Remedy delivers their most uncompromising game ever, and also their best.
You crawl out of the murky lake water, confused and scared. You're bloated, naked, vulnerable and you can't hear a sound except for the wind tearing at the trees along the lake shore. You frantically try to orientate yourself, but night has settled like a thick blanket around Cauldron Lake. You start running, but your legs don't really want to obey, up the slope towards the edge of the forest you see cones of light from flashlights. There's something evil chasing you, something you can't describe or know what it is, but suddenly it's upon you.
After a few minutes of intense, Lynch-esque thrill in the woods, the camera pans around Cauldron Lake, and with three ear-splitting thuds, it reads in clear white font; "ALAN"- "WAKE"- "II". We're in business.
Alan Wake 2 is one of the bravest AAA games I've ever played. It's not brave in the sense that a myriad of mechanics and systems have been squeezed together to illustrate some kind of advanced awesomeness, because the game we have here is in many ways quite simple. It's brave because it's so inseparable from the studio that created it, a vision so pure that it's hard to see how Remedy convinced its partner Epic Games to fund it. If A24, which has footed the bill for some of the most landmark horror films of the past 10 years, suddenly had $250 million to play with and didn't have to compromise on a specific vision as a result, they'd make Alan Wake 2.
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Okay, we'll open with praise, and it's well-deserved, because Alan Wake 2 is unlike any other AAA production in that it feels like pure arthouse, but paired with the epic proportions of even the most expensive productions. This is Remedy (and perhaps most crucially, Sam Lake) at its most Remedy-esque, and it's hard not to feel bemused that a studio with such a clear idea of what they want to make would set aside all market logic in a direct pursuit of making the best version of the game they want to make - nothing less, nothing more.
Okay, we'll stop now. So what is Alan Wake 2 all about? The sequel picks up, funnily enough, 13 years after the events at Cauldron Lake in the first game (which is the same period of time that has passed since its launch in 2010). FBI agent Saga Anderson arrives in Bright Falls to investigate a series of ritualistic murders around the lake by what appears to be some kind of cult. The bodies seem to indicate they've been in the lake for an extended period of time, but they haven't drowned, and why are there manuscript pages around the crime scenes describing exactly what the investigators are thinking? Meanwhile, after all these years, Alan is trying to escape the supernatural prison called The Dark Place that he placed himself in so many years ago, and through Saga, he is inspired to dig deeper for a way out.
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Alan Wake 2 is a survival horror game with a capital "s" and "h"... The controls are heavier, direct confrontations with enemies are more sparse and a myriad of adrenaline-pumping effects have been mixed in with the recognisable gameplay formula to ensure that a heavy tapestry of almost tangible atmosphere envelops the player from start to finish. The way you actually play Alan Wake 2 will, as mentioned, seem familiar to most, as you explore often large, often cramped and linear areas for upgrades, crucial resources and extra information about Bright Falls and the surrounding area, while using your flashlight to break enemy shields and then shooting afterwards to "seal the deal", so to speak. Some would call it mechanically rudimentary, and you'd have to agree with them, but just because the basic gameplay is recognisable doesn't necessarily mean it's a hindrance. In Alan Wake 2, mechanics, systems, storytelling and the world around you exist in perfect harmony, and thanks to small fixes here and there, the game is always creepy, never too easy, and never too hard. It's pretty clear that Remedy has focused more on spacing between enemies, positioning to keep you on your toes at all times and finally making sure that every encounter with an enemy feels meaningful.
The areas are large enough that there's extra information and resources to pick up if you're adventurous enough, and every time I strayed from the linear path, I was rewarded with unique perspectives on these bizarre events, well-realised mini-events that kept my heart in my throat just long enough, and a solid amount of diversion that made picking up where I left off a joy. Collectibles, in the form of script pages for Saga (warning of upcoming dangers and describing funny angles) and echoes for Alan (giving you little cutscenes with Sam Lake in Max Payne's voice) are also entertaining. There are also simple upgrades for both Saga and Alan, which are purchased with two different currencies found in their respective worlds. It's clever without being flashy, simple without being too basic. Remedy plays to their strengths and doesn't introduce a single system that doesn't serve the overall whole. Again, some might call it a bit too simple, but that's not me.
Both characters also have a "mind palace", if you will, where they can mentally reside to further explore their current reality. For Saga, it's an investigation room where clues, statements, profiles and other information are compiled to either expand the player's narrative perspective or to more directly help her find her way forward. It's not structurally deep as such, and just requires you to position information correctly to make sense of it, but it feels immensely satisfying all the way to the end. Alan is a writer, and he thinks only about how he can manipulate the story he's both writing for himself and living out to get where he needs to go. Both of these processes are instantaneous, as in zero loading time, both systems provide a break and seem to serve the whole in an incredibly organic way.
Playing Alan Wake 2 is a heavy, impactful and intentional journey into the heart of evil, where two people tackling a problem from two very different starting points work together across realities to challenge the darkness. It's a hair-raising story that doesn't skimp on effective physical detail (or "gore" as horror aficionados summarise it) or adrenaline-pumping effects. The characters are well-written and well-realised, and most importantly, there's a Twin Peaks-esque "weirdness" factor that's unique to Remedy. One example is that Saga's partner is Alex Casey - the same name as Wake's main character in his books. Not only that, he has the face and body of director Sam Lake and the voice of Max Payne (James McCaffrey). Why? Well, I don't want to spoil anything, but not all the obvious questions are answered, and when they are, it's not really linear. As David Lynch has done before with Twin Peaks, but also with many other works such as Inland Empire, the bizarre is cooked up with the conventional and mundane, creating a kind of constant unsettling sensation that sits on your spine throughout. In other words, it works.
There are a few lines that are a little too direct, as if Remedy hasn't quite got it right in their style, and these often come from Saga, who, especially in the game's first chapter, appears a little more blue-eyed than she undoubtedly is. However, there are only a few instances here and there, and in general, Remedy delivers an excellent script that maintains the mystery, the obscurity and the allure throughout.
To return to the A24 analogy, it's truly amazing that Remedy not only makes games based on such uncompromised visions, but manages to combine it with obviously advanced technology. The new version of the Northlight graphics engine not only delivers relatively good-looking character models, but perhaps most crucially, landmark, breath-taking environments that are only further enhanced by the studio's masterful sense of lighting, interior positioning and structuring of sequences and scenes. Like Control, everything is solidly timed and organised and looks fabulous, but unlike Control's Oldest House, Remedy finds the magic by inserting the horror under the skin of the mundane, just like in Twin Peaks, and as a result, Alan Wake 2 is both a virtue to watch and to listen to. It also runs reliably in Performance Mode on PlayStation 5 with only a few frame rate drops. However, it must be said that these drops occurred more than once, and while I don't mind calling Alan Wake 2 well-optimised from my personal perspective, more detailed technical tests may reveal truths I've not been able to spot.
I may end up regretting how much I've fallen for Alan Wake 2. Now, this review is certainly not written to fit into a critical consensus I don't yet know anything about, but it's always vulnerable to step out of the shadows and proclaim that you consider a given game to be a masterpiece. But Remedy deserve that honour, they deserve all the praise I can muster for being brave enough to make some exciting design choices that limit Alan Wake 2's mass appeal, but increase the enjoyment for those of us who remain. They deserve for me to call this game what I think it is - a masterpiece. They deserve a 10, and even though the game industry's prince charming will be bathing in Game of the Year awards in December, I'll be thinking of Cauldron Lake.
10 / 10
Great atmosphere. Grand narrative. Intriguing characters. Rooted gameplay.