Alan Wake 2 is a mindf***.
Just when you think this story is going to zig, it zags. Even when you lay all of the clues out, connect the dots, and have that "a ha!" moment, this game turns your "a ha!" into a "wait, wha?" It's a thrilling, creepy, tense masterpiece of a story with some truly wild moments, with characters who are believable despite their surreal surroundings. The rest of the game doesn't completely match up, unfortunately, but none of the issues are so bad they can ruin an amazing overall experience. Alan Wake 2, despite some areas of struggle, is a great time.
Alan Wake 2 follows Saga Anderson, an FBI agent who arrives in a quaint Washington town called Bright Falls in order to investigate a series of ritualistic murders. Her partner, Alex Casey, is a no-nonsense cop who shares a name with the hero of a series of novels written by the titular Alan Wake. Wake, for his part, still finds himself trapped in The Dark Place, which in this game takes the form of a warped New York City infested with hostile shadows.
As with other Remedy games in the past, this game's strongest foundation is its story…or should I say both stories. While the first few missions follow a strict structure, eventually you can switch at will between Saga's investigation in the real world and Alan's attempt to escape The Dark Place. There are 19 missions total – 10 for Saga and nine for Alan – and I can choose to play them however I wish.
There aren't many games brave enough to let the player fiddle with how the story is told to them, but Alan Wake 2 somehow nails it. No matter how you choose to proceed, the experience will make narrative sense. Questions I had during Saga's half of the story came into sharper focus during Alan's adventures, and vice versa, even if I still finished the game with more questions than answers. It helps that the story is also really good on both sides of the coin, meaning that whatever path I take will be an entertaining one.
With the two separate stories comes two separate approaches to horror, and each one is equally off-putting in the best ways. Saga's is Resident Evil-style horror, the kind that specializes in quick jumpscares and harrowing fight scenes but with long stretches of time between them to build tension. Alan's, meanwhile, is a steady burn, with danger seemingly lurking around every corner. The shadows that appear are mostly non-threatening, but the ones that are a threat don't usually make themselves known until they're swinging something at me.
Each one of these formats works incredibly well in the settings they're in, which is mind-boggling to think about. It's as if Remedy had two ideas for how Alan Wake 2 should be, someone on the team said "why not both?," and everyone looked around and said, "oh, yeah, both. Ok, let's do it." The way the two stories feed into each other is even more impressive; you can tell every part of this game was conceived with the rest of the story in full consideration.
While the story being told is great, the gameplay throughout each tale is hit or miss. Investigating places like Cauldron Lake and Bright Falls with Saga – or the Dark Place's NYC with Alan – is both interesting and off-putting. Saga in particular has to go through some particularly creepy areas as she searches for answers to the murders she's investigating, with the most harrowing being an abandoned amusement park. In these areas, silence breeds tension, and for both that silence is deafening until enemies begin to appear. Once they do, defeating them tends to be more frustrating than harrowing.
Most Taken are bullet sponges, as they require multiple hits (even headshots) to take down. The flashlight pulse that removes the darkness from enemies – which returns from the previous Alan Wake – sometimes doesn't trigger the darkness even when it's pointed directly at an enemy. Dodging attacks is easy enough, but the speed in which normal enemies can immediately follow up makes that a less effective option than it should be. I get that these things are meant to heighten the tension, but sometimes that tension is replaced with frustration, and that's a shame.
After battles, I'm free to explore these surprisingly vast areas, and the game is more than willing to reward me for exploration. Multiple collectibles are hidden throughout both Saga's and Alan's stories, though Saga has a lot more to find and collect. For Saga, lunch boxes will give manuscript fragments that are used to upgrade weapons, while solving riddles centered around nursery rhymes offer charms that give specific boosts. Alan, meanwhile, can find Words Of Power written in spirals on walls, floors, and objects, and gathering these Words will offer different buffs to him in the Dark Place.
I appreciate that, rather than just turning finding collectibles into the notorious flags from the original Assassin's Creed, the optional tasks here are worth seeking out. The upgrades to Saga's weapons got me out of many late-game jams, while the charms let me experiment with different power-ups until I found the Saga that fit me best. Solving the nursery rhymes, in fact, even adds a secondary challenge before earning the charm, which makes them more interesting in the long run. I found myself actively searching for these things throughout the game, which is the mark of effective collectible implementation.
Getting to explore did highlight some unfortunate technical issues throughout Alan Wake 2, which are easily the most detrimental part of the experience. Some of them are goofy, like when Alex Casey climbs up a ledge and only his torso ascends, leaving his legs to remain standing on the ground below. Or, after defeating an enemy armed with a tree branch, that branch collided with some bushes and convulsed violently before shooting into the sky. Honestly, the silly glitches like this added a small level of legitimacy to the overall creepy vibe, even though I knew that wasn't intentional.
What's less fun is when these technical errors turn into game-breaking issues that cause me to load a previous checkpoint or, worse, restart the game. The worst of these came on the way to the previously mentioned amusement park; while searching for items near a cliff, Saga got stuck in a tree trunk and couldn't walk forward, no matter how much I tried to get her unstuck. I'd also heard reports of a game-breaking bug toward the end of the game, but luckily I did not experience that myself. In the grand scheme of the experience, these are only temporary annoyances, however they're the kind of annoyances that stick with you, in fear that it might happen again.
Fear is what Alan Wake 2 is all about. When it's working, it's a spooky and thrilling adventure with two separate-but-equal methods of scaring the heck out of me. When it's not working, I'm afraid I may run into another weird glitch that makes me lose some progress. Thankfully, the former is far more common than the latter, and the times I did have to restart, they were small hiccups rather than major time losses. 13 years passed between Alan Wake's initiation and his return, and I am happy to say Alan Wake 2 was worth the wait.
SCORE: 8 out of 10
-A masterfully-told story that keeps you guessing until the end
-Both Saga and Alan make great protagonists
-Big open areas ripe for exploration, if you can build up the courage
-Combat is fine, but it has some rough patches
-Technical bug caused occasional reloads