When I purchased an Xbox 360 late in its lifecycle, Alan Wake was among the first games I rented—back when game rentals were still popular. The game was so compelling and memorable that I not only bought my own copy during my rental period but also traveled interstate to find the limited edition – still one of the most cherished items in my collection. It was my introduction to Remedy Entertainment, and with its DLC setting up a sequel so perfectly, I was ready to go with Alan Wake II which was surely in active development… right? 13 years later, we have finally received that sequel, and damn it was worth the wait. Transitioning from a more action-oriented game to a third-person survival horror, expect more jump scares, horrifying sights and of course, some amazingly complex storytelling.
Alan Wake II is part of what has been lovingly termed by the community as the ‘Remedy Connected Universe’. This means that while you could arguably forgo the Xbox-exclusive Quantum Break, the game’s narrative is best enjoyed with and understood having previously played its first game, and the 2019 third-person action shooter Control – the latter of which had a whole DLC connecting the games – with the Federal Bureau of Control having a presence in the game. Thirteen years after Alan Wake’s disappearance and the apparent return to normalcy in Bright Falls, a series of mysterious disappearances and murders draw FBI agents Saga Anderson and Alex Casey to the town. They are there specifically to investigate the ritualistic murder of Robert Nightingale, who, like Alan, had been missing for years. Being led through a series of supernatural events from the corpse of Nightingale sans heart coming back to life, to discovering prophetical papers around the place – this eventually leads the pair to discover Alan Wake – seemingly having escaped from the Dark Place, but only to be thrust into another dark encounters that could spell the end for humanity.
The first six introductory arcs are played in order before the chapters are split into Saga routes and Alan routes, both of which follow their respective protagonist in their unique settings. Saga Anderson, being the newcomer to the game, surprisingly has an experience more aligned with that of the original Alan Wake. A novice to the world of darkness and the ‘Taken’, she investigates the mysterious ‘Cult of the Trees’, the disappearances and other mysteries surrounding Bright Falls and surrounding regions, while also uncovering mysteries around her. While one might wonder that the initial player you control in Alan Wake II is not the titular character, she is a strong, well-written proxy for a playable character, highlighting the impact that the story Alan has been writing to escape the dark place, has shaped the world. While this was implied to some extent in Control DLC 2 – AWE, through Saga’s eyes we see this unfold directly.
Alan’s route on the other hand primarily sets us on his journey through the Dark Place which seeks to confine him and is arguably more puzzle and challenge-driven. But from a story perspective, this is clearly where the development team let loose and had some fun, giving each of his chapters numerous quirks and concepts that wouldn’t work with the game otherwise, including what I would consider one of the best gaming experiences I have enjoyed in not just 2023 but perhaps in many years. While both routes have their charm, it is in these chapters that the developers truly showcase their soul. Considering that the DLC that took place in the ‘Dark Place’ in the original Alan Wake were simply bizarro versions of environments and monsters already present in the game, going all-out with Alan’s route was not only the best option, but arguably the only option to truly work Alan’s unique situation into gameplay enjoyable and accessible to everyone.
At its core, the gameplay of Alan Wake II is very much similar to what was present in the original Alan Wake. You navigate your character around one of many different game worlds – sometimes during daylight but often during dusk, nighttime or fog – taking down dangerous foes known as ‘The Taken’ through a combination of your flashlight and ranged weapon, sometimes making split-second decisions on how to react. Depending on which difficulty setting you go with, the difficulty levels will change considerably, however even on the higher difficulty settings it felt that the bigger challenge, or at least pseudo challenge, was resource management – ensuring that you never ran out of the limited number of healing items, ammo or flares to keep moving forward. I refer to it as a pseudo-challenge because even though always left on edge, with low battery supplies and ammo, I can’t recall a time I ended up running out of either.
Again, what sets Saga and Alan apart is the tools at their disposal. Namely, Saga is the purist when it comes to the Alan Wake experiences, heaving a more readily accessible number of firearms and light-based challenges to work with. Alan on the other hand is more focused on manipulating light and editing the world around him through the use of the new ‘Angel Lamp’, allowing him to absorb and transfer light from one source to the other, opening up new routes or changing the environment in other ways. Being trapped in what is essentially a story he is writing, he also has the power to edit areas of the world based on collected keywords – opening up new paths, progressing the story, providing some bits of optional lore, and/or providing some frankly harrowing experiences.
A new introduction to Alan Wake II is the idea of mind palaces, with Saga and Alan able to drop into a personal case office (or in the case of the latter, the lake cabin), where they can plot out the current case or edit the story, which for Saga in particular is a means of keeping track of their case. Forgoing navigation beacons/markers and using a static map, there is very little in-game outside of an objectives list that is there to guide players from Point A to Point B, with the mind palace concept serving as both hubs to review collected content and help you should you end up lost. But sometimes, I think it is better to explore the world for yourself, and whether between missions and given the opportunity to explore the small environments accessible to you, or the multi-routed areas of Bright Falls’ environment, there are so many collectables and puzzles to uncover amongst the darkness.
Visually, Alan Wake II looks incredible, complemented by excellent attention-to-detail around lighting so that it feels like you are fully immersed in the dark, harrowing worlds Saga and Alan are put into. However, I feel the decision to omit ray-tracing from the console versions was a miss, while the general darkness of environments was perhaps a bit too finicky and realistic to the detriment of the gaming experience. That said, across the board the environment and character designs were amazing, while the typical Remedy Entertainment live-action scenes seamlessly integrated into the world. Playing exclusively on Quality Mode, the performance ran solid, with no noticeable frame drops throughout my entire gameplay session.
Music-wise… Finnish rock band Poets of the Fall return following their appearances in Alan Wake, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, Quantum Break and Control. While I believed it would be challenging to surpass “Children of the Elder God“, they outdid themselves this time. The remainder of the musical backing is atmospheric and complementary to the experience that awaits players. In terms of casting, Ilkka Villi and Matthew Porretta return to motion-capture and voice Alan Wake respectively, doing the iconic character justice while also showing a bit of age on the character rather than directly copying his original appearance. Melanie Liburd nails the role of Saga, David Harewood is befitting the first appearance of Mr Door following a mention in Control, while David Harewood also shines in the shoes of Alex Casey.
Despite the shift in gameplay to one more aligned with modern-day survival-horror titles and more emphasis on being a ‘horror’ game, Remedy Entertainment has once again delivered a genre-defining experience both gameplay-wise and narrative-wise. The decision to have a dual-character set-up, while having its vocal detractors, worked well in progressing the events of the game in a direction they deserved, while the cameos, references and returning characters from past titles in the universe were fitting, and not just pidgeon-holed for the sake of having them. Nowadays in the gaming market, it feels like big-name games are just more of the same, and lack that spark of inspiration that shows inginuity and desire by the development team to surpass their previous works in every fascet. Remedy Entertainment delivered heart, soul and attention-to-detail in abundance, and this was well and truly worth the wait.
This review was conducted on a PlayStation 5 copy of Alan Wake II, fully upgraded as of launch day.
Alan Wake II is developed by Remedy Entertainment and published by Epic Games Publishing. It can be purchased as a digital exclusive on the PlayStation 5 via the PlayStation Store, Xbox Series X|S via the Xbox Marketplace and PC exclusively via the Epic Games Store as of writing.