Alan Wake 2 Review: Just The Right Kind Of Insane

Thirteen years ago, detective thriller writer Alan Wake went missing at Bright Springs, a quaint town in Washington DC. And with it, a possible sequel to his novel Departure. Thirteen years later, his sequel to Departure finally launched in the form of Alan Wake 2, a survival horror game from Remedy. In the gaming industry, every year, we get one game that shines over everything else. In the case of 2023, we’ve had multiple such titles. However, Alan Wake 2 somehow registers itself over everyone else, triumphantly returning.

I would say that Remedy has created possibly one of the best games in their illustrious legacy. This is a studio that takes pride in making titles that are experimental and unconventional. And Alan Wake 2 is a step above, as they have applied their past learnings to create what I can best describe as art. Thanks to a copy provided by Remedy Entertainment, we’ve been enjoying the lush jungles and serene locations of the Pacific Northwest. Featuring two distinct realities and two different protagonists, it brings a well-paced horror mystery you would want to solve without a break.

A Horror Story Needs Its Protagonist

Alan Wake 2 starts by setting the tone of the game being a horror title, opening up with a ritualistic murder of a familiar character from the first game. Then, it quickly shifts to our new protagonist, Saga Anderson, an FBI profiler, and her partner Alex Casey, who is practically a fanservice throwback to Remedy’s Max Payne, dodging the legal troubles. However, Casey’s character has major ties to the story here.

A string of murders compels Saga and her partner to visit Bright Falls to investigate the case. And what seems like a routine profiling case turns into a nightmare as dead bodies and people turn into the Taken. To make matters worse, her reality shifts and changes everything around her to a darker one. This forces Saga to rescue Alan Wake, kickstarting the 20-hour-long horror experience.

One of the key highlights of the story this time is the art direction, the sound design, and the pacing. The game starts like the True Detective TV show, maintaining a similar pacing, emulating that feel of it. The first game had its pacing inconsistencies. Here, Remedy acknowledged those issues and consistently set pacing to slowly elevate the urgency of the game.

Not once did it feel that a section of the game was getting dragged on, and I was absolutely immersed. And when the game slowly devolves into its weird horror themes, the sound design and art direction take the front seat in setting the tone. Combining real-time cutscenes with in-engine gameplay does wonders, and you will see a lot of that in Alan Wake 2.

Calling it plain impressive is a disservice to the story of Alan Wake 2. It’s so bizarre yet captivating by standards set by the studio that I’ve already revisited the title in search of the finer details in the plot points. The entire NYC section of Alan Wake 2 is so uncanny and strange that I had to stop playing it a few times to fully grasp the situation.

The story feels like delving deep into the rabbit hole of what is happening inside Alan’s mind. The imagery and screenplay Remedy uses to convey the point of insanity inside his mind through the imagery is so well done that it puts the horror elements at the forefront.

If I have to compare this game to something, I would say that it reminds me of Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: The Return. The original David Lynch show is known for its memorable characters, visuals, and plot, which Alan Wake is known for. After all, these games are inspired by those works. However, Lynch experienced some interference while making the season, affecting the quality. As for the Return, he went all-in with his unhinged vision for the series, spawning possibly one of the best sequels for a legacy series ever.

Alan Wake 2 also follows a similar trajectory, where Remedy has used every trick in the book and their learnings to create a masterpiece. Words cannot alone describe the brilliance of this game’s story, which managed to latch into my brain just like the first game. It’s a weird horror game for the masses. And part of this contribution goes to the cast of characters in Alan Wake 2.

But, Every Protagonist Also Needs a Supporting Cast

The characters do a stellar job of captivating the players. New characters like Saga Anderson and Alex Casey are charismatic and well-written. Saga has this calm demeanor to things happening around her. It slowly devolves into a determined yet concerned one by the end. Casey, acted by the creative director of the game Sam Lake and voiced by James McCaffery, is a fitting homage to Max Payne, another Remedy character most of us might know. He has a similar noir-hard-boiled cop feel. When I say that Casey’s character is fanservice at its peak, I mean it. Similarly, Ilkka Villi and Matthew Poretta did a fantastic portrayal of Alan Wake.

The familiar voice of Matthew and the facial expression of Ilkka took me straight to the yesteryears. Even during the first game, his facial expressions were stuck in my mind. You can experience his brilliant chops and facial ranges in their full glory this time around too. A mix between perplexed, troubled, and straight-up horror. Ilkka sends the message of Alan slowly descending into madness after staying in the Dark Place for thirteen years.

The supporting cast also does a stellar work of bringing the weirdness to the game. Returning characters like Rose, Tor, and Odin are the mysterious people Saga is concerned about. Newer characters like FBC agent Kiran Estevez and Sherrif Tim Breaker also play their roles well. Janina Gavankar and Shawn Ashmore too knock it out of the park in their limited screen time, and I can’t wait to see more of their performance in the shared universe.

Earlier this month, I raised the point that the characters weren’t memorable when reviewing Assassin’s Creed: Mirage. In the case of Alan Wake 2, it is exactly the opposite. These characters have soul, quirks, and individual personalities attached to themselves. It is because of these characters that each plot point feels quite interesting. Because of these characters, each part of the game feels free-flowing. Remedy played into their strong points well in Alan Wake 2, much like everything else in the package.

Familiar Gameplay with Artistic Improvements

The gameplay also received minor facelifts, albeit similar to the original Alan Wake. Since the game shifted to the survival horror genre, it now takes inspiration from titles like the Resident Evil remakes to tune its gameplay. You have to worry about inventory management and limited resources. However, I would say that ammo management is still forgiving even in normal difficulty. I barely ran out of ammo throughout my gaming experience.

The combat sequences follow the 2010 gameplay. While exploring the locations, taken enemies will ambush you to kill you. You remove the dark presence protection using the flashlight and take it out immediately. Few changes have occurred to fit the new gameplay. Flashlights no longer act as your ADS reticle, and it is a separate entity.

Similarly, gun accuracy has dropped down considerably to make the combat challenging. In Alan Wake, our in-game writer was impressive with their gun handling, shooting near-accurate bullets to the head. In this game, it’s a little more realistic during tense situations, so yeah, the accuracy drops due to the onset of panic. Maybe Alan finally wrote some flaws into his protagonist.

Enemy variety still stays the same, with two new additions. You have the usual grunts, heavy brutes, and fast knife throwers. In addition to that, we have taken wolves, which stalk and attack Saga, and a mirrored Taken. Trust me when I say that the gameplay is simple, something I’m highly appreciative of. Anyone with some basic third-person shooter knowledge can pick it up and start blasting through the game with ease. When you have a story-heavy game, I am okay with a system like this.

Enjoy Saunas and Calmness in Bright Falls

A lot of thought and effort has gone into the other aspect of the game — the world. Alan Wake 2 has two different realities, namely the Bright Falls and Pacific Northwest that Saga explores, and a rendition of NYC created by the Dark Presence for Alan.

Saga’s sections are much more open than Alan’s, and you can switch between both scenarios at the beginning of a part. There is no correct way of following the story. Play how you want to because, near the end, the plot points converge to make it a linear epilogue.

When exploring Bright Falls, you cannot help but notice the fine little details. Be it the conversations between the citizens, the in-game ads, or the occasional Koskala Brothers advertisements, everything makes Bright Falls and Watery a believable setting. The Dark Presence NYC is smaller compared to Bright Falls and a much more linear offering. You explore a smaller location with limited pathways and places. This makes sense, given the game’s themes where the dark presence has changed and altered the reality around Alan to keep him there.

While Dark Presence NYC is a linear offering, Bright Falls and Watery map is much larger for exploring. This is done so that you can move from the usual path to search for cult stashes. These contain ammo and sometimes slot upgrades for your inventory. That is not it. Since the game has ties to Control, the FBC has been checking the supernatural reality-altering powers of Cauldron Lake. As such, they left poems at various points on the maps. Solving these riddles provides Saga with charms that give minor gameplay improvements.

It doesn’t end there. In Bright Falls and Dark Presence NYC, you have chances to improve both of our character’s gameplay. In the case of Saga, these are done through Alex Casey’s lunchboxes found in random places on the maps. For Alan, you find words of power, marked by the familiar illuminated arrows from the torchlight.

One thing to point out is that both of these items tie up to the overall story of the game to make sense, and these are optional. You can skip finding the lunchboxes or the words of power entirely and still enjoy the gameplay.

The Mind Place or the Writer’s Board

Another new offering in Alan Wake 2 is the introduction of the Mind Place for Saga and the Writer’s Room for Alan. Mind Place is a rendition of the Mind Palace that Sherlock Holmes had. It’s a separate reality inside Saga’s head, which has taken the form of a lodge. Here, you can check the brilliant game map to find your way, revisit the soundtrack and the in-game radio lores, read the manuscripts of the story by Alan, and check the Koskala Brothers ads.

But, the most vital part of its existence is the case board and profiling. The case board helps Saga piece together the mysterious occurrings in the world, giving it the detective show feel. At each point in the game, you’ll find clues. You piece together these clues to get the outcome and your next steps. One gripe I have with this system is that unless you solve some cases, the story doesn’t carry forward. It makes sense for the existence of the case board. However, it sometimes makes the game restrictive.

An example is during the third part, where you find Nightingale’s heart. Unless you solve the clues in the case board, the heart never spawns on the map. Granted, this is a minor gripe over every positive of the game, so it gradually grew up on me. Another addition is the profiling, where Saga questions some characters for answers. Remedy went completely all-in with this system, merging the real-time cut-scenes and the in-game engine render of Saga most artistically and tastefully ever.

For Alan Wake, there exists a writer board. These are the ideas Alan gets from the echoes around the Dark Presence for his manuscript of Initiation and Return. Players can use these limited ideas to alter specific points of the NYC to continue the story forward. It’s a smart way of using the location change introduced in Control, where you pull the light cord near the hotline to change the area.

Outside of that, you have similar things in the Writer’s Room. You get a television with different shows, a radio with different music, and manuscripts to read.

Both of these are starkly different from each other. Saga’s Mind Place is a small mini-game, making it an engaging experience. Alan’s Writer’s Room is a plot device to move the story forward. Both of these additions are great experimental pieces in the game, which is something Remedy does well. I would love to see more of this in their future titles, specifically in Control 2.

Alan Wake 2 Performance

We played Alan Wake 2 on PC to experience every technology available in-game. Remedy has always tried to push the envelope of visuals through their Northlight Engine as early as Quantum Break. While Control was one of the first games to implement full Ray Tracing, Alan Wake 2 became the second game to introduce NVIDIA’s path-tracing technology and DLSS 3.5. As such, this is a visually impressive game, but one that needs a lot of juice to deliver serviceable frame rates. We tested the game on the following specs:

  • CPU: AMD Ryzen 5600, running at base clock
  • GPU: NVIDIA GeForce RTX 4070 Ti
  • RAM: 16GB DDR4 3200MHz
  • SSD: 512GB WD SN570

Right off the bat, let me make this clear. This is an extremely performance-heavy title if you are running the path-tracing in-game. At the same time, the visuals look so good because of Remedy’s stellar art direction that you cannot help but turn on the raytracing settings even once. In terms of performance, the CPU ran at around 16-26% utilization, whereas the GPU always stayed at around 98-100% utilization. This proved my assumptions of the game being an incredibly GPU-intensive title with ray tracing enabled.

I would like to point out one thing. When Remedy pointed out that their target resolution for ray tracing with DLSS is 30 FPS on 1080p graphics with a 4070Ti, they seem to have over-estimated it. This game runs incredibly better than those numbers on DLSS. With DLSS and RT medium, you get what you expect. The game gave the lowest 30 FPS, and highest 42 FPS in Cauldron Lake jungles. This number was higher inside the Bright Falls, Watery, and NYC sections, running at an average of 47-64 FPS.

These numbers spiked when using the magical Ray Reconstruction and DLAA technology. The FPS in the Cauldron Lake area jumped to almost 56-78 FPS. Of course, we couldn’t expect more because of the amount of foliage. However, inside the towns and NYC, we witnessed an average of 100-118 FPS.

The FPS doubled when we turned on DLSS 3.5, which runs at an internal resolution of 720p and then upscales it. The Cauldron Lake area ran at 90-100 FPS, and the rest ran well over 150 FPS for the most part. The performance gain is impressive with the DLSS 3.5 technology, and with the technology improving, the usual impurities with the DLSS tech have been minimized.

We rarely noticed the fuzziness around Saga or Alan during the movements or camera sway. Textures looked good when upscaled, but distant textures lacked some refinement. The omission of a DLSS sharpness is weird and should be added to the game. But what about non-raytraced performance? Fortunately, it improves 10x when you turn it off. Without DLSS or RT enabled, the Cauldron Lake area ran at an average of 110 FPS. Towns and NYC ran at 96-110 FPS, with the lowest being 64 FPS.

If you don’t want to use ray tracing, you don’t have to. The game’s art direction is impressive, and even without RT enabled, it manages to look visually impeccable. Alan Wake 2 has pushed the technology to its knees, bringing one of the best visuals in video gaming after a long time. This is the first game where I’ve seen the lowest settings somehow manage to look visually impressive.

Alan Wake 2: Did It Satiate Our Hunger for Horror?

Remedy Entertainment is a studio that likes to experiment with its games and create mystifying titles, well, in a good way. Be it Quantum Break, the original Alan Wake, Control, or even older titles like Max Payne, every one of them oozes personality. Alan Wake 2 is Remedy’s magnum opus. Years of tech research, experimentation, and a penchant for storytelling seeps through every corner of this game.

Be it the immaculate art direction, the impressive sound design, the well-written characters, or its simplistic gameplay choices, Alan Wake 2 brings a complete package — “It Feels Sane, Or Just The Right Kind Of Insane,” as Jesse Faden once said in Control.

Whatever shortcomings the original game had, like the gameplay or the inconsistent pacing, get addressed in Alan Wake 2. Rarely do you come across a game where the flaws are so minuscule that you practically have no complaints. I end this review by saying that for years to come, many people will dissect and delve into the themes of Alan Wake 2, as it is one of those games. And possibly, this game will earn its place among titles like Silent Hill 2 and Grim Fandango whenever discussions of video games as an art come up.

Buy Alan Wake 2 on Epic Games Store ($49.99)

Pros and Cons
Final Verdict
4.5
Alan Wake 2
Alan Wake 2 manages to justify its thirteen years of absence by providing a borderline art in the form of a video game. Whether its the visuals, the art direction, the sounds, the weird horror, or anything else, Alan Wake 2 manages to be the best Remedy game in the studio's catalogue. Better yet, this game deserves a spot amongst titles that are brought into conversations of video game as an art.
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