This is the big one for me. In a year crammed full of incredible games, Alan Wake 2 sat firmly at the top of my “most wanted” list. The original resonated with me so strongly, thanks to its fascinating cast who all took their place in a gripping, thriller of a story set in a “Twin Peaks” style universe. A universe I couldn’t wait to dive back into.
This time around things kick off with a new character, Saga Anderson. The accomplished FBI agent arrives at Bright Falls to investigate a series of ritualistic murderers with her partner Alex Casey in tow (yes that name sounds familiar for a reason). However, events take a rather dark turn as ominously accurate book pages scattered around the area are discovered by the daring duo as they carry out their investigation.
It’s always a brave decision not to lead with the titular character, starting a sequel with brand new faces. “Where’s Alan Wake?”, I asked myself at the beginning. However, your attention is soon grabbed as you get to know Saga on a deeply personal level as she delves deeper into the seemingly impossible case. She is brilliantly written and a fiercely brave protagonist who is fighting to protect everything and everyone she loves.
Saga is something of a prodigy in the detective world, thanks to her “mind place”. This technique is presented as physical space for her to gather evidence and make deductions with all the fragments she has gathered. She goes about this by attempting to link leads and other important bits of information together on a large notice board, as well as profiling numerous suspects and witnesses she meets during her enquiries. It’s a wonderful way to not only see her process, but reinforce the events of Alan Wake 2 as they progress. It might feel a little repetitive at first, but quickly becomes second nature and is used in some interesting ways as the game progresses. One such example is tracking certain extras hidden around the environment such as “cult stashes”, giving you an inkling of how many are out there.
It’s not all about Saga however. This is also a tale about Alan Wake and how their lives intertwine. You can even switch between each tale freely (at certain locations), advancing each at a pace of your own choosing. I’d recommend switching regularly, so you don’t miss a second of either adventure.
As a result of being trapped in the Dark Place for thirteen years after the events of the first game, the titular writer is desperate to escape whilst he tries to cling on to his sanity. All the while he is trying to find his wife, Alice, as the menacing Mr Scratch and the Dark Presence are in constant pursuit.
Alan has a similar process to Saga, but it’s represented in a different way. His “Writer’s Room” is a little shabbier, but is home to his famous typewriter and a large noticeboard. As he wanders the Dark Place, he discovers numerous scenes and watches echos play out in front of him. Combining these elements and rewriting the story changes the world around Alan, gradually revealing the way forward. Yep, he’s still got it.
What’s really impressive when playing as both characters is how quickly the transition between their physical and mental spaces is. It’s pretty much instant, however it won’t pause the game so you can still be damaged by what’s happening around you. Choose your thinking time very carefully.
On balance, I found Saga’s story to be very much grounded in a survival horror (reminiscent of Resident Evil 4), Scandi detective drama style of world. However, Alan’s is much more surreal, as if directed by David Lynch. There are some incredible passages of play here, including most of the stuff based around the eerily charismatic Mr Door (played by the fabulous David Harewood).
However, Alan Wake’s “We Sing” chapter (which introduces us to “Alan Wake: The Musical”) is the best thing I’ve played all year, if not ever. This set piece is soundtracked by the excellent Poets of the Fall, who once again rock as The Old Gods of Asgard. I don’t want to say too much here, but this passage of play is a real flex which demonstrates one of the many reasons why Alan Wake 2 is in a class of its own.
This is a game that is delightfully self-aware, or “meta” as the kids say these days. Remedy finds many subtle ways to break the fourth wall, rather than having their characters simply stare down the camera lens in the usual fashion. This approach is weaved through the entire game in terms of the avoidance of embracing traditional or well known gaming tropes, and it feels like a breath of fresh air.
I’ve already seen conflicting opinions when it comes to combat in Alan Wake 2. Yes, it certainly has a heavy feel to it and it is easy to get overwhelmed by the Taken if you aren’t careful. However, given what’s happening, it feels perfectly matched to the survival horror theme. You’re not playing as a superhero after all.
When playing you feel vulnerable. Vulnerable to attack at any moment. Vulnerable because ammunition is pretty scarce, even trying to scavenge for extra items will expose you to further dangers. At times you will need to take that risk. Once you get to grips with how to, er hem, take on the Taken, it works really well. You can simply sprint away if you choose (most of the time anyway). Otherwise, as before, stripping the Taken’s shadow armour away with your flashlight (or stronger light based weapons if you have them) is the first step. Afterwards you’re all clear to empty a few clips into them, but look out for glowing red weak spots too. There’s a fair few variants of the Taken in Alan Wake 2, and they feel tougher to vanquish this time around.
Some key characters will also end up squaring up to you in a boss battle, and these are varied and quite difficult encounters. Facing off against Cynthia Weaver was terrifyingly tense, for reasons I won’t spoil here.
This is all supporting evidence for the fact that Alan Wake 2 is a challenging game. You’ll die often, and despite an autosave system you’re encouraged to save regularly when you come across safe rooms that offer a moment of respite from the horror. This is all applicable to the standard difficulty option, but you can up the ante if you dare. You can also dial down the combat too if you would like to.
Alan Wake 2 is honestly one of the best looking games I’ve ever seen. There have been a few jagged edges that Remedy patched out pretty quickly (including a few sound issues), but it looks stunning. Flicking the lights off, cranking up the sound and having a spare pair of underpants to hand is the only way to play.
The hybrid presentation of CGI and FMV is nothing short of masterful, and the acting is absolutely top class. When switching between the live and animated versions of the characters, you can really see just how much work has gone into the game. It’s uncanny.
As before, light is your most reliable and important line of self defence and the use of it is spot on. The colour palette will subtly change and wash out as you enter an area where the Taken lurk. It sent chills down my spine as I saw a lumbering shadow emerge from the bushes and rush towards me, illuminated by my torchlight. Juxtaposed to this, is the very odd occasion where you’ll catch a beautiful sunset and forget for a moment you’re playing through a living nightmare.
Alan Wake 2 sounds incredible too. It’s full-on survival horror this time around which means it’s chilling, gruesome and bloody jumpy. A great example of this is when you are wandering the Dark Place as Alan. The Taken can be heard whispering your name and loitering around almost motionless. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, one will flash towards you and attack at breakneck speed.
As always, I’ll try to avoid any spoilers here but we do know there’s DLC coming in two parts which kicks off next year. So it goes without saying events in Alan Wake 2 aren’t wrapped up at the end with a neat little bow. However, New Game+ features are on the near horizon, promising a nightmare difficulty level, a photo mode and much more.
I’ve always said that the most important element in a game is storytelling, and Remedy has raised the bar yet again in Alan Wake 2. At almost every turn they smash through convention, turn traditional methods on their head and deliver an experience quite unlike anything else I’ve ever played. It’s utterly absorbing and unnervingly surreal. It seems rather fitting that a game featuring such a prolific writer, is elevated to be something truly special by how the story in Alan Wake 2 is told. The quality of all its individual parts are unquestionably brilliant, but when combined they make for one hell of a ride. This is an essential experience for all players.
Alan Wake 2 is the magnum opus of horror games, but not simply because it delivers some scares. Oozing with creative flair, it confidently flaunts unconventional and even experimental methods of storytelling, which makes it very special indeed.
I’m calling it now. Game of the year.