Alan Wake 2 review – a confidently strange horror thriller

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Inspired by Twin Peaks, The Twilight Zone, and Stephen King 2010’s Alan Wake told the story of an author with a case of writer’s block so severe he became literally haunted by his own creations. It was an ambitious but muddled psychological thriller that struggled to overcome the inherent silliness of its premise.

Alan Wake 2 is no less ridiculous, but this time the tale is penned more assuredly. For the sequel, Finnish developer Remedy Entertainment splits the story between two different perspectives, using them to alternately ground and embrace the game’s narrative absurdities. The result is a thoroughly entertaining blend of detective procedural and surrealist survival horror, one that powers through some mechanical weaknesses with strong characterisation and endlessly inventive imagery.

At first, the narrative perspective belongs not to the titular Alan but to FBI agent Saga Anderson, a young black woman with Swedish heritage. Saga arrives in the Pacific north-west town of Bright Falls to investigate a series of ritualistic murders, 13 years after Alan Wake vanished in the same town. The early scenes of crime-scene investigation are tonally distinct from the original game, more David Fincher than David Lynch. Saga’s logical, centred personality contrasts with Alan’s more frantic mindset, making her a reassuring presence when events take a supernatural turn.

Ineractive menus are more David Fincher than David Lynch … Saga Anderson’s Mind Place.
Ineractive menus are more David Fincher than David Lynch … Saga Anderson’s Mind Place. Photograph: Remedy

Saga keeps the game’s feet on the ground in other ways too. Her Mind Place (she’s far too sensible to call it a Mind Palace) is a traversable menu screen she can enter at any time. Here you’ll find an interactive murder wall where Saga keeps track of cases, and a Profiling table that lets her delve into the minds of suspects and witnesses. Little deduction is required to solve the game’s mysteries, but these features also help untangle the knotty threads of the story. This helps avoid the sensation that events are being made up on the fly, even when, according to the game’s own fiction, they actually are.

Eventually Saga’s investigation brings her into contact with Alan, and the narrative shifts to his point of view. Where Saga’s story takes place in the lush forests surrounding Bright Falls, Alan’s scenes mainly occur in the Dark Place: a twisted alternate dimension shaped around his memories of New York, governed by “loops and rituals” that make no logical sense but can be understood intuitively. Alan carries with him a lamp that can absorb light from one source and deploy it in another; this not only switches the light on or off but reshuffles the entire scene. He can also exercise his writerly talents to alter the environment around him. In one particularly mind-bending chapter, he pursues an interactive theatre experience in which a play about a murder cult is infiltrated by an actual murder cult.

Once both characters have been introduced you are able to pursue their parallel stories as you choose, switching between the logical world of Saga and the wild dreamscape of Alan. However you choose to experience the story, the two sides grow more entwined as they progress. As Alan rewrites the Dark Place, his changes bleed out into the real world, affecting Saga’s investigation and her personal connection to the story.

Alan Wake 2 is good at selling you on its metafictional hokum, equally confident in its serious and silly modes. It also features the best implementation of developer Remedy’s more idiosyncratic ideas, such as its fondness for mixed media and self-referential throwbacks to its previous games. Live action cutscenes are well shot and acted (including a delightful performance from David Harewood as the enigmatic Mr Door), and woven naturally into the game.

Based on twisted memories of New York … Alan Wake’s Dark Place.
Based on twisted memories of New York … Alan Wake’s Dark Place. Photograph: Remedy

For all it does well, Alan Wake 2 disappoints with its combat. It’s a slower, more methodical shooter than the first game, heavily inspired by Capcom’s recent Resident Evil remakes. Remedy’s facsimile of that system is robust enough, with weighty shooting and fights that can feel like a scramble for survival. But the trademark use of light to weaken enemies is barely evolved, and the whole thing feels conservative compared with the slow-motion spectacle of Max Payne or the debris-flinging battles of Control. Combat encounters are also sparser than you might expect, and rarely challenge you for long.

If Alan Wake 2 matched its narrative charms with greater depth in play, you’d be looking at a very special game indeed. As it stands, it’s a thrillingly spooky ride that can, at times, feel too much like you’re just pressing forward while weird things happen around you. That said, I very much enjoyed those weird things, and while Alan Wake 2’s combat lacks the developer’s usual pizzaz, it is Remedy’s best narrative adventure yet.

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