Given how long it’s taken for Remedy to get a sequel to Alan Wake off the ground, along with the reputation the original game has received of being a bit of a flop, you’d forgive Remedy for wanting to play it safe when giving Wake a second chance. No risks, no mess, no fuss, just a great horror shooter that’d appeal to both newcomers and long-time fans. That wouldn’t be the Remedy way though, and instead they’ve delivered a game that is unapologetic and uncompromising in its vision and execution. If you’re even the slightest bit of a horror game fan, Alan Wake 2 is not to be missed.
A tale of two heroes, Alan Wake 2 follows both Wake and newcomer Saga Anderson as they try to deal with threats regarding the Dark Place. Saga has been summoned to Bright Falls to investigate a series of ritualistic murders, but along the way stumbles upon some really spooky stuff, including manuscript pages that predict the future. Meanwhile, Wake is still trapped in the Dark Place after the events of the original game, trying to use the Place’s power to make art into reality in order to write a story where he escapes.
The end result is two stories: Initiation and Return. Return is the tale being told in the real world, which has dragged Saga, her partner Casey and her family into its dark web, while Initiation is all about Wake’s continued attempts to both escape and make sense of his predicament. A dual protagonist story doesn’t sound all that innovative in a horror game, especially after games like Resident Evil 2, but it’s the choices Remedy makes in this yarn that make it compelling. And yes, that does include the 15 minute musical number about a third of the way through Wake’s section of the game. Whatever Remedy has been paying Poets of the Fall over the years, increase it immediately.
Alan Wake 2’s whole premise relies on how meta it all is, both in universe and in regards to Remedy as a whole. The whole in-universe, “story-within-a-story-within-a-story” plot, and the layers that slowly unravel over the course of the game’s 20+ hour runtime is one thing, but then there’s characters like gruff detective/walking Max Payne reference Alex Casey. To top it off, Casey just so happens to be voiced by Max Payne actor James McCaffrey and modeled after Remedy head Sam Lake, who was the original face model for Max Payne. Oh, and Casey is both a fictional character written by Alan Wake, and a real person. Wrap your head around that one for a minute.
It’s a risky move for Alan Wake 2 to go this elaborate in its pursuit to be the most meta game since FarmVille, as in a lot of instances in gaming, being overly meta can come off as pretentious or like it’s trying too hard. All too often, it feels like a shortcut for writers to appear as smarter than what they are, when in reality it’s just Deadpool shouting “get a load of this guy” through the fourth wall.
You could make the argument that Alan Wake 2 side-steps that issue by parodying itself, in a way. All the events of the game are the work of Wake, an author who is kind of pretentious about art anyway, so of course the events would devolve into this reality blurring ridiculousness. On the other hand, it could be seen as putting a hat on a hat; playing out the one joke too much by adding too many layers. Like all great works of art, the beauty of Alan Wake 2 is that there’s no wrong answer. It’s not going to be to everyone’s taste, and that’s completely fine. The fact that Remedy swung for the fences in the first place is admirable, and as far as I’m concerned, they knocked it out of the park.
The presentation also helps in that regard, building off the vision that was introduced in Control by layering live action footage together with in-engine cutscenes. The graphics and presentation alone are stunning, with the Dark Place and Washington offering some gorgeous visuals, but it’s the confident way that Remedy adds real-life snippets of footage to illustrate narration or provide some effective jump scares where Alan Wake 2 really shines.
As for the gameplay, longtime-fans will find Alan Wake 2 to be a lot more tense and slower-paced than the first game, which saw Wake gunning down Taken like he was the Doom Slayer. The action is much more grounded this time around, as even just two enemies can be enough to overwhelm Saga or Alan. The gunplay feels much tighter this time around too, with each pull of the trigger offering a satisfying punchiness.
The only real combat gripe worth mentioning is how the flashlight boosting has been changed, as instead of holding the left trigger to burn away a Darkness Shield, you tap the right bumper to use a block of battery power. It takes some getting used to, and doesn’t quite feel as intuitive as aiming at an enemy to strip their shields, but this is a survival horror game after all. Making it too easy for the player would take the fun out of it.
Where the gameplay of Alan Wake 2 really shines is how the two protagonists interact with the story and world around them. Alan can learn certain words that can change scenes within his story, unlocking new paths, collectibles and loot in the process, which adds to the game’s puzzles, even if it’s only a simple case of trial and error. Watching the world literally change around you never gets old though.
Saga’s abilities are much more interesting, as she uses her detective skills to find clues, profile suspects and make deductions about the ongoing case. Inside of her “Mind Place”, which she considers her version of the Mind Palace technique, she organizes her clues and thoughts on the case board, using the evidence collated there to make deductive leaps. While it’s not a case of using the clues to form your own conclusions, the Mind Place is an effective way of mapping out Saga’s ongoing thoughts regarding the game, allowing you to learn along with her rather than her just figuring it out in two seconds and moving on.
Some Alan Wake megafans might grumble at the fact that you spend more time in the game playing as Saga rather than Wake, but at the end of the day, this is a horror game unlike any other. When it comes to their own properties,Remedy are operating at a near untouchable level at this point, with both Control and now Alan Wake 2 acting as proof positive of how effective their vision of marrying gameplay and filmmaking together truly is.
A copy of Alan Wake 2 was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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A brave, ridiculous survival horror game that oftentimes needs to be seen to be believed, Alan Wake 2 showcases a developer at the peak of their powers.
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