Alan Wake 2 - Garth Marenghi's Darkplace (Review)
Alan Wake 2
Released: October 27th, 2023
Publisher: Epic Games
Systems: PC, PS5 (reviewed), Xbox X/S
The fact Alan Wake 2 constantly refers to “The Dark Place” made me laugh a lot. The game’s so comfortably up its own ass, so pleased with its nonsensical storytelling, I couldn’t help but think Garth Marenghi would be proud.
Frankly, I didn’t think any portrayal of the the "Mind Palace" mnemonic technique could make me cringe more than watching Benedict Cumberbatch flap his hands around like an electrocuted clown, but then Alan Wake 2 happened. The BBC Sherlock show has a lot to answer for with its mystification of the Method of Loci, but the way Alan Wake 2 uses it makes me want to chew my own teeth off.
Saga Anderson, one of the two protagonists, is presented as so omnisciently intuitive it's amazing she has to do any real investigation. She can guess someone stole a necklace with such little evidence we didn’t even know a necklace existed, and for a vast section of the adventure we're told to take that ability at face value. To its loose credit, the game does explain Saga’s ridiculously infallible deductions, but only after initially telling the audience she’s just really good at guessing things and we should be cool with her pulling total curveballs out of her bloody ass.
Even worse than the impact on the plot, however, is the way players are forced to manually partake in her endless conjuring of deus ex machina, sorting through imaginary “proof” in the slowest, most narratively derailing manner possible.
More than just a convenient plot device, Saga's "Mind Place" is also an inconvenient gameplay mechanic. You can warp to her Deus Ex Dream Den at any time, and you’ll do so frequently as the game won’t advance without Saga thinking in painful detail about every little event that occurs. It doesn’t matter how small or inconsequential the information may be - if you don’t first manifest it in Saga’s Pretend Time Playhouse, it may as well not exist.
As you progress, Saga will collect new information that must be manually placed on a wall in her Mind Place, represented as part of a growing collection of photographs connected via red string. With every individual clue, you’ll have to drag and drop it onto the wall in the correct position with Saga tutting aggravatingly if you don’t put it in the right place. It’s a laborious, tedious little affair, and you’re made to do it constantly.
Whether it’s items you find, things said in conversations, or documents you read, you’ll get new stuff for the Mind Place several times a minute, and while you don’t have to always immediately put it on an imaginary wall, you won’t get far until you do so. The result is a game with absolutely horrific pacing, as you’re forced to stop playing your videogame every few minutes to shuffle pictures around in Saga’s Enchanted Brain Cottage.
You'll notice almost half of this review is complaining about one single mechanic - that percentage is justly proportional to how much Alan Wake 2 crams it down the audience's throat. I am thoroughly baffled by how aggressively the game wants to interrupt itself and, in the process, destroy any flow its story might have had. You can't immerse yourself in the game's world because you're forever being yanked out of it.
Playing Alan Wake 2 is like trying to have a conversation with the anthropomorphic personification of Infinite Jest.
The final straw came when Saga’s Dinky Thinky Grotto started arbitrarily roadblocking puzzles. There was one particular puzzle that I’d worked out the solution to, so I did what I’d do with any proper videogame and I solved it. The item I was meant to acquire, however, couldn’t be interacted with - it was there, but the game just treated it like a bit of the scenery. I looked up a gameplay video, saw someone else collect it without issue, and assumed my game had glitched. I reloaded, redid the puzzle, but still couldn’t get the item.
Once I worked out what had happened, I was beyond frigging fuming.
It turned out that, even though I knew the solution to the puzzle, fucking Saga didn’t - not until I put every little step of the puzzle onto the wall in her Mind Place. Once I did that, our brilliant FBI agent recognized that the thing she already knew she needed was literally in front of her damn face, and the item became interactive. I cannot describe how utterly livid I was by the complete stupidity on display.
Why do it like that? Who thought adding such a pointless step in the process was good, and can we make sure they're taken off puzzle duty for future games?
Bear in mind, this is not something I had to do for other puzzles in the very same game. I’ve since talked with some friends who've played it and found that they’d also experienced this scenario with different puzzles in the game, so I wasn't the only one. Alan Wake 2 is just that bad - you have to manually make your protagonist think about a solution to a puzzle you already solved, but only in those arbitrary situations where the game’s quietly decided that’s what you have to do.
It’s fucking shocking. It’s the concept of “extra steps” taken to a ruinous extreme, as fairly simple gameplay is constantly made more convoluted than it has to be by the inclusion of a drag n’ drop inventory of known information that adds nothing to the experience except mercilessly wasted time.
Anyway, moving onto the second half of the review...
One of the cutest things about the first Alan Wake was that the titular author was a really bad writer. He was a pretentious hack, and his in-game manuscripts were entertainingly embarrassing. Alan Wake 2 dilutes that effect with a script as poorly written as anything Remedy’s fictional author could wank into a typewriter. Terrible dialog, flat characters, a story that spends so much time clumsily attempting a slow burn it ends up dead in the water, Alan Wake 2 is a trainwreck of miserable storytelling made worse by the fact you can’t criticize it without people saying, “but it’s meant to be bad on purpose!”
Look, if Remedy set out to make a badly directed, laughably written game deliberately, I can say with all sincerity that Alan Wake 2 is an unequivocal success. Indeed, Alan Wake 2 is a hallmark of bad direction and laughable writing, reinforced by interactive elements that seem to have not only refused to evolve since 2010, but taken steps backwards.
Split between two characters, Alan and Saga, this sequel takes us back to Bright Falls thirteen years after the events of Alan Wake, a game that was actually good. A mysterious cult is murdering people, so FBI agents Saga and Alex Casey arrive to potter about in the woods, discover a missing Wake and deal with the supernatural threat of Mr. Scratch. Or just Scratch, as they mostly call him now.
Shame about Scratch, by the way. After being such a memorable villain in Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, the Scratch of Alan Wake 2 is a vague antagonistic concept that just seethes a lot. It sure is "darker" than his original incarnation, but it's nowhere near as entertaining.
As both Saga and Alan, you'll be wandering around spooky locations, fighting annoying Taken enemies, and solving rather trite puzzles. The major difference is that Alan Wake's "Plot Board" gimmick is a bit less shit than Saga's derailing alternative. A bit.
Unfolding primarily in the foreboding Dark Place that threatens Bright Falls, Wake solves environmental puzzles in surreal locations, using his own imaginary room to rewrite reality. As Alan explores, he’ll discover plot elements for a fictional crime story and, by placing those elements on his Plot Board, he’ll change the layout of certain locations to create new paths and doors.
While it’s still a pain in the ass to keep going into a menu to switch out plot points - especially when Alan starts repeating the same sentence every time you do it - there’s a bit more immediacy to the routine that makes progress flow a little better than Saga's portion of the experience. Plus, it's at least got an interesting effect on the world.
No matter which character is in charge, however, too much time is spent walking through quiet and dreary environments doing very little of interest. In the first two hours, barely anything happens. You wander around in the woods, have a few dry conversations, and take excessive trips to the Mind Palace to go back over the shit you just saw. There are maybe two combat sequences in those opening hours, breaking up what is otherwise pure, grinding monotony.
Combat certainly isn’t something I needed more of, don’t get me wrong. In fact, I’m glad there’s not a great deal of mandatory combat in this game because fighting is just unpleasant. For some reason, Remedy didn’t feel that the mechanics of 2010’s Alan Wake needed improving at all, and the result is an incredibly dated fighting system that’s unpleasant to engage with.
Why they didn’t at least fix the dodging is beyond me. It never worked right in the original and it’s actually worse here. The rapid jerking way Alan and Saga dodge combined with the deceptively delayed enemy attacks is more horrid now than it was over a decade ago, and it was pretty bad back then.
Beyond the rubbish evasion you’ve got a somewhat archaic bit of third-person shooting that doesn’t necessarily do anything wrong, but certainly doesn’t do enough to be particularly fun. The purely random item drops during fights are really bad, too. You can be in desperate need of healing items, but instead get ammo for a gun you're not even using. Reloading a checkpoint here is essentially playing a lottery for resources, which I actualy did during a boss fight that autosaved me with one hit point halfway through.
Alan Wake 2 isn’t without its moments. Occasionally, there will be a sequence that delivers some genuinely scary horror or offers a compelling enough mystery to break the tedium. One particular chapter is an excessively flamboyant musical number so audacious in its self-indulgence it comes out the other side of embarrassing and becomes something quite brilliant. A few of the night sections in the woods are pretty damn foreboding, too.
The graphics are terrific, and some of the chapters set during dusk or dawn are stunningly gorgeous. Despite the dorky script, the actors who have to perform it do so with evident talent on display. One thing Remedy excels at is marrying music with visuals, and there's a brilliant soundtrack on offer this time around. You can never really fault this studio when it comes to pure presentation.
Nothing else this game does, however, can top the Koskela Brothers, Ilmo and Jaakko, whose series of live-action commercials can be found playing on televisions throughout the campaign. Not just the best part of this title, they’re the best live-action thing Remedy’s ever done. Well written, hilariously performed, these parodies of small town business ads almost single-handedly carry the game.
Naturally, the main plot goes out of its way to fuck the Koskelas up. Because of course.
Clearly there’s a lot I think is wrong with Alan Wake 2, but if I could pick only one dreadful element to hurl into the Sun, it would be the pathetic scare cuts. This game regularly flashes quick images across the screen accompanied by loud, startling screech noises. It often does this in otherwise quiet, sometimes even serene, areas where spooky tension wasn’t being introduced. It’s downright malicious, and by the end it was happening so much I just kept muttering, “shut the fuck up, videogame” while I played.
I adored the first Alan Wake, and I’ve either loved or liked every Remedy game since then. This is the first time I’ve felt so displeased by the studio’s work I’ve actually been angry about it. The pompous writing, the shoehorned mechanics that push a tiresome narrative conceit over the quality of the narrative itself, the archaic combat, the amount of time it spends doing almost nothing, Alan Wake 2 is fucking insufferable most of the time.
It’s impossible to tell where the stylistically bad writing of the title character ends and the inadvertently bad game of Alan Wake 2 begins. The difference, at this point, matters not.