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Review

Review: Alan Wake II

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13 years after his disappearance thriller author Alan Wake returns, but who’s actually pulling the strings in this murder mystery turned survival horror?

In May 2010, Alan Wake caused a stir with an exhilarating supernatural crime story featuring believably crafted characters and an idiosyncratic, dark atmosphere. Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is a spin-off that was released in February 2012 and although it made a lot less headlines, the action-packed quick trip to Arizona was still worth playing for fans of the original game.

You’re the seer, you can break the curse

In Alan Wake II we are once again taken to Bright Falls. FBI agents Saga Anderson (Melanie Liburd) and Alex Casey (Sam Lake) are sent to the fictional small town in Washington state to investigate a brutal murder involving the local Cult of the Trees. A mixture of a gripping crime story and a brutal survival horror trip unfolds, which is told from two perspectives for the first time in the series. While Saga investigates in Bright Falls, Alan (Ilkka Villi/Matthew Porretta) tries to write his way back to reality in the Dark Place, a twisted otherworld. Like Alan himself in the Dark Place, we quickly sink into the dense, dark atmosphere of the game, during which the boundaries between reality and fiction become increasingly blurred. Once you have a clue as to what is actually happening and who is controlling the story, the game comes up with the next unexpected event, not necessarily for the sake of surprise, but to enrich the story. Compared to its predecessor, Alan Wake II is even darker and not only shocks in psychological ways, but also with immediate jump scares, albeit in a well-dosed manner.

Over the course of the story we meet interesting new characters such as the stubborn new sheriff Tim Breaker (Shawn Ashmore) or the mysterious late night show host Warlin Door (David Harewood) as well as familiar faces such as the Lady of Light Cynthia Weaver (Linda Cook) or the fictional heavy metal band Old Gods of Asgard (Poets of the Fall), who not only play an important piece of the puzzle in the story, but also perform a handful of old and new songs. In addition, loyal fans of Remedy games are happy about various connections to other games from the Finnish game company. While both the facial expressions and the original English voices are consistently convincing, there are fluctuations in the quality of the German dubbing and the dialogue in the game engine are often not lip-synchronized – a dampener in the atmosphere. Petri Alanko once again underlines the action with his brooding score. Between the chapters we hear the fantastic selection of songs written for the game with the help of lead author Sam Lake and performed by Finnish artists such as POE, Paleface and RAKEL.

Follow the deer to follow the owl

The fact that we can switch between the two main characters not only adds variety, but also makes the game more open, more on that later. Although we have to play the individual chapters for each character in a fixed sequence, we can, for example, initially stay with one character in order to continue explorindg one of the two worlds, or return to the green Bright Falls after a good dose of horror in the Dark Place. Saga can move around relatively freely there. Although the Bureau’s car is always fueled up and ready to go, the game doesn’t let us get behind the wheel ourselves, we can only fast-travel to certain spots at predetermined points in the story. The vehicle sections in the predecessor were more of a means to an end, so we get why the developers made this decision, but given the large road network in and around Bright Falls, exploring by car would have been an option and would have provided more immersion – this was even possible in Deadly Premonition, despite the wonky driving physics.

Speaking of Deadly Premonition: Just like SWERY’s action-adventure set in Greenvale, Washington revolving around FBI agent Francis York Morgan, Alan Wake was heavily inspired by Twin Peaks. Sam Lake was thrilled by the third season of the TV series, 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return, written by Mark Frost and David Lynch, and it shows in the imagery, characterization, story and use of music in Alan Wake II . Further influences came from Capcom’s Resident Evil, which is noticeable in the vulnerability of the main characters. If we unpack the map or fiddling around in the inventory, we always have to be on guard because we can be attacked by possessed people. The Dark Place reminded us time and time again of Konami’s Silent Hill in terms of level design and atmosphere.

In her investigation, FBI agent Saga Anderson collects clues, places them on a huge crime board in her Mind Place and uses profiling techniques to elicit further information from witnesses without the Dark Presence knowing. Your task is to combine your deductions and take the fight against the Dark Presence one step further. Meanwhile, in the Dark Place, which functions as a small hub world, Alan visits various locations such as a cinema and a hotel and can select settings for individual rooms to which scenes are assigned and manipulate them in this way to create new paths, echoes (flashbacks) or unlock story events.

Just endless darkness to fight

Both characters perform equally well in combat. As in its predecessor, we face countless Taken, people possessed by the Dark Presence. First you have to remove the darkness with your flashlight or flares from them and then fight them with a pistol, revolver, shotgun, hunting rifle or crossbow. The Taken appear in different forms, such as lightning-fast guys in lumberjack shirts, unpredictable wolves or twisted creatures floating in the water. Overall, there is not enough variety in enemy design. The boss fights are well staged inside interesting locations, but made rather tedious by slow dodging and reloading animations or when you’re getting caught in the environment. Combat is easier to manage than in the predecessor, but still not at the top level in the genre competition. In brightly lit shelters we can save, store items, restore some health or change characters.

While the inventory is quite small at the beginning, we unlock various upgrades later. Alan can use Words of Power to increase his inventory, provide life regeneration, or carry additional batteries for his trusty flashlight. To do this, you have to find very well-hidden graffiti in the Dark Place, similar to the Riddler puzzles in the Batman Arkham series. Saga, on the other hand, collects weapon points and can use them to improve the penetrating power and range of the slow crossbow, temporarily paralyze opponents with two headshots or mow through the pack of possessed people at the lighthouse with continuous fire. There is also one of the numerous nursery rhymes that were drawn on the floor with chalk and which we can equip with dolls. In addition, lunch boxes are distributed throughout the game world, which not only contain ammunition, but also always offer interesting puzzles and contribute to the story with their short notes. The same applies, of course, to the Manuscript pages, which are spread out everywhere like in the original game and are arranged chronologically in the menu and, somewhat hidden, are even voiced in their entirety by Alan. You can also collect VHS tapes. While the Twilight Zone homage Night Springs flickered across the screens throughout the first game, in Alan Wake II we can watch a series of commercials from the Koskela brothers in the Oh Deer Diner, which are witty and deeply interwoven with the game’s story. Newspaper clippings and computer terminals are other important pieces of the puzzle to fully understand the complex world of the game.

Light and shadow aren’t only omnipresent in the story of Alan Wake II, but also in its current technical state shortly after launch. The action-adventure runs pleasantly smoothly on a PC if you own a new graphics card – it doesn’t have to be a top model – and an SSD. The game loads fast and supports all sorts of new technologies boosting the game’s visuals or performance like DLSS 3.5 Frame Generation, Ray Generation, Path Tracing – even with indirect lighting – and FSR. However, if you use older hardware without all these colorful features, you will have a hard time experiencing the game in 60 frames per second. Technical errors that we have experienced range from minor problems such as crashes, button prompts or black screens that only disappear after a restart to serious issues that impair the gaming experience such as missing voice-overs and even a glitch that brings the engaging endgame to a sudden stop due to the effects of a previous battle, therefore blocking our path and not allowing us to complete the game. Remedy told us they are working on a hotfix to address this issue, which could be released this week. We had to rely on a save game provided by Remedy in order to be able to experience the last hour of the game.

Conclusion

Alan Wake II offers a gripping survival horror experience on both a psychological and visual level and tells an emotionally complex story from different perspectives, which we happily tried to follow until the bitter finale. Remedy manages to establish an interesting new protagonist in Saga Anderson and to differentiate her from Alan in gameplay. The game is much more variedthan its predecessor, which is also due to some great set pieces that we won’t get into for spoiler reasons. Even if you haven’t been able to get into the series yet, you should definitely give Alan Wake II a chance, especially if you’re interested in compelling storytelling and relentless survival horror.

Epic Games provided us with a PC review copy for Alan Wake II and the screenshots.