Hands-on with Alan Wake 2’s two protagonists and their very different realities

It’s been 13 years since Alan and his typewriter first made their way onto Xbox 360, in a twisted and often perplexing story that ultimately left the author in the Dark Place, a surreal alternate dimension where works of art shape reality. Now, ahead of Alan Wake 2’s long-awaited October release, I’ve gone hands-on to find out how our favourite fictional writer is holding up.

At a very basic level, much of Alan Wake 2’s gameplay will feel familiar to those who have played the original. Players have access to firearms, torches are used to burn away shadows, Alan can dodge attacks and also heroically sprint away when a little more distance is needed (something I did quite often). Outside of combat, there are plenty of shadowy environments to explore, and light will once again be key to overcoming many obstacles in your path. All much as to be expected from an Alan Wake sequel.

But while Alan Wake 2 may feel quite familiar from this angle, there is so much more that sets the sequel apart from its predecessor, with Remedy taking great strides away from the original with new settings, mechanics, characters and a whole new genre for players to wrap their heads around.

Alan Wake 2 — The Dark Place Trailer.Watch on YouTube

Most obvious is the fact Alan Wake 2 has a second playable protagonist, Saga Anderson, an FBI agent sent to the Bright Falls area to investigate a series of ritualistic murders and the Cult of the Tree. She is strong, empathetic, and clearly holds a vast intelligence as evidenced by her Mind Place (more on that in a moment).

My preview began with Saga’s third chapter, which showed her arrival in the town of Watery, a quaint but decidedly idiosyncratic locale that boasted a sauna area for residents to bask in and a town hall venue currently playing host to the vocal talents of a familiar face: Ahti. Those who played Control will immediately recognise Remedy’s offbeat yet endearing janitor, as the developer continues to build its connected universe. For now, it’s unclear if Ahti’s presence in Watery is limited to this one moment, or if he will return again later. Either way, Ahti has clearly charmed the Watery locals – when Saga tries to engage with a resident during his performance, she is quite rightfully ‘Shh’d’. I understood the need for silence during Ahti’s show, and continued on with my exploration.

The rest of Watery lived up to its name, with an omni-present dampness permeating the surroundings. There was something off-kilter about the whole area, and despite never feeling like Saga’s life was in any immediate danger, there was an unnerving aura in the air. In true Remedy fashion, before I left the main street a sense of uneasiness had managed to worm its way under my skin. After collecting supplies, I headed to the far end of the town to meet with Ilmo Koskela and his brother, Jaakko. Both of these characters seemed familiar with Saga, and stated she shared a trailer in Watery with her young daughter. And yet, Saga did not know them. To try and make sense of things, I went with Saga into her Mind Place.

This Mind Place is a mental construct which Saga can use to take stock of the evidence she’s collected. This includes reading over discovered manuscripts, skillfully profiling characters and listening to various recordings. It’s also here you can check Saga’s Case Board to gain new objectives. Remedy describes this as a “visual representation of the investigation”.

I initially found arranging evidence on the Case Board a little tricksy, however once I got the hang of it, things soon began to fall, quite literally, into place. (And there’s likely a tutorial on this our demo skipped past.) Seeing all of my clues line up was thoroughly satisfying, reminiscent of True Detective, which Remedy’s creative director Sam Lake told me served as inspiration for the game. Threads connected, visions appeared to Saga, new story paths opened up, and I knew what I had to do.

Saga in her Mind Place
Saga in her Mind Place. | Image credit: Remedy

Leaving the relative safety of the town behind, I headed into Watery’s primordial-feeling woods. Here I came across my first Taken enemy, whose presence was made known thanks to an axe soaring menacingly through the air, before it lodged itself into the trunk of a nearby tree. “Fuck!” shouted Saga, as I jumped from my seat. The fight had begun.

Much has been made of the game’s move to survival horror. Well, in battle, the flesh literally ripped away from the bodies of those I shot, with sinewy muscles and raw red chasms left exposed as the encounter went on. And as for the survival side of things, I was amazed at how many bullets I went through in that first encounter, leaving me wary of how precious my ammo was.

I met more enemies as I continued on with Saga’s mission, but in a welcome change of pace to its predecessor, Alan Wake 2’s confrontations were less of a relentless cascade of foes to overcome. Rather, they were few and relatively far between, with the anticipation of a fight actually fuelling more of my adrenaline than the fights themselves. I never felt complacent in the stillness of my surroundings, but equally, I never felt so overwhelmed it became tedious, so individual fights never lost impact.

Away from these encounters, there were several puzzles to solve around the area. I came across cases and cabinets secured with padlocks as I weaved and backtracked my way through the woods. Looking around the environment gave me clues to their combinations, with a fairly straightforward memory puzzle giving me access to a crossbow. This was then stored in my regimented inventory, which had a strong resemblance to Resident Evil’s inventory system.

I even found a safe and well lit ‘Break Room’, where I could recover some health, save my progress thanks to a rather dandy thermos, and store my items.

Saga in Alan Wake 2
Saga’s fights were a visceral experience. | Image credit: Remedy

Saga in Alan Wake 2

Saga in Alan Wake 2

I’ve been watchin’, I’ve been waitin’, in the shadows for my time. | Image credit: Remedy

Next I spent some time with Alan in the Dark Place, a literal hell of his own creation in which he has been languishing ever since he jumped into Cauldron Lake 13 years ago. Where Saga’s experiences in Watery have an air of Silent Hill meets Resident Evil about them, Alan’s twisted version of New York has echoes of Control. It’s both gritty and grimy, and as to be expected from Remedy, the whole experience was suitably odd. I was met with strange visions as I made my way through the nightmarish city, a world of warping paths that somehow still felt claustrophobic despite its perceived size. Alan’s New York was hostile, and there was no doubt he was trapped inside.

I can’t fully express how visually disarming the Dark Place was. This haunting version of New York is slicked with an oil-like sheen, as rain pours down on the littered environment. There is a film noir energy to the Dark Place, with bright neon lights contrasting against the inky depths of its New York streets. Meanwhile, graffiti written by Alan in a Memento-like bid to retain his sense of self is scrawled across the walls – Alice, Alice, Alice. He needs to find Alice.

While Saga is fighting to survive during her parts of the story, Alan is also fighting – but for his sanity. Despite both these characters and chapters being in the same game, they feel incredibly different to each other.

The Dark Place, Alan Wake 2

Alan Wake in the Dark Place

Concrete jungle where nightmares are made of. | Image credit: Remedy

The chapter I played through with Alan was titled Room 665 (or perhaps ‘the neighbour of the beast’, for Remedy regulars). After a mysterious phone call, I was sent to the Oceanview Hotel (not motel), but, of course, getting there wasn’t straightforward. I had to traverse rooftops, manipulate the environment around me and negotiate shadowy figures – only some of which were actually a real threat, despite their relentless taunts and stalking presence – to find the right path.

This was done through puzzles and the use of Alan’s Angel Lamp, which can transport a light source from one area of the Dark Place to another, changing the environment depending on where it is placed. Doors can lead to different locations, areas once boarded up can be accessed, weapons once out of reach can be obtained. While smaller complexities such as deciphering door codes are present throughout the Dark Place, this area as a whole felt like one giant psychological puzzle Alan needed to solve.

When I ultimately made it into the hotel, I tried to make more sense of what was going on. Did I manage? No, not even slightly. Rather, more questions began presenting themselves, adding to the dissimulation of the whole chapter (I am not saying this is a bad thing). I watched live-action cinematics in bewilderment. Alan Wake’s rocker-like poet Thomas Zane burst onto the scene, adding to the anxiety and paranoia of Alan’s reality. Echoes of another world seeped through. A bathtub…

Alan has a Writer’s Room he can go into during his time in the Dark Place. As with the Mind Place, this is where Alan can take a step back and think. He has a Plot Board, rather than a Case Board, and he can unlock Plot Elements. It is also here Alan is able to ‘Rewrite Reality’, which will alter the world around him. For me, it made everything feel even more personal, and even more desperate.

What happened next is better experienced first hand, because that really is what it is – it is an experience. I will say this, though. Remedy has nailed the atmosphere in Alan Wake 2. From Saga’s investigations through the Pacific Northwest to Alan’s New York hellscape, every moment was laced with a tension that left me suitably unsettled. The music that pulsed through my headset during one particular Dark Place encounter caused the hairs on my arms to stand on end, and left my heart racing. It was an all-encompassing moment, and the thrill and fear combined made for a darkly delicious experience.

One of Alan Wake 2's live-action cinematics starts up
Alan Wake 2 uses live-action footage to help create its unsettling Dark Place. | Image credit: Remedy

Still, despite the atmosphere and tight, familiar combat, I do have some small concerns. We are now just weeks away from Alan Wake 2’s release, and yet I still found a fair few bugs during my time with the game. Remedy acknowledged these ahead of time with the usual statement we were playing a work in progress build, and that it would sort issues ahead of release. Still, these issues are worth mentioning.

I experienced several instances of animations freezing, or my camera presenting me with Alan’s distorted face. There were also moments where Alan’s hand and torch were disjointed – enough to leave any mortal wincing in pain. Others who played the same build told me they had experienced similar issues, with one person reporting they had managed to break through the game’s boundary at one point, and needed their game to be reset. Here’s hoping these issues are all resolved before release.

Saga investigates, Alan Wake 2
A sense of uneasiness wormed its way under my skin. | Image credit: Remedy

Another disappointment was Alan Wake 2’s accessibility options, which look to be lacking at launch. Control was expanded to include a great catalogue of accessibility features, which opened up the game to a much wider audience. I had hoped Remedy would have learned from these well received additions to include them within Alan Wake 2 from the off, but for now it has not.

On this issue, Sam Lake told me that Alan Wake 2 being the studio’s biggest game – and one it is eager to see released – meant there were “not as many options as Control” currently. While he “can’t make any promises”, he said the studio was “exploring possibilities” to add more accessibility options down the line.

Coffee World, Alan Wake 2

Coffee World, Alan Wake 2

Of course Watery has coffee-themed attractions. | Image credit: Remedy

Overall, I was impressed by my time with Alan Wake 2. As Alan, I felt that desperate sense of isolation, the need to push on to achieve his often illusive end goal while grasping any threads of sanity he can. I relished the ‘Remedy-ness’ of it all, while also appreciating the new directions the team has decided to go. As Saga, meanwhile, I believed in her dedication to her job and desire to discover the truth as she made her way around the dank and unsettling Watery. The game may not have her name on it, but there is no doubt it’s as much Saga’s story as it is our titular writer’s. Perhaps that ‘2’ is more than simply to denote this is a sequel. Perhaps it’s to denote the second character, and second gameplay perspective as well.

Regardless, Remedy set out to realise a sequel that cements its place in the survival horror genre, and from what I have seen it is on course to achieve just that. Alan may indeed be stuck in a hell of his own creation, but I believe this sequel has the potential to be a dark yet heavenly release for Remedy fans, old and new.

Watery, Alan Wake 2

Dark Place, Alan Wake 2

Two protagonists, two realities. | Image credit: Remedy

For more on Alan Wake 2 and the studio’s move to survival horror, see my interview with Remedy staff, including boss Sam Lake.

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