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Being burned by the genre so many times, there was a part of me that went into this expecting it to be another one of those knock-off souls-likes, despite enjoying the demo, but I couldn't have been more wrong coming out of it. I think it's about as close as you can get to taking FromSoftware's formula and making something uniquely their own out of it. I'll really be looking forward to what Round8 have coming next
"We all come to a story with hopes and expectations, looking for an answer. Sometimes it would be better to live with that hope, without ever knowing the full story. In a horror story, there are only victims and monsters, and the trick is not to end up as either. But, trapped by the genre, we are all ripped to pieces along the way. This is not the story you want it to be. This story will eat you alive."
Few times do I see a game developer decide to reinvent their own wheel, even rarer do I find ones who do it with every single release they put out. Remedy Entertainment is a game developer who I've always felt so strange about. Their works are some of the finest in the medium, always raising the bar for how we go about telling narratives within video games, pushing the limits for visuals and wearing their inspirations on their sleeve when it comes to incorporating other mediums into how they develop and present their games. Their titles are uncompromising, bold and visionary, but maintain the creative freedom and integrity of an independent game developer. Yet, despite those traits, their games have mainly remained cult classics. The traction they've gained in the last few years, with so many different games from various genres being released by them has made me anticipate the true breakout hit that I knew was coming, and I'm confident that Alan Wake 2 is exactly that.
I don't think it's a stretch to say that the horror genre isn't exactly in its renaissance right now and the last few years have been noticeably lackluster, with the biggest franchises finally regaining a bit of footing that they lost over many years and a clear lack of innovation in terms of how these games feel to play. When it came out that Alan Wake 2 was set to be a survival horror, I knew they would make it work, but I couldn't visualize how. Its roots in the thriller genre with the first game and American Nightmare made it seem like it would be obvious, but I didn't want this game to feel like the others, it needed to be different, it needed to show us something that we've never seen before. It was already fighting an uphill battle trying to reinvent itself within a genre that was already in desperate need of just that beforehand. And yet for all those barriers, Alan Wake 2 doesn't fail to overcome them to deliver an esoteric but accessible horror experience, an ambitious storyline that winds, loops, spirals and plunges into new territory each chapter, one that makes you question each story beat you knew from before and what you receive after. It's a dual narrative blend of cult terror and supernatural suspense in a genre of games where narratives have almost always taken a backseat, with the exceptions still feeling like they were constrained either by technical limitations or the genre itself. And also being arguably the longest pure survival horror game to date. It manages all this while keeping the unease you feel always dialled up to 11, whether its playing as Saga investigating a crazy cult plaguing a rural town in True Detective style and profiling each of your case leads and suspects like it's straight out of Fincher's Mindhunter, or Alan's side of the game where you're in an otherworldly depiction of New York, with dark and sleazy streets dimly lit by blotches of saturated colour palettes like you're experiencing a Wong Kar-Wai film. Whispering shadows haunting you every step of the way, with the nightmare shifting the shape of the city around you in classic Lynchian style for the most surrealistic fear factor.
Both sides of the game despite feeling so distinct are also so intrinsically related. The narratives you see as separate begin to make you question what is real and what isn't. Alan Wake 2 plays with the audience's mind from the very first minute to the very last, never giving you the full answer to a question, but rather giving you different angles to pose it from to draw your own conclusion. The character's psychology and story arcs shape the experience of the game, not just narratively but in how the levels are designed, the various puzzles and mysteries to solve, and even whether you choose to play the entire game as Alan or Saga first or mix it up between the two. Remedy continues to deliver the live action segments in game that they're known for, while also incorporating musical performances, silhouette theater, and their signature soap opera style comedy, things that never feel out of place within the game and give you a brief respite, reinvigorating your "sisu" so you can keep moving forward through the nightmare.
Alan Wake 2 is about as self-aware as they get, but in all the right ways. It's a trait that all of Remedy's works embody, but because of how upfront they are about it, these titles all become self-critical examinations of these genres that they want to keep offering a variety in. It's a story about a writer who is stuck inside a story he's trying to write himself out of, relying on his own story to get him out thereby making the story darker and darker, dragging in innocent people whose lives would otherwise be unaffected, to become characters in his story in the process. It's metafictional in the way that will have the geeky part of you giddy with excitement, but never taking away from the emotional crux of its narratives by watering down their significance. And despite these ambitious designs, it's also part of a larger universe with so many details and references in game that listing them would take forever. They're a treat that fans of Remedy can pick up on and connect, which are increasing in quantity and import with each new game in the verse, even to their games which are separate. It's a body of work where I think people should absolutely play everything, especially in release order.
To praise all this, there's also a few gripes I have with the game. Firstly, the maps being as big as they are means there's so much running around to do. I'm not expecting fast travel here but a lack of meaningful shortcuts and VERY slow movement speeds can be quite frustrating for when you're trying to go around finding collectibles and move from place to place. Secondly, there's definitely a bit too much weight to the aiming, which is in stark contrast to how fluid it was in Control. I know the point is to make a survival horror feel like the player is never in an advantageous position, but the over-sluggishness of the gunplay becomes more of a chore at times than any kind of "fitting" artificial difficulty. And last of all, the lack of density of enemies can be very noticeable, mostly in Saga's chapters, Alan's are fine in this regard. This goes hand in hand with the map size problem because the encounters are so spaced out that you don't feel as threatened as you should be, especially with how the narrative props up the woods of Bright Falls as a "very dangerous place". In addition to this there could've been a few more enemy types, because after a while you learn their patterns and there isn't much to spice up the pressing danger you're meant to feel. A few small things but they are pretty undeniable issues in my eyes, something I know Remedy got right in their other games, so I am hoping they take these to heart and make an even better product with the next one.
This sounds a lot, like something you would expect in a 60 hour RPG, certainly not a horror game, something you're used to playing for no more than 15 hours. But that's exactly what makes this game so special. It rose to the occasion and challenged the conventions it was trapped in, like Alan's writing itself, it shifted its genre to escape its trappings, met those constraints halfway, and built a story that reaches towards the ideal ending, one where the game we got avoided a sea of mediocrity to deliver a masterclass experience. There's simply so much to offer in this title and their previous titles that I can't recommend this enough. As a horror fan, 2022/2023 has already begun to feel like the comeback we've needed and with games like Alan Wake 2, I feel more confident that there's more to this genre, a genre I thought we'd seen everything of.
"It's not a loop, it's a spiral."