Alan Wake 2 (2023)

Alan Wake 2 (2023)

It’s rare that a game invades my dreams, causing some sort of weird split between reality and dreamscape, that causes me nearly awful night’s rest. But when that does happen, it means the game is special. Alan Wake 2 was a game I have been waiting on since the last game released in 2010. I remember seeing screenshots for years, and then ultimately it finally came out and I didn’t realize it was going to be a “scary” game. However, while living alone in a cabin in the snow mountains one night, I decided to play it, and was captivated by the story, even if it pulled a bit too much from Stephen King and his novels, and a bit too much from Twin Peaks as well. Then the long wait for a sequel began, and 13 years later, here it is.

I went in completely blind, not knowing pretty much anything about this game. Or at least as much as someone can while being on the internet anyways. It’s hard, yet not impossible to steer clear of trailers, info and spoilers of a game, yet somehow I did just that. So when I popped the game in, I was a bit surprised how dark and gruesome the whole game started off. Being put into the shoes of not Alan Wake, FBI agent Saga Anderson and teamed up with her partner Alex Casey, I was a bit thrown off. The game immediately looked gorgeous but insanely dark. Maybe it didn’t help that I just replaced my projector and hadn’t gotten the settings dialed in yet. After futzing around with gamma and contrast settings a bit, I was able to play the game and experience all that the twisted tale before me had to offer.

The whole game is split between playing as Saga and Alan Wake, which I will say was a bit of a disappointment, but to be honest, that’s really the only bad thing I could say about it. Sure there is some ESG/wokeness in it, no doubt thanks to Epic being the publisher and making this a Epic Game Store Exclusive. Besides a throwaway line or two, it’s fairly devoid of most of that stuff throughout the rest of the game. Which is rare in 2023.

While I would have preferred to play as Alan Wake in a game called Alan Wake 2, the story dictates Saga as a main character, and her actions and existence is justified in the very enormous narrative. Since Remedy has decided to create a connected Universe throughout their games, they took this opportunity to tie in Alan Wake into their Control game, thanks to the Control DLC titled AWE a few years ago. Now, in Alan Wake 2, the Federal Bureau of Control is integrated into the story. Which will ultimately play a large part in Control 2 as well. Connected Universes are all the rage now, but this one seems actually worthwhile and interesting. Control was already playing with the idea of inter-dimensions and paranormal activities, and Alan Wake a decade previously featured that stuff heavily, so it makes sense and is a perfect pairing.

Playing as Saga, she has a power to enter a psychological construct in her mind called a “Mind Place” which I guess is something from Sherlock Holmes, and he calls it a “Mind Palace”. I was never into Sherlock stuff, so this whole concept was foreign to me, but it works out well enough as a menu system of sorts. It’s a interesting way of laying out all the pieces of information, but I guess when in the Mind Place, the game doesn’t pause, meaning if you bring up the map, or try to piece together information, you are open to attacks. This is only really an issue in The Dark Place while playing as Alan, mostly because of the sound design. Shadows shout and whisper Alan’s name and other stuff at him from all around, and it was actually very disturbing. It didn’t help that I self inflicted it upon myself by dedicating this as a “Midnight Game”, a game that I would only play after Midnight, in pitch black darkness, alone. The game, just like most scary games, loses a lot of the appeal if you are playing in the middle of an afternoon, with sunshine pouring in the windows and Christmas music playing on the speakers.

The game is deceptively long, thanks in no small part to the map system being a bit obtuse in the beginning, and the layout of the levels featuring twisting paths that sometimes just can’t be traversed through. On top of that, while playing as Alan, his Mind Play is a “Writer's Room” that features a plot board and requires changing story elements to re-configure the layout of the level. Honestly, I had a hard time coming to a good understanding with the mechanic until near the middle of the game. It felt like there were so many different things in this seemingly linear game that just felt so confusing. There were only two times that I got so lost that I had to pop out of the game and pull up a video to see where I needed to go next, or what to do to progress. I rarely ever have to do this, but this game just was a bit confusing to me with the mechanics of the plot changing. For example, early on in the game, after getting to play as Alan, in an abandoned subway station, he needs to have a subway car opened up. To do this, he needs to find the plot that he writes where it’s burned up and then another plot point that has cult members performing a ritual. Changing plot points from Burned Up to Ritual changed the scene around to where the car was either opened up or closed off. It’s that sort of stuff, that was just a bit confusing to find out at the beginning where the mechanic is introduced.

I can’t in good conscience talk about this game without talking about the melding of gameplay and FMV. Full Motion Video is all over this game and is a large integral part of the games DNA. Cutscenes featuring real actors (Agent Casey is actually played by the games Director, Sam Lake, who also is the face of the first two Max Payne games), bring the story to life in a way that feels organic to the game being presented. It’s never jarring, thanks to the amazing graphics and fairly lifelike models. I will say, some of the other characters in the game feature some real uncanny valley moments, such as Rose the waitress. It reminded me of the tech used in L.A. Noire, a game which I loved, used facial motion capture in a brand new way. But, with the way the story is in Alan Wake, a bit of an off putting performance and character is basically completely normal.

Remedy has been playing with “cool music focused moments” since the first Alan Wake, and then really became popular with Control. There was the “Moment” with the Maze, where main character Jesse Fayden puts on a special set of headphones and rocks out to the Control song to help guide her through the Maze. While a rockin’ metal song plays, Jesse flies and blasts tons of bad guys in a rather rad playable scene. Alan Wake features a similar moment, but this time incorporating the FMV and actors in a fairly ridiculous way. Alan keeps looping into a late night talk show with host Warlin Door. The fictional band “Old Gods Of Asgard '' (who play a part in the first Alan Wake’s “cool music focused moment” as well) play a song, and all the characters end up in a musical. Singing about being trapped and getting out and all that. It’s so absurd in this truly horrific and terrifying game that it’s the levity that is needed. It’s a perfect balance of combat and minor puzzle solving and storytelling. It’s hard to describe how big of a smile I had on my face at 2 AM while watching this. I actually gave a little golf clap at the end, as it’s just a perfect crazy and fun moment, that we just don’t get in games anymore.

The combat is probably the weakest part, thanks to the flashlight system. The enemies are covered in darkness, and the flashlight has to be shined on them to take that armor away. The flashlight has to be not only on them, but the intensity has to be used to actually destroy the darkness barrier on the bad guy (which is not how flashlights work) and will use up batteries. It’s a refined mechanic compared to the first game, but still a bit hard to master when surrounded by enemies. Managing the flashlight, burning away the darkness and then having to manage ammo and really focus on headshots, was a bit of an ordeal, but I only died several times in the game, mostly in a boss fight/ the ending battle. These horror games, and make no mistake about it, Alan Wake 2 is a horror game, keep that tension built up thanks to the scarcity of ammo. I understand it, but I also hate it. I never felt very comfortable with how many shots it took to take down enemies and did purposefully die a couple times when I wasted my entire collection of ammunition on a small group of enemies.

One other thing about the game that kinda disappointed me was the ending. It felt too abrupt, and the pacing just didn’t seem right. The final battle is too early, and you fight like a few random enemies at the end. There is no big final battle at the end, it’s like half an hour before the credits roll. It just seemed a bit off to me. I even went to bed feeling like I maybe missed something, so this morning I ended up pulling up a playthrough and watching the ending and realizing, no, I didn’t miss anything. That’s just the way the game ends. I am not a fan of cliffhanger endings, as so many games before have given no closure, and then something happens where there is no follow up. That isn’t gonna be the case with Alan Wakes story, and it’s obviously going to continue in DLC and Control 2. But it just felt like a pretty poor ending to a fantastic game.

There is so much to this game, with the exploration, the unbelievably funny FMV cutscenes centered around the Koskela brothers (a pair of Finnish brothers who create “Coffee World” a coffee themed amusement park) all the creepy nursery rhyme locations found in the woods, scattered lunch boxes, cult boxes and enemies, and I would do a disservice if I didn’t mention Ahti, the janitor, and his band “Ahti and the Janitors” (his rendition of nightless night in the game was perfect) and even the actual short film Nightless Night featuring Sam Lake in game is just incredible. There was so much to this game, and I know I missed a good chunk of stuff, that I’ll have to either go back and play it, or watch some of it, because I want to know what other cool hidden things there are. I would have loved a point where I was able to finish the game, and then be given a chance to travel to a point where I could explore in a brighter time of day to really explore and collect all the missed items. It would just be something nice.

Alan Wake 2 might be a disappointment to some, because of Saga Anderson, as you don’t play as Alan Wake for a good half of the game. And that is partially true for me. I much rather would have played as Alan Wake throughout the whole game and got maybe a playable piece as Saga. But that’s not what the game is, and not the story the developers wanted to tell. So instead of focusing on the game not being what I wanted, I’m going to focus on how well it actually executes on what it does. The game is a phenomenal example of superb storytelling, and while I don’t fully grasp every single concept of the labyrinthian twists of the plot, I understand the basics well enough. The integration of FMV into the game and gameplay work so well, it should hopefully influence more developers to branch out a bit and experiment… get weird with it. Remedy has quickly risen to the top of game developers in my book, and takes it’s place next to Rocksteady (we’ll see how Suicide Squad is, but the Arkham games are near perfect) Double Fine and Ubisoft Montreal (The Prince of Persia Sands Of Time games in particular). I can’t wait to see what the DLC has in store for the continuation of the story, and Control 2 is just going to be nuts, I feel it in my bones.