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In Alan Wake 2, you will never feel safe

Remedy Entertainment returns to the franchise after more than a decade, with a survival horror experience that’s equal parts strange and terrifying.

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A screenshot from Alan Wake 2.
Image: Remedy Entertainment

Horror drowns in symmetry: evil twins, two souls occupying one body, light and dark creating shadow, the Other Side, the Dark Place, the Upside Down. It is part of the cascading telemetry of fear utilized by our best horror artists, weaving nightmares out of pleasant dreams, whittling hell from the bones of our heavens.

Remedy Entertainment has created not only one of their best games to date but one of the best games of this already incredible year. Indeed, it is my game of the year. Alan Wake 2, Remedy’s first full-on third-person survival horror, is the culmination of everything the studio has been building toward and playing with, as ideas and mechanics, since Max Payne.

The first Alan Wake, released in 2010 for the Xbox 360, starred the titular character gradually being drawn into a dark mystery in the Twin Peaks-esque town of Bright Falls: complete with a diner, a lamp (rather than log) lady, and a world-weary sheriff. After losing his wife to a Dark Presence, Alan fought to bring her back, sacrificing himself to the Dark Presence in the Dark Place. (It’s very… dark.) Alan discovered he could turn his fiction into reality through writing in the Dark Place. The Dark Presence wanted to use his talents and creativity to make the world in its image.

Or something. It was always a bit unclear.

Canonically, Alan has been stuck in the Dark Place since 2010. As such, to give some grounding to reality, we have a second protagonist in Alan Wake 2. More twos, more doubles.

This is Saga Anderson, who is notable for being Remedy’s first Black protagonist. Those familiar with the first game should recognize the surname immediately. Saga is an FBI agent, accompanied by her more senior partner Alex Casey, who is basically Max Payne: he has Sam Lake’s iconic jawline and scowl, along with James McCaffrey’s grizzled, whiskey-drowned voice.

A screenshot from the video game Alan Wake 2.
Image: Remedy Entertainment

Saga and Alex have come to Bright Falls to follow up on a series of cult killings, which seem tied to the missing Alan Wake. But things soon turn weird when Saga and Alex experience supernatural events they cannot explain. I’ll not spoil what their first encounter is, but it is one of the most memorable introductions to horror I’ve seen. Players soon get to switch between Saga and Alan.

Saga is in the “real” world of Bright Falls, fighting cultists and other possessed entities. Using only a few weapons with little ammo, Saga must use her flashlight to burn away a kind of dark shield around enemies before pumping them full of lead. I found the enemies unreasonably bullet spongy on normal difficulty and found the experience far more pleasant on the easier “story mode.”

Combat is crunchy, fluid, and often feels sickeningly realistic

Like other survival horror, this is a game where two or more enemies create a challenge. You do have access to grenade-type weapons, but they are rare and often best saved for the most difficult boss fights. As Saga, you’ll be fighting in beautiful woods, solving bizarre puzzles in quirky old houses, navigating creepy fairgrounds, and so on, before being dragged into nightmare sequences for boss fights.

Saga, like Alan, feels responsive, but I often wanted to scream at their dodge mechanic. The game provides no on-screen indicators — even optional — to telegraph that an enemy is about to strike or hit, even off-screen. This often felt unfair, as sometimes I dodged too early or too late. But in any event, the combat is crunchy, fluid, and often feels sickeningly realistic, with debris flying, bodies reacting to bullet punches, and so on.

Alan, meanwhile, is living in a nightmare version of New York City. Filled with shadowy aspects of people whispering his name, Alan must use his writing powers to rewrite the world to escape. The shadow aspects are not all dangerous, but you can only tell which ones will hurt after observing them for a while — this creates a constantly tense scenario because you never know which, if any, will attack. Alan keeps his flashlight trained, while the shadows whisper his name alongside weird incantations about dreams and darkness — reminiscent of the infected floating office workers in Remedy’s previous title, Control, which is set in the same universe. (A fun fact: canonically, Alan wrote the creepy incantation recited by all the office workers.)

A screenshot from the video game Alan Wake 2.
Image: Remedy Entertainment

In Alan’s nightmare New York City, he can rewrite entire scenes to change a “plot” in the scene he’s presented. He does this from his mind’s writers room. It’s an enjoyable mechanic since it plays into Alan’s abilities but also lets you, as a player, shape the world by mixing and matching plots and scenes. New information, resources, and paths are revealed.

Saga, meanwhile, has a Mind Place she can enter at any time, complete with a red thread murder board and coffee machine. Here, she can keep track of suspects, evidence, and so on. Saga’s ability is to “sense” the truth behind people’s words, giving her psychic insight. Saga makes deductions from evidence she discovers, driving the plot forward. It’s a pity that there’s little player involvement in her deductions, but it does streamline the process.

So rarely do we see such freedom in a studio to carve out its identity in its titles

Like Control and Quantum Break, Alan Wake 2 mixes live-action cutscenes with gameplay. But the graphics are so astounding, it will take a moment to distinguish between the two. Lighting, design, and art are so impeccably put together with the confidence of a team that knows exactly the world they want to create, the story they want to tell, and the feelings they want to evoke. Alan’s New York is covered in stunning graffiti, litter, broken lights, neon signs — a sickening testament to capitalistic vanity and deterioration, mirroring Alan’s own wasted years as a hotshot writer. Saga’s small-town America has shaking woods, monstrous trees, and creaking cabins — wrapped in a sound direction that in itself would terrify me, with sudden jumpscares that quickly fill your entire screen.

But every “chapter” is unique, and every set piece requires new consideration. There is no way to feel grounded such that you can predict where Remedy will take you or what it will expect out of you. There’s a confidence here, in theme and story — in weirdness — that demonstrates a studio at the top of its game. So rarely do we see such freedom in a studio to carve out its identity in its titles, with such high production values and skill.

A screenshot from the video game Alan Wake 2.
Image: Remedy Entertainment

Directing and performances deserve mention, too, particularly from our main characters. Again, I can’t help noticing Alan Wake is a mix of two performers: the likeness, body, and face of Ilkka Villi and the voice of Matthew Porretta (who played Dr. Darling in Control). Melanie Liburd’s Saga is a quietly confident and brave agent, running headfirst into danger, fast becoming a favorite, even if a lot of the time she can be quite unreasonably unemotional.  

I ran into a number of bugs during the review period, but I was told by Remedy much would be fixed. Most notably, prompts for interaction sometimes disappeared, requiring a reload — which was often frustrating since it meant backtracking quite a bit, including redoing difficult battles. I also encountered a potentially game-breaking bug on the PlayStation 5 as Alan, which I was assured would be fixed on day one. But aside from these, the game ran smoothly in both performance and quality mode on the PS5, with wonderful DualSense support for both haptic feedback with guns and other immersive elements like raindrops and rivers.

In Alan Wake 2, you are displaced by variety, undermined by unpredictability, and unprepared by uncertainty; it’s a tide of dark design that drowns and leaves you in fetters of what’s expected from survival horror. You will never be comfortable or safe.

Alan Wake 2 is available now on the PS5, Xbox Series X / S, and PC via the Epic Games Store.