13 years after his first encounter with The Dark Presence – a malevolent force that feeds on artists and their creations in order to alter reality – Alan Wake finds himself trapped in the alternate dimension known as The Dark Place, desperately attempting to write his way out. In the real world, FBI agent Saga Anderson arrives in Bright Falls to investigate a murder that’s about to lead her into unexpected waters. Alan Wake 2 is certainly off to a slow start, taking time to ease you into its protagonists’ very different circumstances.
Such an approach can risk losing players along the way but, in this case, patience is rewarded with a larger puzzle chock-full of terrifying fights, mind-bending twists, and an overall journey through a multimedia fever dream that oozes developer Remedy Entertainment’s trademark weirdness from every pore.
As both The Dark Presence and Alan seek to escape their prison, the horror story used to this end inevitably seeps into Saga’s world, shaping and twisting it and its inhabitants. A strange but seemingly straightforward case becomes weirder and weirder as supernatural elements make questioning what is true second nature.
Saga’s attempt to solve the murder case takes her through three different areas – Bright Falls and its nearby woods, the town of Watery, as well as the forest near Cauldron Lake.
There’s a sense of familiarity to each location that greets you as you set foot inside. Bright Falls’ lodge and diner betray the town’s slow-paced existence; Watery’s amusement park shows a valiant attempt at revival; the dense forests around Cauldron Lake let you gaze upon gorgeous blood-orange sunsets.
One of many gorgeous sights in Alan Wake 2
Alan Wake 2 boasts impressive visuals down to the photorealistic foliage of its inter-chapter loading screens. But once it lures you in, it only takes a few moments for its calming sights to welcome encroaching disaster, as darkness envelops the area forcing you into a fight for survival.
From narrow forest paths to the interiors of police stations and nursing homes, Saga Anderson navigates locations in our reality that the supernatural intrudes upon, gradually discovering clues that help her get closer to solving the case. This all happens in the Mind Place, her mental refuge where bits of information can be placed on a case board to help piece things together. There, Saga can also use her innate intuition to extract information from characters. It’s an exercise that emphasizes her role as an investigator but one that can also eventually become a bit dry.
Although it does encourage exploration to an extent, it never plays out like a proper puzzle. Towards the final stages of the story, I did feel that Saga could have just relayed some of those findings without always retreating to her refuge, where I had to navigate through several menus and drag individual clues around.
Meanwhile, Alan has to make his way through a twisted version of New York. The urban environments of the Dark Place harbor considerably less familiarity, feeling built by an otherworldy hand that haphazardly throws in elements of Alan’s life to create a dark playground.
It might not look like much, but the Flare Gun is a seriously strong weapon
Where Saga has to deal with Taken – locals who fell prey to The Dark Presence’s influence – Alan faces the considerably more unnerving shadow people; dark silhouettes that appear into view as he navigates his prison.
Most of them are only there to unnerve to a viciously successful degree from beginning to end. But some also attack and they do so much quicker than the enemies Saga faces, being able to reliably zip around and fire slow-moving projectiles.
Firearms might help kill these assailants, but your lantern’s battery-fueled boost is vital in removing the protective darkness enveloping each foe, often exposing weak spots in the process. When playing as Alan, trying to dispel each shadow can quickly lead to running out of batteries. Very often, you just have to face your fears and move past the shadows, hoping that they either disperse as you pass through them or that you press the dodge key quickly enough when they do strike.
This is just one of the methods that Alan Wake 2 employs to captivate its audience, leveraging a dense and engrossing atmosphere to draw players into its world. While this isn’t a new approach from Remedy, the remarkable effectiveness with which Alan Wake 2 achieves this feat secures its standing alongside the big names within the survival horror sub-genre.
The sequel expertly leverages the (thematic) contrast between light and dark to make its environments terrifying. True darkness severely limits how far you can see, turning familiar places into stretches of the unknown from which enemies could always leap at you. Occasionally, you’ll find light posts that promise an oasis of safety or break rooms in which you can save, but these are temporary havens only offering brief moments of respite.
Enemies take multiple shots to kill after removing their protective shield
Each combat encounter feels extremely personal, and fighting even the most basic of enemies remains tense well after you’ve slain your fair share. They always represent a tangible danger, attempting to flank you, using foliage to hide the direction from which they approach, or supernatural powers to zip around and reposition in an attempt to throw you off.
Frequently, the presence of adversaries is audibly noticeable before their forms become visible, with the darkness eerily shifting around their outlines. A foe poised to attack from afar already poses a threat, yet this feeling intensifies exponentially when they are in close proximity, brandishing their axe. Executing a dodge allows you to evade danger and has the potential to momentarily incapacitate enemies when timed perfectly.
Should they land a hit, they’ll take a good chunk off your health bar. While painkillers can quickly help you recover health in the heat of battle, other healing items take time to use and come in a limited number. Surrounded by a shifting shade of darkness and shouting in a horrifyingly distorted voice, the sight of a foe charging made me miss shots I should have easily landed.
In addition to your lantern, your inventory is augmented by the inclusion of flares and flashbangs, which prove to be invaluable, especially during the infrequent instances when you find yourself contending with more than two or three adversaries simultaneously. Furthermore, your lethal arsenal is expanded to encompass an array of weaponry, ranging from pistols and shotguns to a crossbow and a flare gun.
The two protagonists handle upgrades differently. Saga has to find satchels to expand her inventory and collect manuscript pages from lunchboxes spread across the environment – one of a few types of collectibles that encourage exploring open levels to an extent – to upgrade guns.
One version of a scene that brings Alan closer to escaping
Alan improves his abilities and weapons through Words of Power, unlocked by focusing his flashlight on them for a few seconds once he discovers them in the environment. Not all upgrades feel impactful, at least on normal difficulty, but it’s hard to argue against more health, storage space, less recoil, and more damage.
Alan Wake 2 never drowns you in enemies, yet manages to strike just the right balance that makes fights feel like a struggle for your life in a way that doesn’t make them feel oppressive. Combat sections are broken up by segments of pure walking or investigation, but although there’s less action than in the original game, the tension never fully retreats.
If fights end up feeling a bit much, you can freely swap to the Story difficulty at any point in your playthrough. It does, however, come with the caveat of making enemies too frail, robbing combat of its weight, and turning the experience into a power fantasy that’s not as fitting.
Progressing through The Dark Place requires playing by different rules. Alan uses writing to reshape reality, which he does by tracking down Echoes that grant him the inspiration for new story beats. The latter allows him to alter specific scenes, changing the story on the fly in an attempt to escape.
Beats can be applied and removed on the fly by entering the Writer’s Room – Alan’s version of Saga’s Mind Place – so finding the right combination involves a mix of exploration and trial and error. But although the changing environments are mostly set dressing that allows you to get one step closer to escaping, they always feel relevant to some facet of the story being told, while the multimedia approach Remedy Entertainment uses makes it all feel like a stylish, mad fever dream.
Remedy Entertainment taps into several mediums to bring its vision to life
Echoes overlay fleeting realistic visions on top of the game’s world as detective Alex Casey talks about his own fictional investigation – mired in noir tropes – and how its ever-shifting nature affects him.
One of the best moments in the game – although less dynamic – gives Control’s Ashtray Puzzle a run for its money, throwing you into a musical that melds video game and live-action elements.
Dispatching shadowy foes to the sound of roaring guitars as the actors behind the musical tower above you, occasionally pointing you in the right direction is just one of several flashes of brilliance that are sprinkled throughout the whole game. Finnish band Poets of the Fall reprise their role as aging metal band Old Gods of Asgard, delivering several songs that, unsurprisingly, don’t just fit the story but are great listens on their own.
Another, far more subdued but equally impactful moment, made me join a few of Watery’s inhabitants inside one of its modest buildings and listen to one character sing a melancholic tune that foreshadowed more than I expected.
In The Dark Place, Alan also uses a lamp to move light charges between different sources, altering reality in small areas around him. Early on, you’re directed to enter a subway station which only appears once you use the lamp on a nearby light post. This mechanic also enforces the shifting nature of The Dark Place but, on a few occasions, it stopped me in my tracks.
Bright Falls never ceases to amaze
Working in tandem with the realm’s dream logic, it sometimes made figuring out how to use the lamp to progress difficult, especially as I first had to move into certain rooms, or a few steps past certain walls before I used the lamp again. But these are small missteps in what is otherwise a place that enraptures with its constantly changing perspectives.
Saga and Alan also go through several interior perspective shifts as they wrestle with the horror story that shapes their realities, struggling to hold on while not losing sight of their goals. Each chapter brings new understanding and just when you think you’re about to fully grasp things, it all twists, sending you off in a new direction.
Alan Wake 2’s story delivers terror interwoven with a little solace, a fair bit of contemplation, and a handful of deliciously bombastic moments. Its meta-narrative ambitions stretch far further than the original’s, creating an experience that, while some will inevitably find too pretentious for its own good, is a step up in every sense.
ALAN WAKE 2 VERDICT
A masterpiece in terms of atmosphere building and one of the few games in a long while that effortlessly kept me fully engrossed in its world, Alan Wake 2 is Remedy Entertainment’s best game yet. Expert use of the contrast between light and dark works in tandem with spot-on sound design and deadly enemies to successfully insert horror even in the most inoffensive of places.
The tormented writer’s universe has plenty more to offer after a 13-year hiatus, and its understanding of what makes good survival horror alongside how it integrates these elements with those of the original makes for one of the best experiences the sub-genre has to offer.
Without a single doubt, Remedy Entertainment is both proud and aware of its past accomplishments but also eager to look ahead while embracing creativity and consistently revealing new facets of its memorable and unique brand of weirdness. Even in a year as stacked as this one, Alan Wake 2 is one of those increasingly rare games that isn’t just an exceptional experience on its own but makes me curious about what its developer has cooked up next.
TOP GAME MOMENT
A certain sequence involving a certain aging metal band.
Deadly foes that constantly keep you on edge
Dual protagonists approach led by strong characters
Unexpected narrative twists
Lack of enemy variety