Review: ‘Alan Wake 2’ is Remedy at its most unsettling and weird


Alan Wake changes a scene and sees signs of a cult in 'Alan Wake 2.' — Epic Games/TNS

Remedy Entertainment is at its best when the developer is unsettling. It’s a peculiar quality that permeates every pixel and line of code of the studio’s work. It’s in the creepy atmosphere of “Max Payne” and the dread players feel walking in the darkness of “Alan Wake.”

But it wasn’t until “Control” that Remedy truly harnessed that weirdness and sinister vibe into a project that married its ambitious storytelling and its excellent game design. That breakthrough title established a tone and shape for “Alan Wake 2.” And finally, after 13 years of waiting, fans finally have a sequel and answer to the last line from the original: “It’s not a lake, it’s an ocean.”

Introducing a new hero

Alan Wake 2” starts off with a new protagonist, FBI agent Saga Anderson, who takes a case along with her partner, Alex Casey, in Bright Falls, Washington. It’s a small town near Cauldron Lake, the site where Alan disappeared after the events of the original. They’re investigating a ritualistic murder when inexplicable things starts happening.

Light and dark are important elements in 'Alan Wake 2,' as light helps fight enemies such as this one discovered by Saga Anderson.Light and dark are important elements in 'Alan Wake 2,' as light helps fight enemies such as this one discovered by Saga Anderson.

The murder victim, Bob Nightingale, suddenly comes alive and rampages through the sheriff’s station during the middle of an autopsy. He escapes, and that leads Saga back to the scene of the crime. There, Saga learns the rules of this Altered World Event. Like an “X-Files” episode, players learn along with her that Alan’s new work “Return” is influencing the outside world. She discovers pages of his new novel scattered around the world and they outline events that she soon experiences. Similar to the original, Alan’s work is changing reality.

After learning more rules to the world, Saga manages to extricate Alan from the phantom realm called the Dark Place. That’s where he was trapped for 13 years along with the Dark Presence, an evil entity that has its own nefarious plans.

Two world, one campaign

Throughout the 20-plus-hour campaign, players will switch off between the two protagonists. They each have their own weapons, power-ups and worlds to explore. Saga travels around the real world of Bright Falls, Watery and Cauldron Lake battling the Taken, people who have been subsumed by the Dark Presence. She does all this while peeling back layers of conspiracy around town.

Saga Anderson is a new hero who is pivotal in helping the title character in 'Alan Wake 2.'Saga Anderson is a new hero who is pivotal in helping the title character in 'Alan Wake 2.'

Her levels and gameplay resemble the original “Alan Wake” except Remedy expands the world giving her more places to explore. It’s a world that’s more open, but it also means players come across more side quests and simple puzzles that offer bonuses. Players have to balance these activities with the survival elements as Saga has limited ammo, flashlight batteries and space to carry her equipment.

During the campaign, she’ll encounter several puzzles, and to help her solve these mysteries, Remedy gives Saga a Mind Place. It’s a video game representation of a Mind Palace, but in “Alan Wake 2,” it has more meaning. This is where players organize Saga’s thoughts to move the plot along and also profile key figures. All of this lends this part of the campaign the feel of a police procedural.

Then things get weird

The other half focuses on Alan’s journey in the Dark Place as he struggles to remember what he has been doing the past 13 years and why he supposedly wrote “Return.” This is where Remedy does its best work and creates some mind-bending puzzles and cranks up the weirdness to 11.

Taking place in this phantom realm, the Dark Place has a quality of a dream where the architecture doesn’t always have to make sense and Alan can manipulate a level’s design by absorbing light into a lamp or using that same device to lend light to an area.

Alan Wake explores a nightmarish version of New York in 'Alan Wake 2'.Alan Wake explores a nightmarish version of New York in 'Alan Wake 2'.

More fascinating than that is Alan’s Writers Room, which is comparable to Saga’s Mind Place, but instead of organizing thoughts, this is where Alan figures out how his writing will change the Dark Place. He identifies scenes and then looks for story beats in the environment and combines the two to change the structure of the level. Mix in the lamp mechanic and the Writer’s Room and players will run across some mind-boggling levels.

Remedy has fun stretching the design and concepts. It even introduces full-motion video and mixes it with level design brilliantly. It shines in a musical level that’s literally off-the-wall and one of the best scenarios in gaming this year.

Two stories talking to each other

Alan’s combat is similar to Saga’s except danger is tougher to discern. Shadow figures sometimes ignore Alan or they attack him. Enemies can trickle toward players or flood the room, creating chaos.

What’s notable is that for most of the campaign players can switch between the two heroes at major save points. That helps Remedy weave two narratives that talk to each other. It’s like hearing one side of a phone conversion, then the other and piecing a story around that.

Despite all its jump scares and odd twists, “Alan Wake 2” does a good job unfurling its mysteries until the end. The final mission is messy with some pieces not fitting as naturally as the rest of the narrative. It feels rushed in places and frustrating in others.

Nonetheless, “Alan Wake 2” offers a satisfying tale. It could have easy spiraled out of control but Remedy harnesses that strangeness for maximum effect. – The Mercury News/Tribune News Service

———

‘Alan Wake 2’

3½ stars out of 4

Platform: PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Series S, PC

Rating: Mature

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