Remedy Entertainment goes for broke with an intense, daring sequel to its 2010 horror. Here’s our review of Alan Wake 2:
It’s been some time since we last visited Bright Falls. In the 13 years since the original Alan Wake, developer Remedy has made repeated attempts at making a sequel, only for those concepts to be abandoned or turned into other games. One concept ultimately became Quantum Break; another became Control. Finally, though, Alan Wake 2 is here. But rather than play it safe and stick to the first game’s formula, Remedy has instead delivered a sequel with several new, daring ideas that could easily have been a recipe for disaster.
I’m happy to say that most of these ideas work brilliantly, helping Remedy deliver its biggest game to date in an uncompromised form that feels like something only the designers of Max Payne could have made. Perhaps the biggest addition is the second playable character, FBI profiler Saga Anderson, joined by her partner, Alex Casey, who’s as much fun to hang around with as McConaughey’s nihilistic Rustin “Rust” Cohle in TV’s True Detective (an influence Remedy has been open about in interviews).
Anderson and Casey are called to Bright Falls to investigate a series of sinister cult killings that plague the town and that may or may not be connected to “the missing writer.” In classic Alan Wake fashion, things soon spiral away from any logical explanation and we find ourselves walking in the dark woods alone, which is where we’ll be spending most of our time as Saga. It’s fair to say it’s better that we don’t spoil what happens next.
Insomniac Games introduced Rivet in Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, and Naughty Dog controversially introduced Abby in The Last of Us Part II in order to help continue the story from a fresh perspective without alienating newcomers. Similarly, Saga Anderson is a well fleshed-out protagonist who didn’t have us switching to Alan at the earliest convenience possible. You’re free to switch between characters whenever you stumble on a janitor’s closet – although in 10-hour run, I’ve only done it once, and I’m not sure I’d do it any other way, since it can break the pacing of each chapter.
It’s when playing as Saga that we get to try out Alan Wake 2’s one of the most talked-about new features: the Mind Place. Besides talking to locals, trying to glean new info from them and collecting evidence, this is where the magic happens: you help Saga piece clues together by using red string, suspects’ Polaroids, post-it notes and so forth. It’s a novel idea, and one that allows players to step into the shoes of a detective. Admittedly, the Clue Board can feel quite cumbersome to navigate at first: even if you know where a piece of evidence must go, you have to drag it to a specific spot for it to stay on the board. And even then, misplacing it has no real consequence beyond Saga mumbling under her breath – which is a shame, really, considering how much potential the mechanic had It doesn’t help too that Saga often comes to her own conclusions, which usually culminate in her psychic-powered profiling technique. This happens in minute-long cutscenes which, on the bright side, are at least well-acted and never fail to entertain.
Alan Wake also has his own version of the Mind Place, which is pretty much strapped to the writer’s basics – a work desk, typewriter and a plot board – minus the coffee machine. Head to the Plot Board and you can rewrite the scene you’re currently in using word prompts Alan has collected through the level. In turn, this can turn an elegant ballroom into a blood-soaked ritual site or an abandoned subway tunnel into, well, a blood-soaked crime scene (when you’re dealing with a murderous cult, you don’t get a lot of options, do you?). This occurs in an instant with no loading screen. All done with a click of a button. It’s an impressive technical conjuring trick.
Placed next to Saga’s Mind Place, and the latter can feel pretty dull by comparison. First of all, the player’s encouraged to experiment with different word combinations. Even though there’s only one correct combo that will allow you to progress the story, experimenting with all the different word prompts you’ve collected in order to world-bend each scene and see how it reacts is nothing short of a visual marvel. If you’ve played your fair share of Scribblenauts or caused mayhem in GTA 5 using cheats, you’ll recognise the tingling sensation.
Playing both as Saga or Alan, then, can feel like listening to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon on vinyl. On side A, you get to experience the same thrill of setting your first steps in Resident Evil 4’s village all those console generations ago with the emphasis on survival horror; I can’t remember the last time I was so terrified and mesmerised by a game’s atmosphere as I was during Saga’s side of the story. But, boy, was I happy to make my way out of the woods…
This isn’t to say that the concrete jungle Alan is stuck in, which is not unlike the one in Remedy’s Max Payne, is any less impressive. Quite the opposite, in fact. While you won’t get to satisfy your craving for that capital-s Survival horror in these sequences, the Dark Place’s version of New York City possesses a gritty, raw quality that truly showcases the remarkable talent of Remedy’s art department. If I were to meet Travis Bickle in one of the rooms or graffiti-covered alleyways, I can’t say I would be too surprised.
As much as each side of Alan Wake 2 vinyl has to offer, it’s safe to assume most Remedy fans will pick Alan’s side of the LP in a heartbeat. Sure, it’s a bold assumption akin to calling The Dark Side Of The Moon’s side B superior (it is – fight me). But considering that Remedy packed most of its creative, mind-boggling ideas the studio’s classics are known for in Alan’s Upside Down universe – think Control’s ‘Ashtray Maze’ meets Max Payne 2’s Address Unknown funhouse – I just don’t see how any self-respecting Remedy fan could pass on the opportunity to see the game’s real-world writer and co-director Sam Lake at his most David Lynch. If you haven’t already seen that musical sequence – which is an absolute bongo drums of a trip – you’re in for one of the best video game moments of this year. Take my word for it.
Still, whichever side of Alan Wake 2 you’re more excited about, it’s all made from the same cloth (or vinyl), and ultimately tries to preach the same gospel. As in its predecessor, the gameplay loop here remains the same – flashlight, burn away the shadow, dodge, fill enemies with lead, repeat – albeit with fewer encounters to make them really count.
There are a few niggles, however. Shooting in Alan Wake 2 is still punchy, and shooting a cultist in the face never fails to satisfy. Enemies are, however, a bit too bullet-spongy for my own taste. I played the game on Normal difficulty, and while you can change it on the fly, unloading an entire mag into a single creep often ruins the immersion. Considering that Alan spent 13 years chained to his typewriter, meanwhile, I was honestly surprised by the man’s ability to run.
There are weapon upgrades that help with surviving whatever Alan Wake 2 throws at you in its 20-hour playtime. Some give the player a chance to regain part of the flashlight’s battery on a kill. Others, in classic shooter fashion, increase the amount of bullets in a mag or the radius of your flare gun’s blast.
Curiously, it doesn’t feel like upgrades are split equally between Saga’s and Alan’s playthroughs. In order to unlock an upgrade in the FBI agent’s case, you need to collect Manuscript Fragments found in lunch boxes. Halfway through the game, I’d found two of them and it still wasn’t enough for a single upgrade. Meanwhile, as Alan, I’d already boosted my shotgun, flare gun and unlocked an entire row in my inventory by the midpoint. Not that any of this nagged me while playing as Saga, but it made me think about the proportionality of the whole thing.
I also encountered a few minor bugs that made walking around Bright Falls feel like some kind of Truman Show sketch. A couple of locals stood staring at each other blankly until I was pretty much breathing down their necks; a coffee shop packed with customers but no chatter (at least when Saga’s around)…
Nevertheless, Remedy has crafted one of its finest interactive narratives in recent years here. It’s a story-driven journey into the heart of darkness that comes from what probably was a unified understanding between game designers, level designers, writers and, of course, Sam Lake.
From its opening moments, Alan Wake 2 is a game that’s true to its own bleak concept, much like the best episodes of True Detective or anything from the mind of Hideo Kojima or David Lynch. While it may not be without flaws, Alan Wake 2 undeniably stands out for its ambitious, go-for-broke energy. And although not all of these innovative ideas work in concert, sequels like this are a good reminder that video games, like Fez’s Phil Fish aptly said back in 2012, are “the sum total of every expressive medium of all times made interactive.” If that doesn’t get you excited about being a gamer or seeing how studios like Remedy will push this medium further, maybe Alan Wake 2 will.
Alan Wake 2’s action scenes are brilliantly tense. More than once in the opening hours, while playing as Saga, I ran out of ammo and had to run for dear life in hopes of finding a stash. This also happened during the first boss fight – which stands as one of the more memorable encounters of the game – and even though I managed to avoid dying on my first attempt, running around looking for ammo with a naked, middle-aged psycho on your tail really drives home the message that you’re playing a survival horror game.
One of the most creatively rich survival horror experiences of recent years, Alan Wake 2 will either leave fans of the original disappointed or hungry for more.