Updated: Nov 6
Thanks to a second playable character in Alan Wake II, this third-person survival horror shooter is even scarier.
Alan Wake II
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Epic Games
Switch Release Date: 10/27/2023
Review Score: 8
Though the first game was more exciting, Alan Wake II is still a scary good survival horror shooter.
Reviewer played on PlayStation 5. A code was provided by the publisher.
Alan Wake II is available now on PlayStation 5, PC, and Xbox Series X/S.
Though nothing beats a good book, video games can be just as effective as movies when it comes to telling a scary story. The trick being that you have to make sure it's also a good game.
It's a balance that the third-person survival horror game Alan Wake II (PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PC) does a good job of managing. While it's not as action oriented as its predecessor, it does manage to be almost as engaging and even more frightening.
The name is Wake… Alan Wake.
For those who missed the original, 2010's Alan Wake was about a Stephen King-like horror writer who takes a vacation with his wife to Bright Falls, Washington. But when his wife goes missing, and it looks like cultists are the culprits, it's up to Wake, and his trigger finger, to save the day.
It was kind of like the recent remake of Resident Evil 4 if, instead of being inspired by the movies of George Romero and Hammer Films, it took influence from Twin Peaks, Criminal Minds, and The Wicker Man.
What made Alan Wake somewhat different from otherwise similar scary games as the Resident Evil series is that the residents of Bright Falls were infected with a darkness, one that made them harder to kill. But by using light — be it from his flashlight, some flares, or other means — Wake was able to cleanse them, making them ripe for shooting.
It's a mechanic that carries over to Alan Wake II. As do many of the game's other basic mechanics, which include having to solve problems to open new areas of exploration; scrounging around for ammo, flashlight batteries, and other helpful resources; and trying not to be freaked out by all the moody, atmospheric music and visual tricks designed to put you on edge.
The Saga continues...
As for what makes Alan Wake II different from its predecessor, the most noticeable change is how the controls are smoother and more intuitive. Which is good because they felt a little stiff when that game came out in 2010, and feel even more dated now.
But the biggest change from Alan Wake to this sequel is that you don't just play as the titular writer. Set 13 years after the first game, Alan Wake II finds Al still trapped in the dark place where we left him. But now you also play as FBI agent Saga Anderson.
When playing as Saga, you're searching the woods and abandoned buildings in and around Bright Falls; when playing as Mr. Wake, you're in a dark version of New York City.
In addition, where before you mostly shot your way from one gunfight to another with an occasional problem to solve, this has far more mental challenges than physical ones.
As Saga, this means solving crimes, kind of like Batman in the Arkham series. Not only does she have to search for clues, and examine evidence, but she also goes to a mental construct, one that looks like a room, where she can set those clues out, or profile the people involved, kind of like an FBI profiler on a TV show.
Saga also has to solve situational puzzles so she can unlock new parts of town, as well as things that may contain helpful supplies. To open a cabinet containing a shotgun, for example, Saga has to decipher the combination by looking at a lottery ticket and recognizing the pattern.
By doing so, Saga opens up new areas to explore (and people to fight), while moving the story forward.
It's also what Alan does. Except in his case, his happy place is where he goes to write. Putting note cards on a board, he can figure out the best plot for the book he's writing (and, well, living through).
Though what really makes his parts feel different — aside from midtown Manhattan not being like the Pacific Northwest — is that he has a lamp he uses to capture light, which he can then move to illuminate somewhere else, which changes them. A stairway blocked by boxes, for instance, might become clear when he makes the area well lit.
It’s a mechanic that makes for some interesting problem solving, especially since you can only use it in certain places.
Mo possibilities, mo problems.
Now, all of these elements work well together. And they work well with how the game uses light, shadow, and visual trickery to put you on edge.
But there are times when the added attractions work against you.
For instance, unless you help Saga solve problems by putting the evidence on her vision board, you can't move forward. Which is something she doesn't usually tell you, so you might end up aimlessly running around the forest for 20 or 30 minutes before you realize you have a clue to put up on the board.
Getting around can also be an issue, whether you're Alan or Saga. There's no mini map when you're running around, while spots on the map in your menu cannot be marked, which means there's no on-screen icon or pathway to follow.
This is especially frustrating when Saga's in the forest, as the pathways are not always obvious.
Also, while it may add challenge as well as tension, it's still irritating that your flashlight batteries don't last long.
But the big thing (for me; your mileage may differ) is that because it has way more crime fighting and problem solving, Alan Wake II is much more of a survival horror game than a scary shooter. Which is great if you want to be scared, but if you'd rather be shooting, it's not nearly as exciting as the first game. Or the recent remake of Resident Evil 4.
Still, for what it is — and what it's trying to be — Alan Wake II is engaging, clever, and truly frightening. In other words, a horror story worthy of being a book.