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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Stuart Andrews

Alan Wake II review: Smart survival horror in a deeply scary sequel

It’s been 13 long years since thriller writer Alan Wake’s disappearance in a remote Washington mountain town – and 13 years since developer Remedy Entertainment left gamers on a cliffhanger, pondering his fate. This is typical of the way this superb, scary sequel mixes its dark fantasy with reality in a way that few games dare, and, despite a few moments where it threatens to disappear up its own metafictional fundament, it mostly pulls it off. Your Dead Space or Resident Evil 4 Remake might be terrifying, but Alan Wake II manages to be strange and unnerving, with as much Twin Peaks or True Detective in its creative DNA as the more conventional zombie horror stuff.

Expect to have the rug pulled from under your feet with appalling regularity, not least by the way the story picks up not with the titular author, but with a young FBI detective investigating a series of murders in Wake’s old stomping grounds. The area around the town of Bright Falls has grown even weirder since the first Alan Wake, with evidence of cult activity and strange goings on around local beauty spot, Cauldron Lake. Before long, Saga Anderson is up to her elbows in walking corpses, mysterious manuscripts and crazed cult members, all seemingly tied into the fate of the missing writer and what happened 13 years ago.

FBI detective Saga on the trail of killer cultists (Remedy Entertainment/Epic Games)

Luckily, Saga has more than a handgun and a torch with which to make sense of it all. At almost any time she can retreat into her "mind place" and string together the images and clues she’s finding to get insights into what’s happening, and even construct profiles of the different characters to work out what they’ve done – and where they might go next. It’s all presented in the style of those red string and Polaroid displays you’ll have seen in a dozen serial killer thrillers and, while Saga does most of the hard thinking for you, it’s a brilliant way to go beyond the stealth and blasting that dominate most survival horror games.

In fact, Alan Wake II takes a surprisingly restrained approach to action, focusing on fewer moments of serious threat rather than throwing wave after wave of zombies at you. Nightmare creatures and possessed cultists still need to be fought off but the sequel returns to the first game’s clever use of light to weaken your enemies and make them vulnerable to gunfire. Limited supplies of ammo, health and flashlight batteries can be an issue, but this just encourages you to pay closer attention. You can find what you need in the game’s atmospheric forest landscapes but you need to look and, maybe, solve the odd puzzle first.

Light and bullets are the key to fighting off cultist maniacs (Remedy Entertainment - Epic Games)

Meanwhile, the first game’s hero hasn’t gone anywhere; he’s trapped in a twisted vision of the streets and subways of New York, hunted by murderous shadows and with his memories consumed by fog. Before long you’ll be playing as Wake as well, using an ingenious lantern gizmo to capture light from one point and take it to another; an act that changes the world around you to open up new exits and reveal hidden truths.

What’s more, Wake comes to understand that this "dark place" is a fiction and that he can transform it by heading to his writer’s room and combining existing locations with new characters or events. This fuels some mind-blowing moments and puzzles, even if it also escalates the risks to health and sanity. Even more than the first game, Alan Wake II is obsessed with the power of telling stories but also the dangers of confusing fiction with reality.

Fear and fiction

This is a thread the game keeps pulling on as it moves beyond its early chapters, bringing its heroes together and allowing you to switch between their individual tales almost at will. With time, you learn that what Wake writes can also alter Saga’s story, and that there is even more going on in Bright Falls than meets the eye. Sure, there are times when the writing doesn’t quite keep pace with the overall vision, but this is an ambitious game with ideas beyond the jump scares. And there are more than enough of those to give your nerves a thorough workout. Remedy has learnt a lot in 13 years about building atmosphere and making things uncanny, not least in 2019’s brilliant supernatural action game, Control, which Alan Wake 2 itself cleverly ties into. All of it makes this sequel an even more powerful experience.

Alan Wake is trapped in a sinister New York City. Can he write his way out? (Remedy Entertainment/Epic Games)

It's tough to say whether this is the year’s scariest game; the Dead Space and Resident Evil 4 remakes set a high bar with their orchestrated terrors and their nerve-jangling sound design. Yet there’s something genuinely chilling in Alan Wake 2’s shifty and uncertain ambiance, helped by strong performances and some of the best visuals this console generation has produced. It’s a game that drips with immersive detail, bathing its unsettling scenes in splashes of bright light and neon colour, or great washes of eerie sunlight as you navigate the woods. Either way, in a year when the best horror games have reworked ageing classics, Alan Wake 2 shines its torch on a different path forwards. Just beware what’s lurking in the shadows should you choose to journey down it.

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