There is a line of dialogue, fairly early in Alan Wake II, where a character off-handedly calls out something that players of the first Alan Wake have known for a while – Alan, the fictional writer within the games, is not actually a very good writer. He’s successful and popular, sure, but his prose, as seen in the manuscript pages scattered across both Alan Wake and its sequel? Wooden, staccato, lacking in tension.
The character who calls this out is Alex Casey, a detective in the story who exists within the “real” world, but who also happens to share his name and job title with a protagonist in many of Wake’s books. Casey is played by Sam Lake, the director and writer of both Alan Wake games (and spin-off Alan Wake: American Nightmare – don’t worry, you don’t need to remember this one so much). Lake was also, famously, the face of Max Payne in Remedy’s 2001 third-person shooter, the company’s first major hit. The game’s writer is here, playing a character based on the works of the fictional writer that they themselves wrote, calling out the work of the figure who is both their creation and their creator, depending on the lens you view things through.
Alan Wake 2‘s story is rich in these loops and meta callbacks, in doppelgangers and doubles. It’s very clearly inspired by Twin Peaks: The Return, David Lynch’s seminal third-season revival of his classic show, with homages here that are even more direct than the ones that appeared in the first Alan Wake to the original series. Twin Peaks: The Return is my favourite television season of the last decade, and possibly ever; that Alan Wake II is able to evoke so much of what made it special is impressive.
Like the original game (and Lynch’s episodes), the chapters in Alan Wake II end with a song. One song, by Poe, repeats a few times throughout the game, revealing new arrangements with each play. “Some say that it loops forever,” the song says, “the road I lose you on every time.” It’s no mistake that the song is an earworm and that the phrase “some say that it loops forever” has become implanted in my brain, a returning motif when I think about the game.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Alan Wake II is a very dense, clever game, one where everything has at least two meanings. It’s a sequel to Alan Wake, but it’s also, kind of, a sequel to 2019’s Control. It’s enormously compelling, absolutely stunning, and just beautifully weird. Alan’s still not a great writer, but Remedy has evolved beyond the first game’s awkwardness – and they’ve done so by embracing it.
It’s A. Wake, Get It?
Alan Wake II picks up 13 years after the cliffhanger ending to the Alan Wake DLC, following the real-world time that has passed since that game’s release. Alan is still in the Dark Place – think the Red Room/White Lodge from Twin Peaks, except that it’s come to look a lot like the area around Alan’s apartment back in New York. Back in Bright Falls, the town Alan disappeared in, a cult has started killing people in the woods. When detectives Saga Anderson and Alex Casey show up in town, they soon realise that Wake is somehow involved – and that the world outside of the Dark Place is being inflicted with a horror story that he is writing to escape.
The game switches between Alan and Saga, shifting temporalities, load-outs, and mechanics along the way. At a certain point early on, you unlock both character’s campaigns and can play through them in any order you choose – and naturally, their paths soon intertwine in dramatic fashion.
If you’re a fan of Alan Wake – a game that was beloved by a small number of players upon release and grew over time – the notion of finally finding out what happened next is thrilling. And it’s to Remedy’s credit that they’ve stayed true to the spirit of Alan Wake by crafting a game where absolutely nothing is neat, tidy, or totally explained. Every answer Alan Wake II offers across its 18-odd hour run time brings up more questions, which might be frustrating if the vibes weren’t so immaculate. There are many moments in the game that I do not want to spoil, but I’ll say this much – Alan Wake II‘s story is, on some level, about the pressure of writing a game like Alan Wake II, of creating a universe to call your own, of finding the balance in writing a character who is, themselves, a writer.
The original Alan Wake, as much as I loved it in 2010, felt a bit chintzy in its pastiche of horror aesthetics and its awkward Stephen King riffs. Alan Wake II has a confidence and playfulness to it, a deeper sense of purpose. It feels as though Lake and the rest of the team are genuinely very excited to be able to work through all of their weird ideas for a sequel, and have taken plenty of time to reflect.
One of the game’s clever new mechanics is each character’s internal space that they can retreat to – a physical manifestation of the insides of their brains. As Saga, you can retreat into your Hannibal-inspired “Mind Place”, a cabin that houses all your case files, collected Alan Wake manuscript pages, and profiles for imagined witness interrogations – a fun way of tracking the various mysteries and characters that pop up across the game.
Alan, meanwhile, coils himself into mania trying to be a perfect writer in each scenario, and finds “inspiration” scattered throughout levels to change the story of the world he’s trapped in from within his own internal space. This is my favourite mechanic in the game – Alan encounters “scenes” within the Dark Place that he can change by switching between different plotlines, shifting reality around himself. Many puzzles revolve around shifting realities in different locations to find a pathway forward, which manifest as Wake “writing” his way through each situation – but he needs to stay true to the horror genre, he frequently reminds himself. His increasingly unhinged stories must hold onto some integrity and internal logic.
In fact, much of Alan Wake II is about playing with the fabric of reality – even the cutscenes deftly switch between live-action footage and in-game character models, melding actors with the characters they’re playing, the real with the imagined, complicating the experience in a way that replicates Alan’s own angry confusion and mania. It’s really wild stuff.
It’s tempting to review Alan Wake II without mentioning how much of the game is spent blasting enemies in the face with a shotgun – and as much as Remedy has proven itself in the space of third-person action games, I found myself wondering sometimes what a version of Alan Wake II with a different approach to combat would look like.
That’s not to say that the combat in Alan Wake II is bad – for the most part, it’s quite good. When you play as Alan, you’ll often encounter shadowy figures; shine your light on them, and some will eerily fade away, often calling your name menacingly as they go. Others will start stepping towards you with intent, and you’ll need to “boost” your light (a mechanic carried over, and dramatically improved upon, from the first game) to reveal them before your attacks can do damage.
Combat as Alan can be spooky and exciting, but I did find that in later levels when there are large swarms of shadows flitting around and hurling projectiles while you desperately try to reload your flare gun, the difficulty balance on “Normal” can feel a little off. Thankfully, you can change the difficulty up or down from the pause menu at literally any time, even mid-fight.
Saga fights her shadow-infested enemies in the real world. The enemies appear in plain sight, but a boosted light can reveal “weak” points on a far more horror-coded coterie of enemies. Alan is mostly fighting flannel-wearing ghouls, but Saga faces off against hulking cultists, hungry wolves, and a couple of actual proper monsters. These fights are generally a little more exciting and cinematic, easier to read and fight through. However, Saga’s levels sometimes end in boss fights, and these often feel miscalibrated. This is a shame, because the lead-in to bosses is always electrifying, with Remedy flexing their level-design chops in sequences that take the game’s core theme – being stuck in a loop – in fascinating directions.
For consoles, Alan Wake II is exclusive to the PS5 and Xbox Series X, and is one of the few games I’ve played on my PS5 that feels like it simply could not have been made for the PS4 for reasons beyond visual fidelity (although it does look absolutely wonderful, even if the ray-traced reflections possible on a souped-up PC aren’t available). The seamless snap between different environments and temporalities that the new console SSDs allow for make the blurring realities occur seamlessly; effects drive the gameplay in interesting ways, and some of the game’s stand-out set pieces feel genuinely new and exciting.
Some Say That It Loops Forever
As I played Alan Wake II, a specific thought kept popping into my head: “Most teams are not allowed to do this”. This is an extraordinarily high-budgeted, super esoteric, fairly challenging game full of metatextual oddities. It’s extremely satisfying in the way it refuses to satisfy, and I am not sure that I liked the ending, but I respect the hell out of it (and if the aim was to sell the DLC pass, then frankly, mission accomplished). There is very little compromise in vision here, and even if the vision isn’t perfect, it’s at least singular and coherent.
Blank cheques in game development are exceptionally rare, but that’s what Alan Wake II feels like. The original Alan Wake was eventually commercially successful, but it took several years and a lot of word of mouth; the idea of a mega-budget sequel, one that explicitly references the entire Remedy back-catalogue and stars the game’s director, which features live-action sequences and embraces a Lynch-inspired brand of twisty, esoteric horror, is madness. But we are all richer for the existence of Alan Wake II.
Review conducted on a PlayStation 5 with a pre-release code provided by the publisher.