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Alan Wake 2 review – go back to sleep

Alan Wake 2 review – go back to sleep
Alan Wake 2 – we live inside a dream (Picture: Remedy)

GameCentral reviews the long-awaited sequel to cult classic Alan Wake and wonders how the many changes will go down with fans.

Alan Wake 2 is one of the strangest video games we’ve ever played, sometimes intentionally so and sometimes not. It’s 13 years since the first game appeared and while it was only a minor hit it gained enough of a fanbase to keep the name alive and encourage Fortnite publisher Epic Games to fund this long-awaited sequel. For some, the original is one of the best narrative-based action games ever made, while for others it’s a highly repetitive shooter with a pretentiously clunky script.

We have always subscribed to the second school of thought and found the lack of variety in the recent remaster more wearying than ever. But while Alan Wake 2 can still be very one note it is a significantly different experience to the original. That doesn’t necessarily mean better though and we’ve struggled more than usual to come to a definitive conclusion about it, so we’re going to be fascinated to find out what those that did like the first game think of it.

Developer Remedy has shown very little of the game before release, but they’ve always been adamant that, unlike the original, this is a straight-up survival horror . But it is not. Or at least it’s not any more so than the first one. Apart from a slow drip feed of jump scares, where mildly scary-looking faces roar at you unexpectedly for a second, there is nothing frightening at all in the game, unless you have the temperament of a particularly cowardly mouse. However, that is the very least of the game’s problems.

The original’s plot was not very complicated and while this doesn’t explain the set-up particularly well it’s easy to pick up: you start off by playing as new character Saga Anderson, an FBI agent investigating a series of cult murders in a small Washington state town called Bright Falls. Saga comes to realise that missing novelist Alan Wake is at the root of the problem, as his writings have begun to reshape the reality of the town. (The plot is basically In the Mouth of Madness mixed with Twin Peaks.)

You spend the opening few hours only with Saga but can eventually switch between the two whenever you reach a safe house, but while the locations they explore are very different – the woods around Bright Falls for Saga and a fictionalised version of New York City for Alan – there’s very little difference in the combat abilities of the two characters. They each have slightly different weapons, and can unlock unique perks, but the way they deal with the game’s monsters is exactly the same.

It’s also exactly the same as the first game in that, with the exception of a few wolves, your enemies are always humans possessed by the Dark Presence , who have to have their excess dark energy burnt off by shining a light at them, before you then pump them full of lead (the fact that they’re all completely innocent townspeople is never really addressed).

The combat in the first game was very good but the problem was that it never evolved at all, through the course of the game, and since there were no other gameplay elements, and very little variety in locations, it all got old very fast. That’s not the case with the sequel though, not least for the fact that there’s surprisingly little combat, especially in the first half of the game.

Alan’s introduction, for example, involves no combat whatsoever, just lots of wandering around a meant-to-be spooky TV station solving number-related logic puzzles. We do appreciate that the game never tries to give away the answers and some, for optional treasure chests, are relatively obscure but it’s all very low energy. (Perhaps Remedy is trying to riff on the original Silent Hill , especially as there are plenty of other obvious steals from other horror classics, ranging from Resident Evil to The Shining.)

Since you’re invisible to enemies when standing directly beneath a bright light it’s quite easy to avoid a lot of them, but this fails to balance out the fact that your characters can only survive two or three hits before dying instantly. It’s not that the combat is difficult, there’s just no margin for error, and we’ve no idea why. Although the further you get into the game the more you realise it’s filled with many similar misjudgements, that makes for one of the most aggravating gameplay experiences we’ve ever had with a game that wasn’t also irredeemably bad.

Remedy seems to have decided that the best way to rack up the tension is to make both characters as slow and clumsy as possible. Simply grabbing everything from a loot crate is almost impossible to do quickly or accurately, while the timing on dodging always seems to be slightly off and ruins the fun of it.

Even worse is reloading, where you can go off and make a sandwich – a big one with multiple layers – in the time it takes Saga or Alan to reload some of their guns, with languid animations that make them look like they’re whiling away a lazy Sunday afternoon at a shooting range, rather than fighting armies of demonically possessed monsters.

Combat is okay but not as good as the first Alan Wake (Picture: Remedy)

Using a health pack is even worse; you could rewrite Alan’s novel in the time that takes. All of which means that the combat – the one thing that the original did well – is seriously undermined and now considerably less fun than in the first game.

Alan Wake 2 takes its time with everything, including the unique abilities of the two protagonists. Although neither she or the game acknowledges the fact, until it’s two-thirds through, Saga is psychic and while you’re encouraged to set up complex evidence boards, tracing all the questions and answers that your travails throw up, she always just automatically knows what’s going on.

We thought at first that she was meant to be performing some sort of Holmesian deduction in her mind place (read: palace) but she’s not, she doesn’t actually do any proper detective work at all. She just wastes your time pretending to and then cheats and gets the answer through magic.

Alan’s abilities are a little more interesting in that he sometimes has a magic lamp that can remove and store light sources to use at other predetermined locations. This works like a sort of localised light/dark world system, where a wall may disappear or appear depending on whether the light is working or not.

His other ability is, confusingly, quite similar, in that by exploring he can create two or three different versions of the same pre-set location, again picking which one is best for moving on or accessing hidden items. As we’d come to expect by that point, both systems are slow and fiddly to use, especially as it’s often difficult to work out what’s changed, but the core idea is interesting.

And that, pretty much, is that. It all goes on for far too long, with the game carrying on for hours after the point at which you thought it was starting to wrap up, sending you backwards and forwards through the same locations two or three times until the runtime stretches well past 20 hours. There are half a dozen small open world hubs in total, filled (or at least half-filled), with secrets and the occasional monster but the rewards for finding them all are minor.

Solving the problem of the original’s combat being too repetitive and unvarying by… just not having as much combat is a pretty reductive way to go about making a sequel, especially given it’s a horror game that’s not scary. As a consequence, Alan Wake 2 ends up doubling down on one of the original’s other flaws, of just having you wandering around not doing much for a lot of the time.

We cannot remember a recent game where we’ve wanted to reach into the screen and strangle the protagonist as much as this and yet Alan Wake 2 is far from a complete failure. It’s not lazy or incompetently made – the graphics are excellent – and there’s a brief spell around the three-quarter mark of Alan’s story when it suddenly comes alive with some entertainingly bizarre set pieces.

They’re still interrupted by aggravating combat, as enemies you never noticed take down half your health without any warning, but there is some genuinely fun stuff in there too. That said, we do wish Remedy would give up on the live action cut scenes; especially as the guy playing Alan Wake looks disarmingly like a knock-off brand Jake Gyllenhaal. Although having co-director Sam Lake (the original face of Max Payne) as Saga’s partner is even more distracting, as he stands around cosplaying as what look like the G-Man from Half-Life.

We’re more than happy to acknowledge that Remedy’s shtick works for many people but if you ask us their problem is that they don’t play to their strengths. They’ve always been good at third person combat but they insist on covering it in a sickly syrup of poor storytelling and awkward dialogue. The script is never George Lucas or David Cage bad, but no one talks like a real person, with incredibly unnatural dialogue that no human – possessed or otherwise – would ever utter.

Saga is fine but there’s little depth to her characterisation (Picture: Remedy)

Not only is the script clunky but it struggles to add any thematic depth to proceedings. Remedy is presumably trying to highlight the hidden darkness of ordinary people, and how insecurities can fester within even the most healthy seeming person, but it doesn’t come across clearly and the characters are written too superficially to really care about.

That’s why Control , which focuses the most on combat, is by far their best game and why Quantum Break , with its 20 minute long live action cut scenes, is the worst. Alan Wake 2 sits somewhere between the two extremes, trying its best to seem serious and foreboding but most of the time coming across as contrived and irritating.

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And yet at other times it works as intended. There’s a double-bluff plot twist towards the end that is a welcome surprise and the Alan Wake musical number (we will purposefully explain no more) is one of the most interesting uses of live action footage in the whole game, if not the whole games industry.

The fact that Alan Wake is set in the same universe as Control is made plain within the first five minutes, so there’s clearly more to come from both, but we do hope that Remedy can refocus their talents on what they’re good at and not waste so much time on elements that they’ve always struggled with. One of these days they’re going to produce a cast iron classic, but they could probably have done so already if only they’d wake up and realise where their real talents lie.

Alan Wake 2 review summary In Short: A peculiar sequel that at times seems to be purposefully undermining the best elements of the original, but it still gets just enough right to please both existing fans and potential newcomers.
Pros: The graphics are great and there’s some clever use of live action footage, even if the traditional cut scenes are predictably cringy. Alan’s powers are interesting, if not fully utilised.
Cons: Everything is so slow and fiddly, while at the same time being a survival horror without any actual horror – unless you count the synthetic-sounding dialogue. Too long and some nasty bugs.
Score: 6/10

Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox Series X/S, and PC Price: £49.99 Publisher: Epic Games Developer: Remedy Release Date: 27th October 2023 Age Rating: 18

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