Alan Wake 2 Isn't Cutting Corners In Being A Weird Detective Survival Horror Game
Alan Wake 2 is Remedy Entertainment at its most ambitious, holding nothing back from being a true detective survival horror.
Alan Wake 2 is not cutting corners on its commitment to being a detective survival horror. It's a game that has a clarity of vision that looks to be executed by a Remedy that is firing on all cylinders. Alan Wake's return, even at this stage, is shaping up to be one of the most distinct and original games of 2023. This is a dream project that Remedy have been iterating on since the release of the first game, and after seeing 30 minutes of its brooding investigative gameplay, and tense combat, it's clear Remedy is pulling out all the stops. And for fans, the prospect of an Alan Wake sequel potentially being the studio's best game is like an idea written in a dream that's now infiltrating our reality.
During my hands-off preview, I got to see an early segment in the story of the game's all new protagonist, FBI agent Saga Anderson: a serious, calculated, and introspective agent that serves as a comical contrast to her partner Alex Casey, who is more a caricature of a gruff hard-boiled agent that walked straight from the pages of a crime novel (wink wink). Together, they investigate the gory aftermath of a murder scene in the murky and rain-covered woods of Bright Falls, a fictional town in the Pacific Northwest. The pacing of the demo reinforced the idea of building tension, starting by giving Saga the chance to examine clues and gather evidence, all of which can be placed and re-arranged on a case board that is accessed in Saga's Mind Place. As the name implies, this space is a mental construct in Saga's own mind (think Sherlock's Mind Palace). With a single press of a button, Saga instantly teleports into a room within her mind that you can physically explore. This is where you'll organize evidence, view manuscripts, upgrade weapons, and access the map. The transition to The Mind Place is seamless and instantaneous, which both shows off an impressive use of Remedy's Northlight engine, and also centers the investigative aspect of the game as a core focus—and I also just adore the concept. It adds physicality to how the player interacts with evidence, giving it all a sense of weight and importance that is lost when limiting evidence to a static menu screen.
The very act of organizing evidence involves shifting pictures, manuscripts, and clues around a physical wall where thumbtacks and red thread connect everything together, allowing the player to make deductions necessary to Saga's progress. By successfully matching evidence, Saga's deductions supernaturally manifest things from The Dark place—an otherworldly dimension—into her reality. Saga is also a criminal profiler, which paves the way for profiling as a mechanic as well. There will be moments when some clues and evidence can only be discovered when Saga puts herself into a subject's head to reveal deeper clues not visible in the world around her. In the demo, I got to see Saga tap into the mind of Robert Nightingale (the former FBI agent and antagonist from the first game) in order to locate a human heart to access the Overlap–a supernatural fold in reality where The Dark Place bleeds into Saga's world. It looks and feels like Remedy is committed to fully capturing the detective element to Saga's character, making it feel thoughtful and cohesive, but also giving it a supernatural twist that is uniquely Remedy. It was downright impressive to see how fleshed out the detective elements are, and equally exciting to see Remedy step out of its action-focused roots and embrace something new.
But with as much emphasis as there is on being a detective mystery game, Alan Wake 2 is equally as much a survival horror. Saga has a limited modular inventory (think Resident Evil 2 Remake), supplies are scarce and far and few between, and the combat is
oppressively up-close-and-personal. Watching Saga face off against a single cultist was tense and harrowing. As with Alan in the first game, Saga had to use her flashlight to dissipate the shroud of "darkness" that shielded the murmuring and manic axe-wielding foe, creating an opportunity to open fire with her service pistol and actually do damage. Each shot felt desperate, tearing off the enemies flesh as it kept marching towards Saga. This is a routine and gameplay loop from the first game that, while satisfying, also became repetitive to a fault. The difference from the first, however, is the intimacy of the fight, which means enemies are much more up close and personal and aggressive, capable of grabbing you, triggering a panicked break-free QTE. None of it felt novel to the genre, but it seemed punchy and more physical and looked like a much better fit for the flashlight and gunfire one-two-punch. Unfortunately though, not being able to get hands-on with the combat for an extended period still leaves me skeptical of how much different it'll be from the first game and the issue of repetition it faced. Still, the tension and scarce resources could be the welcome remedy to the loop that was absent from the first.
Another core tenet that Alan Wake 2 is leaning into with survival horror is exploration. Saga had to scour the environment in order to locate a fuse to give power to a "Break Room"–the game's version of a Safe Room—where players can save their game, store items, and switch between protagonists. Borrowing further elements from the Resident Evil playbook, there was a shotgun locked behind a glass case that required Saga to locate a post-it which gave a hint to find a lock combination to get it out.
But between the horror, investigation, and scavenging, the demo was paved to show that players will be allowed to breathe and interact with the beautiful fall-season version of Bright Falls. Townspeople waved and greeted Saga and Alex from a distance–an invitation to engage in a conversation that I unfortunately didn't get to see, but I was assured interacting with the quirky townspeople was a key element to the game (as it was in the first). And even in these quieter moments, there was player agency and interactivity in making dialogue choices. However, that doesn't mean branching narrative paths–it was made clear during the preview that despite the dual campaigns between Saga Anderson and Alan Wake, and the presence of choice-based dialogue, the game has one ending.
The game already features standout characters, especially Alex Casey; a melodramatic raspy counterpart, filled with solemn quips. He threw out lines like “I've only been lost once in my life—the years I spent with my ex-wife,” which were delivered with James McCaffery's distinct straight-out-of-a-noir-detective-novel grizzled tones. It's a nice contrast to Saga's rather punctuated dialogue, often speaking internally in Remedy-like prose that is voiced by Melanie Liburd.
There was a lot to take in from the 30 minute slice, but one of the most profound moments was Saga's journey into the Overlap: a tension-building moment where Saga enters a portal in the trunk of a twisted and tangled tree, illuminated by a strobing ominous red light. The brief moment punctuated by white noise and low groans, building looming dread as images of the Dark Place, a grimey rainy nightmare New York City, penetrated the moss covered marshy woods. Even having not controlled the scene, it was menacing to look at.
The survival horror and detective/mystery genres are very dear to me. On their own, games of those genres have shaped most of my taste and what I seek in games, but rarely do you see the two overlap in effective and meaningful ways. The original Alan Wake is a culmination of many elements I tend to gravitate towards in a story: horror, surrealism, Americana quirkiness, and, of course, a comical emphasis on coffee consumption. It's not often all these things I love meet in one place, and yet, Alan Wake 2 has seemingly emerged from the shadows with a trifecta of some of my favorite things. It's a balancing act that the demo seems to be striking with precision, and it's all wrapped in Remedy Entertainment's striking "house style" with stark title screens, ominous flashing lights, the use of full motion video, and a heady interwoven narrative spanning many realities. It feels like an alignment for Remedy; a continuation of the groundwork laid with Control and an embrace of its rawest and truest inspirations. And to think we haven't even seen Alan Wake's gameplay yet is so exciting.
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