of multimedia and some entirely unique storytelling moments combine here to make for a thrilling escape into a dark, twisted world that I feared being in and at the same time never wanted to leave. Remedy has creatively let loose and created a true benchmark of quality in the horror genre. We can only hope that our next frightening visit to The Dark Place comes along much sooner.