Editor's Note: The majority of our Alan Wake 2 review time was spent playing the PC version of the game. We have also tested the Xbox Series X version out for a short time, and have noted our Xbox performance impressions towards the end of the review.
Remedy Entertainment's Alan Wake is an adventure that this particular writer never fully got along with during several aborted attempts to play through its campaign back in the day. It's not that it's a bad game, far from it, just that it never managed to overcome a few mechanical shortcomings, making for an interesting story that's a little too clunky in places.
So, over at Pure Xbox we headed into Alan Wake 2 perhaps not quite as excited as some are for this highly-anticipated return to Bright Falls. We are big fans of Control, Max Payne and the whole shared universe that Remedy has been building up around its games though — we dig the whole overarching vision — we just weren't sold on Alan's first outing due to combat that had us bailing on the adventure out of frustration.
And so, from a position of "well, let's just see what happens" we've been absolutely blown out of our chairs by Alan Wake 2, there's really no other way to put it. This is, by some margin, Remedy's masterpiece; a confident, mature and bold slice of survival horror that treats its players like grown-ups whilst delivering a delightfully messed up story that's in another league to the one told with the original game back in 2010.
Of course we don't want to ruin anything, it's all about unravelling the mystery for yourself, just know that Remedy has really nailed the writing and world-building this time around. They've got the Twin Peaks/XFiles/90's Twilight Zone vibe down to a tee, they've upped the ante on their trademark hallucinatory sequences and incredible symbolic imagery, and they've combined all of this with combat that actually feels pretty good. Not perfect, but a big improvement for the series.
Alan Wake 2 also feels like Remedy fully mastering their use of mixed media in a game, too. We've seen it a few times with varying degrees of success in the likes of Quantum Break, but in Wake's new nightmare it's used to truly impressive effect. Real actors exist and mix & match with their virtual counterparts seamlessly, scenes switch from real life to digital and combine aspects of both with ease - making for a world with the power to truly twist your outlook. From a technical point of view, it's breathtaking stuff — never showy or obvious — just very slick and integral to the overall style of the game.
From a mechanical point of view, the big shake up in this sequel is your ability to switch between Alan Wake and newcomer Saga Anderson; an FBI agent sent to Bright Falls to investigate ritualistic murders. It isn't long before Saga starts to make some sort of contact with Alan, who's trying to write himself out of a 13-year nightmare, and before long you can switch between the two in order to progress their separate storylines.
Giving us two leads like this helps not just to broaden the scope of the story, but also in allowing the devs to give us more in terms of gameplay mechanics to dig into. Saga and Alan both have slightly different tricks up their sleeves, with Alan focused on using the power of light and his writing abilities to shift states around and advance through levels, whilst Saga is much more investigation-focused.
Saga's portion of the game is all about collecting clues, examining scenes and using her Mind Place to put together story strands, slotting things into the right place to unlock more info and give you new breadcrumbs to follow. Whilst these sequences take part in and around Bright Falls, Alan's portion of the game takes us to the Dark Place where you'll need to warp reality and use manuscript pages to shift the world to your advantage. None of this detective work is particularly tough, and you can make as many mistakes as you want while you piece together info on your evidence board, but it gives you just enough to figure out and work on that you find yourself completely absorbed into the narrative by virtue.
Both main characters indulge in their fair share of combat too and, just as with the original game, this is the weakest point of the entire affair. As we've already mentioned, it is much improved - not nearly as annoying as it once was, but there's still a slight awkwardness to the action here. Both Alan and Saga can use light to temporarily stop and disorient foes, just as in the first game, and it still feels a bit too cumbersome - but thankfully improved enemy placement means you'll never find yourself in big trouble against a large group of foes. This one tweak means that most encounters give you enough space to use your torch and dispatch enemies without getting thumped from several other directions.
There's a purposeful heft to movement, and a slowness to how you heal and reload, that suits the survival horror style perfectly - however, the enemies aren't up to the task of making this fully convincing. It may look and feel like a Resident Evil 2 Remake type of deal, but with baddies who follow more simplistic routes and routines — who really only ever make a beeline for you without dodging any bullets — it doesn't match up to Capcom's outing with regards to employing multiple strategies in action.
This slight downer aside though, and this is coming from someone who couldn't make peace with the combat in the first game at all, everything else that Alan Wake 2 does right makes its slight combat woes feel like a massive nitpick. Genuinely. There's so much inventiveness and style on display here. This second story takes far bigger risks in how much it leaves you to discover, to figure things out for yourself - it trusts players to work with their tools, to toy around in this warped world, pull strings and struggle forward, which in turn makes the whole thing feel extra-rewarding. We also clearly remember that we found ourselves groaning quite often at the writing in the first game, but this time around there's been none of that. The writing has taken a big leap and feels much more confident in its tone and in the world it's presenting.
There's stellar acting across the board from all of the cast, and the use of developer Sam Lake as Saga's partner Alex Casey is... such a strange combination of new character, recognizable voice and face. Is it Max or isn't it? Why is he here? It all feeds into that busy bubbling pot of conspiracy theories and cameos and interlinking fictions that makes Remedy's output so fun for fans to engage with.
With Alan Wake 2, we're getting a much darker, more confident and complex tale. This is a clearly a more successful stab at psychological/survival horror that the first game managed - it's very clever in how it mixes its mechanics between two leads, and it never drops the ball in terms of overall quality. The puzzles speak to a level of trust in the player that is often missing these days, with some delightful headscratchers that the game is happy to sit back on and let you deal with. The writing, acting, presentation are all top notch and, besides a few audio issues on Xbox and PC, we've had a clear run in terms of bugs or other hiccups.
Indeed in the game's quality mode, where the graphics are easily up there with the very best we've ever seen on Series X, there's no framerate bumps or other issues to speak of. Performance, although we didn't spend too much time in that mode, also seemed to perform smoothly with some of the bells and whistles dialled back in exchange for extra frames.
In the end, and without wanting to spoil a second of the fun for you, what we've got here is Remedy's very best game thus far. This is survival horror with style to spare; a grown-up, thought-provoking thrill-ride that's packed full of fantastic performances, incredible visuals, excellent music, genre-defining use of mixed media and all of the fourth wall-breaking and clever winks & nods we've come to expect from Finland's finest. Strap in, it's a wild ride.
Where Alan Wake was a very good idea executed with a few too many flaws, its sequel serves up a survival horror masterclass. Yes, the combat is still not 100% there, but this one slight misstep aside, what we've got with Alan Wake 2 is superlative stuff. This is an incredibly clever, refreshingly grown-up and wonderfully well-made slice of psychological horror. The acting, writing, sound design, graphics... every aspect has been nailed in a game that makes for another addition to 2023's incredibly long list of absolute bangers.