Alan Wake 2 Review
Kept in the dark
The final cryptic words in the original Alan Wake, "It's not a lake, it's an ocean," have kept players in limbo for over a decade, just like the game's tormented protagonist. Dedicated fans have spun theories, aided by an expansion pack and other games in Remedy's shared universe. Concrete answers have proved elusive, so gamers waited patiently for more. The long-anticipated Alan Wake 2 could have provided key resolutions, thanks to a funding deal with Epic Games that finally brought the sequel to life. Instead it plummets into a darker abyss, asking more questions than it answers. The underlying story and gameplay also mirror this ambiguity in disappointing ways. Alan Wake 2 prioritizes complexity over engagement, battering players with rogue waves as they float amid a sea of confusion.
Set thirteen years after the original game, best-selling author Alan Wake remains missing and presumed drowned in Cauldron Lake. A string of recent murders in the Pacific Northwest town of Bright Falls draws FBI agent Saga Anderson to the area. While performing an autopsy on the latest victim, Saga witnesses the corpse reanimate, attack, and escape the morgue. The creature is a Taken, a human corrupted by a dark force. After she tracks down and slays the Taken near Cauldron Lake, a disheveled man washes ashore in a state of panic. He is Alan Wake.
Having been trapped in the Dark Place for thirteen years, Alan slowly regains his memory and tells Saga his story. His version of the Dark Place is a twisted rendition of New York City, eternally cloaked in night. To escape, he followed apparitions of his own characters. During this imprisonment, Alan's evil doppelgänger, Mr. Scratch, wrote a horror story. Saga had already discovered pages of the manuscript that seemed to predict the future. The manuscript actually has the power to alter reality and change memories, endangering the town and Saga's family. The only way to stop it is to find the Clicker, a supernatural object that can amplify Alan's edits, allowing him to craft a new and better ending. Saga occasionally dips her toes into the Dark Place, conversing with Alan's past self like two ghost ships passing in the night. After their introductory chapters, players can freely switch between the two characters from within major safe rooms. Alternating between their chapters results in satisfying story crossovers as the worlds bleed into one another through ethereal visages.
While Saga's adventure is grounded in the real world, the narrative falters early. Characters are quirky and aloof, seemingly designed to confuse and alienate players. References to Remedy's connected universe, including the FBC from Control, are abundant, but come across as forced and distracting. Saga, her FBI partner, and others in Bright Falls (like the police) often react strangely to situations, which can be conveniently explained away by Mr. Scratch's reality-bending story. A few peripheral characters know far more than they let on, keeping players in the dark to encourage fan speculation. Ultimately, Saga clumsily tracks down information about a murderous cult while hunting for the magical Clicker. Strip away the complex framework and Saga, played adequately by Melanie Liburd, is a bland protagonist who fails to bring much personality to the story.
Alan’s side of the tale is even more obscure, playing out like a fevered dream that blends past, present, and future into a jumbled mess that begins to consume itself. The Dark Place chapters start with Alan appearing on a live-action talk show, unsure of what is real, just like the player. This leads into a bizarre backstage shootout, while an entertaining and self-aggrandizing live-action music video plays on the walls. Tiresome meta-references abound, including Sam Lake dressed up as Max Payne, leading Alan to his next objective. Keen explorers will find secret rooms containing the holed up Sherriff of Bright Falls, played by Quantum Break’s very own Shawn Ashmore. Since the Sherriff provides solid theories, it is weird he was hidden away like this. Unfortunately, most of the Dark Place is pretentious commentary about writing or the connected universe. Alan’s chapters only feature two good pieces of storytelling. The first is the neat mirroring of the original game, which unfortunately results in a similarly vague ending. The other is a handful of emotional and straightforward video diaries recorded by Alan’s wife, Alice Wake, in which she speaks of a dark presence haunting her. Alan’s journey would have been far stronger if these videos took center stage.
Saga’s Mind Place is central to her role as a detective solving murders. Initially it is an intriguing repository of evidence and a way to track the story, accessible at any time. However it quickly becomes tedious, with the evidence pinning resembling the separation of a deck of cards into suits, reshuffling the pack, and doing it all over again. Saga will regularly state the obvious when enough evidence is placed on the wall. With so much to collate, it becomes a pacing killer. Fortunately most of it can be ignored, until you need to profile a character. This profiling allows Saga to magically read minds to find a hidden item or a secret that will let her progress, accompanied by lengthy and dull monologues. Saga is clairvoyant, which is obvious early but only truly revealed later. It is dissatisfying that a detective only needs to close their eyes to advance cases but it matches a story that makes things up as it goes. Ironically, her supernatural abilities do not help with some of the obtuse puzzles. So the Mind Place is in a weird place—boring because it is mostly pinning evidence, confusing because Saga unveils the unknowable, and non-functional when needed the most.
Alan's Writer's Room is a more refined and functional counterpart to Saga's Mind Palace. Rather than burdening players with dozens of items to place on a wall, the Writer's Room unlocks a few scene modifications upon finding echoes from the detective character, Alex Casey (aka Max Payne). For example, if Alex discovers cult involvement, players can put the cult into related scenes, instantly transforming the world with blood stains and sinister paraphernalia. This may expose a hidden door or provide access to additional echoes. Navigating modified scenes is often brilliant, showcasing multi-dimensional exploration and altering the world in creative ways. However, it can also be confusing, as demonstrated by Alan's awkward exploration of a hotel. These alterations are sometimes paired with Alan's underutilized magic lamp, which absorbs light to be transplanted elsewhere, binarily changing the environment and creating safe havens from hostiles.
Both protagonists shoot threats from a third-person perspective, with the sequel leaning more into a survival-horror realm than the original. Combat resembles the new Resident Evil remakes and functions adequately, though encounters typically only involve two to three enemies. Both characters have similar offensive capabilities: a pistol, shotgun, flashbangs, flashlight, and flares. Saga can find a crossbow and rifle, which are slow to reload but deliver a significant punch. Weapons are limited and predictable, though upgrades improve their effectiveness. Resource distribution could be better, with catastrophically low ammo after clumps of action and dozens of superfluous health packs. Dodging is consistently powerful, but poor timing can leave players vulnerable to a series of rapid hits. As in the previous game, darkness is burnt off enemies with the flashlight, but this step is not required when playing as Saga. Focusing the flashlight as Saga is also awkward, with the narrow beam unable to destroy the dark shield when aimed at enemy legs, wasting batteries. While there are not many different enemy types, several move quickly, such as wolves that circle and charge and ranged attackers that zip back and forth to hurl axes. Combat remains fairly monotonous, lacking evolution from the initial battles.
In the Dark Place, Alan is surrounded by many ghostly shadows, but only some are dangerous. The harmless ones eventually vanish under the glow of the flashlight, existing only to create apprehension and frights as they call out his name abruptly. Real threats can sometimes be identified by their carried weapons or movement, but having so many shadows that could be dangerous ruins gunplay and leads to stagnant world traversal. Shadowy foes also become extremely blurry when the darkness is burnt off them, and trying to land shots on a twitching smudge is lousy.
The game's pace is consistently slow too, both in terms of character movement and the overall story progression. It takes over two hours to get to the bulk of the action, and there is far too much narrative padding throughout, including a drawn-out finale with Saga’s Mind Place. The game loves to throw players into environmental loops, asking them to repeat sections until something arbitrarily changes. Players can revisit areas, with a few metroidvania tools that unlock doors, and complete missed side activities. Saga’s secondary tasks consist of puzzle-based cult stashes, hidden lunchboxes for upgrades, and unrewarding nursery rhyme riddles. Enemies do slowly repopulate zones, but encounters can be 15 minutes apart so returning is a slog regardless of whether there are threats. The action sparseness is odd when compared to the original, but frequent combat would probably not stand up over the lengthy 20-hour campaign. And the slower pace helps to achieve a particular isolated mood.
The game's atmosphere is excellent in both worlds. The dark neon-lit version of NYC is eerie and signs of Alan’s sanity being attacked come from vehicle number plates that tell him he’ll die and graffiti mentioning Alice or how he is lost. Many assets in NYC are strangely familiar to the Max Payne games and will probably be reused in the upcoming remakes. The lonely walks through the forests around Bright Falls offer the perfect contrast, featuring light rain, wispy fog, and wind rustling the trees. One of the best locations is the Coffee World amusement theme park that offers the perfect tone, with claustrophobic attractions and ride lights flickering through the darkness. Unfortunately, the game undermines its good work with annoying and lazy jump-scares. Full-screen flashes of faces are repeatedly thrown at the player in an attempt to be creepy, but they just startle. There are better ways to do horror, like when a character silently appears directly behind Saga as she explored a mansion.
Stellar presentation and strong visual cohesion support the game's dark atmosphere. Live-action videos of the cast are generally short and well-integrated, and in-game character faces closely match their live-action counterparts. Natural lighting is excellent throughout, although it can be washed out under intense light sources. Some lip-syncing is poor and certain animations are wooden or consist of simple loops, which may explain why most characters move very little during conversations. The music between chapters is cool, with varied artists singing lyrics that closely match the themes and events of the game. Most vocals have a neat ghostly reverb effect that conveys distance and loneliness. As in a few of Remedy's previous games, Poets of the Fall contribute a few good songs that play alongside the action. Despite its high PC specifications, the game performed well at max settings with ray tracing disabled and upscaling enabled. Fortunately, the upscaling actually improves the foliage visuals, smoothing out the jagged edges of leaves and grass.
Alan Wake 2 is a beautiful dream where not everything goes according to plan. Despite the great presentation and spooky atmosphere, the setting is compromised by cheap jump-scares. The lethargic pacing, with repetitive loops and sparse combat, makes the game a chore to play. While Alan’s special Writer’s Room leads to some cool world-changing moments, Saga’s corresponding Mind Place is a disappointing evidence-pinning simulator that capriciously leads to the next step. Players looking for a layered narrative, full of meta-references, callouts to Remedy’s connected universe, and a penchant for asking questions will love swimming in the peculiar ocean that is Alan Wake 2. Those that prefer robust and well-defined mechanics will get washed up on a distant shore, dazed and confused.