Alan Wake 2 is yet another demonstration of Remedy’s mastery when it comes to creating unpredictable narratives, quirky and compelling characters, an unsettling atmosphere, and incredibly stylised aesthetics – all elements that make for games quite unlike anything you’ll find in the increasingly conservative and homogenised “AAA” space.
Storytelling has always been Remedy’s strong point, and while Alan Wake 2 runs on longer than it needs to, the unravelling mystery and cast are captivating, with no shortage of twists, turns, sudden shifts, weird exchanges, and legitimately creepy encounters. Everyone has their storytelling preferences, but I found Alan Wake 2 most compelling when I was left confused, wondering what the hell just happened, conflicted as to whether anything I witnessed was (in-game) reality or fiction, and wanting to know more.
Events kick off 13 years after the first game, with missing persons suddenly reappearing around Brights Falls only to be ritualistically murdered. FBI agents Saga Anderson and Alex Casey – yes, that name should sound familiar – are sent to investigate cult activity; providing a compelling new pair of protagonists that share a surprisingly unflappable attitude in the face of the inexplicable – not unlike Control’s Jesse Faden.
Meanwhile, Alan Wake is still trapped in the Dark Place, endlessly monologuing, and trying to rewrite yet another manuscript he can’t recall writing in the first place. Prior attempts to escape and defeat his evil doppelgänger, Mr. Scratch, have gone awry – attempts that allow the DLC and American Nightmare spin-off to remain canon – and Alan is discovering his stories might be less an act of pure creation, and more a dangerous rewriting of reality with severe consequences for his inspirations.
It’s a story that features many new and returning characters, picks up lingering plot threads, and reworks set-pieces. The game is even happy to poke fun at its confusing structure, with Saga and Casey criticising Alan’s writing; Alan seemingly aware his imagination might be as much a problem as the Dark Presence’s influence; and the idea of a “Remedy Connected Universe” pushed hard, with the Federal Bureau of Control playing a significant role.
Self-aware stories are not always successful and can feel like a cliched excuse for lazy writing, but Alan Wake 2 commits to the idea hard and sticks with it. If you can buy into the horror-story-invades-reality premise, it provides narrative context for eye-rolling contrivances I’d usually criticise, while I found it easier to forgive some awkward exchanges, jarring tonal shifts, or flat voice acting by always assuming they were intentional.
As a final point on the narrative, I wouldn’t recommend playing Alan Wake 2 without playing the original and, ideally, the AWE expansion for Control. It still feels like its own story, with plenty of memorable characters and locations, and at least a few revelations and resolutions by the end – but it’s also now clearly part of a larger, ongoing narrative.
As in all of Remedy’s work, the characters and writing quality are but one part of their storytelling technique; it’s how they’re complemented by the audiovisual experience that impresses most.
Despite some lingering issues with animation blending and lip-syncing, the updated Northlight Engine excels at hyperrealistic environments (think both intricately detailed interiors and densely forested exteriors); dynamic lighting that is important to both the atmosphere and gameplay; and expressive, life-like facial capture that enhances cutscenes and dialogue.
More importantly, it allows developers to inject every scene with surreal or nightmarish visual elements, like shifting colour palettes, intense visual distortion, ghostly overlays, and live-action sequences. If you’re someone who prefers clean visuals and minimal post-processing, you might struggle with Alan Wake 2 as it’s overwhelming but also integral to the experience.
Going hand-in-hand with the stylised visuals are quality voice acting and narration; unsettling ambience coupled with the manic cries of distant “Taken”; and an incredible soundtrack that is used for both musical interludes between chapters – which, once again, perfectly capture the narrative themes – and several entertaining set-pieces that range from weird, to funny, to completely wild.
Finding a balance between engaging gameplay and rigid storytelling remains a challenge in cinematic games. It’s been hit-and-miss for Remedy, going all the way back to Max Payne, and that trend continues.
The first Alan Wake relied on long combat gauntlets between memorable set-pieces and cutscenes; Quantum Break forced you to watch long live-action cutscenes between chapters if you wanted to understand the story; while Control had incessantly respawning enemies that made progression tedious if you were just interested in the story. To its credit, Alan Wake 2 features less combat and shifts towards more exploration-, investigation- and puzzle-driven progression – but the pacing is odd and the new Mind Place and Writer’s Room mechanics are neither as engaging nor complex as they appear.
As Saga, you’ll alternate between safe zones with a focus on dialogue investigations and deductions, before tackling dangerous zones full of Taken and no shortage of puzzles that rely on finding clues, solving riddles, and hunting for key objects. As Alan, you’ll traverse the ever-shifting Dark Place, defeating shadows and solving puzzles by transferring light sources using the Angel Lamp and rewriting scenes. Both use conventional firearms in tandem with a torch or other light-generating gadgets to dispatch various forms of possessed Taken, while scouring the surroundings for supplies, foreshadowing manuscript pages, and optional collectibles that unlock passive character upgrades.
The first notable improvement is the increased scale and density of the environment (with maps that auto-update with the location of containers, puzzles, and locked doors). The order in which you explore locations is often linear, but levels feel more open, allowing you to backtrack to safe rooms to save and manage your inventory, and you can return later to find more collectibles once you have the right tools.
Saga primarily explores large outdoor regions with branching paths and plentiful optional content, while Alan spends most of his chapters in a twisted version of New York City, full of dark streets and alleyways, leading to sprawling interior locations pulled from his memories or novels. Those who enjoy methodically clearing maps of icons are well-catered to.
The shift towards traditional survival horror combat – no doubt inspired by the recent Resident Evil remakes – is another positive change, with a quality-over-quantity approach to battles. There are still random Taken encounters you can tackle or avoid while exploring, but many chapters feature tense and creepy exploration with just a handful of tough encounters or a gimmicky boss battle at the end. With limited inventory space, conserving and juggling resources becomes essential, and so too is landing accurate shots and hitting weak points to dispatch tougher Taken variants effectively.
The first potential issue, which affects both the gameplay and narrative flow, is the inconsistent chapter pacing and overall length of Alan Wake 2 – an easy 20+ hours for a casual playthrough ignoring optional content. Saga’s chapters can feature 2-3 hours of exploration, puzzles, and combat, and dominate the first two-thirds of the game.
In contrast, many of Alan’s chapters are resolved in a fraction of that time and some feature my least favourite part of cinematic games – pushing the thumbstick forward for several minutes with no other engagement beyond watching events play out. The character-swap mechanic was probably designed to mitigate this, but it’s only available a half dozen chapters in, it’s restrictive as only a few chapters can narratively overlap, and sticking with the default chapter progression makes for a more coherent story.
The second and more pervasive issue for me is the implementation of the Mind Place and Writer’s Room. Given much of the game feels like a detective story about piecing together clues or stringing together important plot points, I can understand the intent – but my feelings grew more negative the longer I played.
For Saga, the Mind Place is a mental office she can travel to at any time to assign clues – think photographs or manuscript notes – to a case board or to profile potential suspects and witnesses. For Alan, the Writing Room back in the Cauldron Lake cabin allows him to explore different drafts of his novel and alter the Dark Place. Unfortunately, what starts out as an interesting way to portray Saga and Alan’s logic and reasoning, slowly becomes a disruptive routine that feels like manually ticking off an objective list.
Saga doesn’t need to find every piece of evidence to progress, but it’s still a painfully slow process and it doesn’t feel engaging when clues can’t even be placed in the wrong spot, and profiling is simply selecting a topic and watching a short cutscene. More annoying is how Saga often states what needs to be done when you encounter a puzzle, but won’t interact with obvious puzzle objects or engage in dialogue until you’ve gone into the Mind Place and posted enough clues to trigger a deduction.
For Alan, exploring manifested scenes in the Dark Place unlocks new topics on the plot board that allow him to alter said scene, potentially revealing new clues, important puzzle items, or simply opening the way forward. Again, it’s a nice idea, but not particularly engaging as you simply shuffle through a handful of available options until you’ve found the only combination that works. Writing may be a creative process but puzzle-solving this way is not.
Naturally, there is narrative reason for why these systems work the way they do, but their implementation is still questionable. You’re constantly forced out of the game world, and the mechanics feel insultingly simple compared to the many optional riddles and stash puzzles that force you to use your powers of observation and logic.
Wrapping up, Alan Wake 2 gets far more right than it gets wrong – it’s just that while the flaws are relatively minor, they’re pervasive. That said, it’s been ages since a narrative-heavy, cinematic game was compelling enough to hold my attention for over 25 hours. There are some familiar, video game tropes, sure, but Alan Wake 2 never feels like a game where the developers were forced to shoehorn in mechanics or compromise their artistic vision to cater to a larger audience.
Alan Wake 2 builds upon the strong narrative and gameplay foundations of the first game, swaps action-horror for survival-horror, swaps wide-linear levels for more expansive open-world sections, and ramps up the storytelling and production values to 11. On balance, it’s a great game but also one in which storytelling ambitions and gameplay mechanics can get in each other’s way.
Alan Wake 2 was reviewed on Xbox Series S|X. It is also available on PC and PS5.
Alan Wake 2 (Xbox Series) ReviewAlan Wake 2 (Xbox Series) Review
- Remedy’s trademark quirky characters and unpredictable narratives
- Striking and thematic aesthetics with a consistent sense of style
- More expansive environments with exploration-, investigation-, and puzzle-driven progression
- A shift to survival-horror combat with fewer but tougher encounters
- Variable chapter length and pacing
- The Mind Place and Writer’s Room mechanics feel half-baked and disruptive
- Plenty of eye-watering visual effects you can’t tone down