Alan Wake 2 review: "the best game we’ve played for years"
Finnish studio Remedy's stunning survival-horror is a masterclass in both world-building and storytelling
Welcome to Bright Falls, valued Airbnb guest. There are fresh towels in the wardrobe, the diner down the road does a mean cup of coffee, and the Cult of the Tree claimed its latest victim last night. Enjoy your stay!
Oh, before we leave you to it - that writer who disappeared here years ago. The one who’s trapped in a nightmare realm, and whose crime novel creations have periodically seeped over into reality. Yeah, he’s still unaccounted for but there are quite a few nightmarish shadow-beings knocking about in the woods. So, you know, maybe take a torch with you. Remember to leave us a review!
It’s so refreshing to step into Alan Wake 2’s world. The story isn’t something to motor you along a course of shooting galleries in Remedy’s latest mind-rending release. The story is the game, and it’s layered with sub-plots and complexity in a way that few else in the entire medium can pull off. Maybe nobody. It’s an extraordinary game.
For now, we’ll try to keep the powder dry on all the hyperbole we scribbled down during our visit to Bright Falls. This sequel comes 13 years after the original Alan Wake, a game in which the titular author got tangled up in a supernatural overlap between reality and his own dark fiction. In the game universe, his disappearance has remained a mystery in all that time, but the Pacific Northwest town of Bright Falls has become a hot spot for perplexing and sinister events. It’s Twin Peaks in all but name.
You’re Saga Anderson, an FBI agent with a pretty unfair advantage, sent to investigate a number of disappearances in the area. Supernatural visions come to you, filling in the missing pieces of the cases you’re working on. Your partner is detective Alex Casey. He’s drawn to Bright Falls and the Alan Wake cold case because he shares his name with the fictional detective who served as the main character in a series of crime novels written by Wake. He’s also the very double of Remedy’s original game protagonist Max Payne - because both of them use the likeness of the studio’s creative director Sam Lake. Who also wrote this game. A game about a character who has a doppelganger in a fictional crime series.
If it felt like your brain was trying to fold itself in half just then: good. That’s what it feels like to play this game. There are multi-layered revelations around every corner, Lynch-ian nightmare sequences as frequently as your nervous system can take them. You might broadly label it a survival-horror game, but it’s elevated well beyond its simple mechanics by the way it totally immerses you into a rich world that just barely makes sense.
It doesn’t take long to discover the same dark forces behind Wake’s disappearance are connected to this new spree of ritualistic murders, and once that’s established, the perspective shifts between Saga and Alan Wake himself. Saga’s sequences take place in Bright Falls itself and the focus is on doing good detective work: scouring scenes for clues, talking to witnesses and gathering evidence.
At the tap of a button, Saga’s able to access her Mind Place, a cosy log cabin where she can arrange all the evidence she’s gathered on a big corkboard and ‘profile’ persons of interest. Although that’s a loose term for what’s essentially channelling psychic visions that progress the case. This is also where weapons can be upgraded, and where radio songs and collectibles from the world are gathered, and like everything else in Alan Wake 2 it has no business being as detailed and vivid as it is. There’s an ebb and flow to Saga gameplay - strolling through small town America and shooting the breeze with Casey one minute, fending off supernatural cultists in the woods with a flashlight and pistol the next.
Wake’s moments in the spotlight are considerably more troubling for the soul. These take place in a surreal, hallucinogenic version of a New York-style urban sprawl, and the focus is on messing with you. The enemies in this game are especially good at that, teleporting and disappearing into a vapour so you’re never quite sure whether you’re in a combat scenario or just wasting precious bullets on troubling visions.
The precise mechanics aren’t groundbreaking. You shoot at the bad things, ideally in their squishy glowing red bits to deal massive damage. You shine your flashlight to stun them, and you run into areas bathed in light because they’re blind to light. But while you’re in that moment, you’re not thinking about this as rudimentary survival horror mechanics. Your mind’s awash with plot twists, trying to untangle an ever-knottier thread that contains both reality, the supernatural, and some fourth wall-smashing sub plots just for fun.
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And it’s that atmosphere, the sharpness of its penmanship, that makes Alan Wake 2 the best single player game we’ve played for years. It helps that it’s also one of the most visually stunning games released to date, too, but it’s not merely brute-forcing its way into your heart with mega-advanced shadows. Both the writing and the visuals find a way to fill Bright Falls with eerie detail, enough to convince you utterly of its existence. Well done, Remedy. You’ve just raised the bar again, you unsettling bunch.