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'Alan Wake 2' and the year's best horror games, reviewed

Explore a twisted reflection of New York City in Alan Wake 2.
Remedy Entertainment
Explore a twisted reflection of New York City in Alan Wake 2.

Cook something for thirteen years, and the stew's bound to come out funky.

In the case of Alan Wake 2, the weirdness is part of the charm. The sequel to a 2010 cult classic, the game follows not only the titular character, an author of schlocky crime novels, but also Saga Anderson, an FBI agent investigating ritualistic killings in a patch of Washington State that may as well border Twin Peaks for all its unsettling goofiness.

The opening narration tells you exactly what you're in for. "In a horror story," intones Wake, "there are only victims and monsters, and the trick is not to end up as either." You'll spend much of the game's runtime evading shadowy "Taken," possessed by a "Dark Presence" and vulnerable only to your trusty flashlight (and guns — so many guns). As Anderson you'll use your near-psychic investigatory prowess to unravel a conspiracy, and as Wake, you'll literally rewrite scenes in the "Dark Place" he's trapped in, slowly revising your way out of a hell far worse than the crippling writer's block that kicked off the original game's nightmare.

The story is the monster

Sam Lake, Remedy Entertainment's creative director, has called the game his studio's first survival horror title. The description fits. While the predecessor had plenty of monsters to fight and resources to scavenge, its linear levels kept it from feeling like a Resident Evil puzzle-box adventure. Alan Wake 2's recursive woods and streets, by contrast, invite you to scour them for every last Lunch Box, stash, page, or scrap of ammo or medicine.

Saga Anderson, performed by Melanie Liburd, in one of her "profiling" sessions in her Mind Place — the mental space you'll use to connect the dots of her investigations.
/ Remedy Entertainment
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Remedy Entertainment
Saga Anderson, performed by Melanie Liburd, in one of her "profiling" sessions in her Mind Place — the mental space you'll use to connect the dots of her investigations.

The expanded scope, however, doesn't come without some headaches. Forests aren't just menacing — they're maddening. Twice I ventured down what seemed to be a viable path and Anderson literally turned around, refusing to go further. The first boss soaks bullets as much as any Resident Evil monstrosity, but doesn't telegraph how you're actually supposed to beat him. Granted, the combat isn't designed to deliver the super-powered spectacle that defined Control (the last game in the now-plausibly named Remedy Connected Universe), but it didn't need to feel so ponderous either.

Thankfully, an unhinged plot elevates the otherwise finicky experience. Anderson accepts the fact that she's in a horror story unblinkingly, though she's understandably irritated by the locals who claim to recognize her from a tragic past visit she doesn't recall. She's joined by Alex Casey, who shares the same name, voice and appearance as Wake's fictional detective — though he insists he couldn't possibly be the same person.

Putting on a show

It's here where the game comes off most as a vanity project. You see, Sam Lake, the game's co-writer and co-creator, performs as Alex Casey. James McCaffrey, star of Lake's 2001 hit Max Payne (whose titular character also bore Lake's likeness) provides his voice. At one point he's even introduced on a surreal live-action talk show as Sam Lake, the "actor" portraying Casey in filmed adaptations of Wake's novels. It is, as the talk show host so eagerly tells us, very meta.

Sam Lake, as the "actor" playing the in-game fictional detective Alex Casey, next to Ilkka Villi, playing Alan Wake.
/ Remedy Entertainment
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Remedy Entertainment
Sam Lake, as the "actor" playing the in-game fictional detective Alex Casey, next to Ilkka Villi, playing Alan Wake.

Grating as this premise might seem, however, it's also unexpectedly joyous. Sure, there are murder cults and uncanny doppelgangers — but there's also hilariously on-the-nose dream graffiti, a friendly metaphysical janitor, and even a live-action heavy metal musical! Much as the game's jump-scares may make you scream, its self-referential flourishes are more likely to make you smile.

While it lacks the gleaming polish of this year's Dead Space and Resident Evil 4 remakes, Alan Wake 2 is earnest and undeniably ambitious. I'm glad Remedy's still making odd FMV/action hybrids, and I hope they never stop.

Required reading

But what if your dreadful Halloween hunger demands more? Fear not; we've been playing and reviewing horror games all year — here are five of our favorites:

Dead Space

The Dead Space remake proves that a timeless game built on a solid foundation can feel as fresh in 2023 as it felt in 2008 — for newcomers and aficionados alike. Aside from some script changes and a newly voiced protagonist, the new game plays nearly identically to the original, with updated visuals and audio that amplify the terrifying ambience of its monster-ridden spaceship. — Andy Bickerton & Bryant Denton, contributors

Dredge

I did not expect "horror fishing" to become my new favorite video game niche. [...] The sad, pirate-y music and gloomy art style throw you right into the paranoia and anxiety that you'd feel when piloting a boat in the dead of night on a haunted ocean. Whether you're in it for the murky, Lovecraftian story or just hankering for some old-fashioned fishing mechanics, Dredge gets it right. — Graham Rebhun, software engineer, Programming

Nothing to see here. Just a happy animatronic puppet on an entirely normal night.
/ DreadXP
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DreadXP
Nothing to see here. Just a happy animatronic puppet on an entirely normal night.

My Friendly Neighborhood

[D]espite its many homages, My Friendly Neighborhood is remarkably fresh and fun. It's rare for a video game world to not feel done to death, but the Sesame Street-style sets are genuinely interesting places to inspect and explore. It refuses to let its foot off the gas, constantly introducing new scenarios and mechanics. [...] Since it lacks blood and gore, it's also a great pick for the squeamish out there looking for a virtual horror fix. — Vincent Acovino, assistant producer, All Things Considered

Paranormasight: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo

Paranormasight begins with a ghastly, supernatural killing. At first I thought the game just wanted to freak me out, but I soon fell into its spiraling web of conspiracy and lore. By the end of the adventure, I'd become a paranormal mastermind in what's ultimately a more cerebral than shocking horror experience. [...] While its blockbuster Final Fantasy 16 may get all of the attention, don't pass on this little gem from Square Enix. — James Mastromarino, gaming editor and Here & Now producer

Resident Evil 4

Resident Evil 4 is a victory lap for what has been called the new "golden age" of Capcom. The developers didn't play it safe, but took big design swings that make RE4 feel like a brand new game. It is an ode and companion to a classic rather than a play-by-play re-creation. — Vincent Acovino, assistant producer, All Things Considered

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

James Perkins Mastromarino
James Perkins Mastromarino is Here & Now's Washington, D.C.-based producer. He works with NPR's newsroom on a daily whirlwind of topics that range from Congress to TV dramas to outer space. Mastromarino also edits NPR's Join the Game and reports on gaming for daily shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition.