Alan Wake 2 Review – In Strange Woods

    Title: Alan Wake 2
    Developer: Remedy Entertainment
    Release Date: October 27, 2023
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: Remedy Entertainment
    Genre: Action, Survival Horror, Thriller

“It’s not a lake. It’s an ocean.” These are the cryptic final lines of Alan Wake, Remedy Entertainment’s 2010 cult-hit action-horror title that has left players hanging for thirteen years. While American Nightmare, the game’s mini-sequel, gestured at answers to what this meant, and 2019’s Control established a much deeper shared universe for the studio, we’ve been waiting for two whole console generations to finally get a full explanation. And I’m so happy to tell you that Alan Wake 2 is here to deliver that and much, much more.

Diving Back into the Shadows: The Alan Wake Saga Continues

The first game left off on a heavily ambiguous ending that was more-or-less followed up by Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, a brief standalone expansion that introduced the character of “Mr. Scratch” to the universe, and then many years later by Control, which had a much broader scope that integrated the events of the first game into its backstory. While Control‘s AWE expansion heavily hinted at what was happening to Alan after the original game concluded, we wouldn’t get an actual glimpse of him again until this long-awaited full sequel.

Alan Wake 2 takes place thirteen years after the first game, a reflection of the real-time that’s passed, with Wake having been stuck in the endless loop of the Dark Place as established in American Nightmare. His Dark Place takes the form of a hellish, Art Deco-inspired New York City, where he and his wife lived in the real world. He’s still trying to write his way out of this torment, but so far, his efforts have amounted to nothing because he keeps looping…until he gets shaken out of the loop by an encounter.

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Back in the real world, FBI Agent Saga Anderson and her partner Alex Casey arrive in Bright Falls to investigate the latest in a string of murders occurring near Cauldron Lake. The victim appears to have been ritualistically sacrificed, with his heart missing, but the only other lead they have to go on are two witnesses from out of town. Saga takes the lead on the case and begins to experience strange, paranormal events around her as the investigation continues, including people around town acting like she’s a local and saying that something happened to her family in town.

Saga’s part of the narrative focuses heavily on her work as an agent investigating a case, which is manifested by her ‘Mind Place,’ a subconscious room where she’s able to keep all of her thoughts organized.

I think a lot of people were confused by the announcement of a second playable character in a game called Alan Wake 2, but I was pretty quickly sold on Saga and she’s definitely an important part of the narrative that helps it maintain a deeply human connection. While the stakes of the story continue to expand outwards, her own stakes are intensely personal, and her own journey keeps things grounded, whereas, in Control, it sometimes becomes easy to forget that protagonist Jesse was her own person.

Saga’s part of the narrative focuses heavily on her work as an agent investigating a case, which is manifested by her “Mind Place,” a subconscious room where she’s able to keep all of her thoughts organized. As she learns information and gathers clues, she’s able to place them up on the Case Board, a visual organization system that makes it easy for the player to keep track of what’s going on. Learning enough information can earn her a Deduction, enabling her to act on what she’s figured out if the player doesn’t do it first.

This is potentially my favorite combat system in any horror title.

This is actually much closer to what the original Alan Wake was supposed to be – the game was intended to be more “open world,” but severe bloat in scope compared to their budget forced Remedy to massively change up their plans and turn the game into a much more linear, level-based affair like their previous Max Payne titles. It worked at the time, and I hold that game very dearly, but when playing this sequel, it’s obvious that this is the form it was intended to take from the beginning.

Bright Falls Unveiled: Characters, Mysteries, and Peculiar Happenings

Saga’s side of the story is a slower-paced affair that sees her exploring Bright Falls and its surroundings, putting together the pieces of the puzzle as she investigates the Cauldron Lake Murders, and realizing just how insane the world around her has gotten while she learns why she seems to be immune to it. This contrasts brilliantly with the more linear Alan chapters, which still heavily emphasize exploration but are much more focused on his ability to manipulate the shape of the Dark Place around him. The player can, once they reach a certain point, play the stories in whatever order they wish, but I more or less tried to alternate in order to keep the tales on-pace with each other. (Just a note, this didn’t end up actually mattering because the way things come together is so brilliantly plotted that it’s totally fine to play one or the other until you’re forced to change.)

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Alan’s journey through the Dark Place is brilliantly realized, seeing him able to manipulate his environment both by controlling the brief pockets of light he’s able to come across and by literally rewriting the narrative of the Dark Place in order to find what he’s looking for. His investigation will see him interacting with other characters who have become trapped and crossing paranatural boundaries to help Saga on the other side, and it’s perfectly complementary to the gloomy trek Saga takes through a thoroughly rained-out Washington State.

I’m trying my hardest not to spoil anything here, with everything I’ve said so far being basic setup information that will not be any kind of surprise to the player, but I was thoroughly impressed with lead writer Sam Lake’s talent for keeping a massive number of plot threads accounted for. There were a lot of lingering questions left at the end of the first game and Control, and every single one of them gets touched on here, even if they aren’t yet resolved. Returning to Bright Falls after so long truly feels like coming back to my hometown – at a glance, it looks like nothing has changed, but a glimpse beneath the surface reveals that everything has.

Thirteen years of expectations is a lot for a game to overcome, but believe me, Alan Wake 2 is here to deliver on everything you’ve wanted and lots of things you didn’t know were possible.

Remedy made a point of emphasizing that this was their first real take on the survival-horror genre, and it definitely shows in comparison to the first game. That title also featured an excellent system that intentionally kept players constantly searching for supplies, as the game would stop offering them to you if you had a comfortable amount of ammo and batteries, and the sequel amplifies this. That same system applies here, but there’s also an inventory management system, a la Resident Evil, and the new consideration of a limited pool of health that you’ll need to carry items to maintain. Thankfully, this element is hit out of the park – managing my inventory never became a hassle, instead emphasizing that I wasn’t supposed to be carrying a ton of stuff and that I would need to pay attention to my environment and keep fighting on the brink in order to earn more.

Speaking of fighting, combat has seen a ton of refinement. The original game reflected Alan’s lack of gun experience by taking aiming completely out of the player’s hands, with combat being a game of keeping distance while exposing Taken enemies to the flashlight in order to remove their shield and then pumping a few rounds into them to take them out. The sound direction made each shot feel weighty, and thankfully, even with a transition towards full manual aiming and mechanically rewarding headshots, the excellent sound design and interplay of the flashlight with your firearms were kept. This is potentially my favorite combat system in any horror title.

A Cinematic Spectacle: Visuals, Sound, and Live-Action Magic

Graphically, this game is a massive improvement even over Control, which was one of the best-looking games of the eighth generation. I’m extremely happy that I upgraded my PC last year because even on medium settings, Alan Wake 2 is absolutely gorgeous, from the sunset-lit forests of Bright Falls to the rain-slick, neon-lit Dark Place. Characters are expressive, and the visual design – particularly for the Dark Place – is top-notch and frequently terrifying.

I also want to highlight the cast here, all of whom are turning in absolutely brilliant performances. Most of them are doing double duty, following Remedy tradition by having many of the scenes in the game (especially in the Dark Place) played out in live-action. The direction of these sequences is enrapturing, tense, and brilliant, taking what could have been a budget-conserving decision and making it clear that this is part of the game’s artistic vision.

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Thirteen years of expectations is a lot for a game to overcome, but believe me, Alan Wake 2 is here to deliver on everything you’ve wanted and lots of things you didn’t know were possible. Be prepared for this game to scare you but also for it to blow your mind wide open. In typical Remedy fashion, just when the player might think things are going off the rails, Alan Wake 2 will remind them that the rails never existed – and I wouldn’t have it any other way, for every second I spent sent me into an emotional rollercoaster that stuck it as the only thing on my mind, making this my absolute favorite game of this year.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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