Friday, January 26, 2024 07:50 PM

Alan Wake 2 is all over the place

in Video Gaming | Game Reviews by MegaBearsFan

Alan Wake 2 - title

I'll give Remedy this bit of credit: in a world overrun with soul-less, design-by-committee, live-services and vehicles for micro-transaction economies, Alan Wake 2 is a game that actually has a strong creative vision and personality. It follows in the footsteps of Hideo Kojima and Death Stranding by being completely confident in itself and being un-abashedly weird. And just like with Death Stranding, that means that sometimes Alan Wake 2 is genius; other times it's confoundingly stupid and hackneyed!

It's hard even to classify Alan Wake 2 into a single genre. That goes for both narrative genre and also ludic genre. In both cases, it's kind of all over the place. At the most reductionist level, it follows the basic formula of a modern horror game: exploring creepy environments to find keys for doors, fighting monsters as an over-the-shoulder 3rd-person shooter, solving puzzles, and managing a limited inventory. So it's a "horror game", right? In fact, sometimes, it's seriously scary and disturbing. But other times, I'm questioning its "horror" status while I'm laughing out loud to a deliberate joke, or bored out of my mind because nothing scary or particularly exciting has happened in hours. Yet other times still, it's farcically campy or schlocky, and un-intentionally laughable. It's story is ridiculously out there in its concepts and execution, but somehow every beat of the plot is set up and signposted as clearly and obviously as the neon signs that point the player to the next objective in the Dark Place.

Plot twists are signposted more clearly and obviously than the neon signs that often guide the player through levels.

It's also frequently up its own ass. It is, after all, a fictional story about the power of fiction to alter reality (and our perception of reality). It even features the lead designer as a self-insert character within the story. Though surprisingly, he made himself a secondary character instead of one of the 2 playable protagonists. So it's not really about him, but he still found a way to make the entire plot revolve around that secondary character.

In the mind's eye

I feel that Alan Wake 2 is consistently at its best when its sitting firmly in its horror-mystery mode. As such, the opening couple hours of the game really pulled me in and hooked me. The game's main quest and side content are split up into various "cases" for the FBI agent protagonists to solve. There's a mechanic in which the player can retreat into Agent Saga Anderson's "Mind Space", which is an imaginary office room in which she sorts through all the clues she's gathered and strings them together on an imaginary wall in order to fit the puzzle pieces of the mystery together. Each time the player discovers a critical piece of information in the game world, it will show up in the Mind Space's filing cabinet as a new file in a case folder. Putting the clues together in the right way will unlock new lines of inquiry, and can even reveal the next objective.

Agent Anderson can review the known evidence in her imaginary Mind Space office.

Apparently, the actual game doesn't even pause, and continues to play in the background while the player is in the Mind Space. Even though the Mind Space is a full-screen environment, the character can still be attacked by enemies in the "real world". At first, I thought this would be obnoxious, but after the first time I was attacked while trying to re-arrange items on the case board in the Mind Space, I learned my lesson. After that, I actually came to realize that that needing to find a safe, peaceful space in order to let the character think about clues they've discovered (and how to proceed), really helps to emphasize the danger and stakes of the situation.

Arranging the clues in the Mind Space is not very difficult or complicated. It's not like having to solve a person's fate in Return of the Obra Dinn, or anything like that. Most of the time, the process is just going through the motions. Even when there are multiple options for where a piece of evidence can go, the solution can be easily brute-forced without the player having to know anything about what's going on.

The Case Board is an immersive quest log and objective tracker.

Even so, the Mind Space is a creative idea for presenting objectives, quest logs, story summaries, and characterization. The Mind Space at least tries to force the player to have to engage with the events of the story in a meaningful and immersive way. The player has to at least pretend to know how the various events of the story, the characters, and the McGuffins you find all fit together in the broader story in order to progress the main story or side quests.

And in fact, the entire game is about the interplay between the audience and the fiction. For most of the story, it's about the ability of fiction to re-shape people's perception of reality, but as the game goes on, it becomes more and more about the audience's ability to shape or re-shape the actual fiction. It emphasizes that any creative work is made up of both the voices of its creator(s) and also the interpretation and reception of the audience. This has always been true, with all forms of fiction and story-telling, but it's even more true with video games.

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Amnesia: The Bunker - title

Amnesia: The Dark Descent almost single-handedly popularized the "hide and seek" and "run away" sub-genres of horror that would go on to influence everything from Outlast to >Observer_, and even the likes of P.T. and Visage (though I'm always surprised to remind myself that Silent Hill: Shattered Memories actually preceded Amnesia by a whole year). Amnesia also remained one of the more mechanically complex horror games, as more and more horror games leaned harder and harder into the paradigm of the "unarmed, defenseless player character" and erred closer and closer to walking sims. But even though Amnesia retained more mechanical complexity and more genuine threat than its contemporaries, it (and its sequels) never hit the level of complexity and action of a classic survival horror game.

Survival horror seems to be going through a renaissance of late, thanks in large part to Capcom hitting it out of the park with most of recent Resident Evil games. As such, Frictional Games wastes no time in telling the player that Amnesia: The Bunker ain't no walking sim. This is a return to old-school survival horror, but with modern conventions and twists. I have not been this impressed or excited by the opening hour of a survival horror game since booting up Resident Evil VII for the first time.

Death from German machine guns? Or death from an eldritch Beast? Take your pick.

Bullets and draw strings

Within the opening minutes of Amnesia: The Bunker, the player is dropped into a World War I trench with nothing but an empty revolver. There's no HUD at all. In order to check how many bullets you have in the revolver, you have to open the cylinder and look at how many bullets are left. To reload, you have to open the cylinder, drop out the empty shell casings, and manually reload each new bullet one at a time. Aiming and firing the gun is slow, clunky, and imprecise. There is also an ability to lean around corners and aim the gun.

After a short gun fighting tutorial in which the player is scripted to take damage, the game hands us some cloth with which to craft bandages. So the player has actual health, instead of just automatically healing over time, or losing sanity.

Then the game gives the player a flashlight. But unlike other contemporary horror games (or The Dark Descent), this flashlight doesn't run on batteries or oil. It has a simple friction motor that is recharged by repeatedly pulling a drawstring. Apparently, nothing in this game is going to be simple or effort-free. I do have to say though, that I wish the flashlight charge would last longer. Fumbling around in the dark to charge the flashlight (and risk making noise that could attract an enemy) is a wonderfully tense and anxiety-inducing mechanic, but having to do it every minute or 2 (whether there are threats present or not) gets tedious and annoying real quick. The fact that the light has to be recharged multiple times to explore a single moderately-sized room at a modestly brisk pace should have been a red flag that the light doesn't last long enough.

The flashlight and revolver require deliberate engagement from the player to use.

And then, if this weren't already feeling like a real survival horror game, within an hour of starting, you'll wander into a save room, complete with an item storage box and a map showing objectives and puzzle locations. One could easily mistake this for Resident Evil. Below the save room is a gasoline generator, which burns fuel to keep the bunker's electricity and lights running. But the supply of oil is limited, and spread throughout the bunker. And a warning sign is printed next to it, saying that the "beast" prefers to hunt in the dark. Keeping this generator running is one of the key mechanics of the game, since it (not your flashlight) is the primary source of light, and also the primary defense against the Beast.

This opening hour or 2 is so perfectly exactly what I want in a horror game! It is slow, tense, and methodical. I'm 2 hours in, and I haven't even seen the monster yet; I've only heard its threatening growls and the sound of it scuttling around within the walls and ceiling, seemingly ready to pounce at any moment. The game is already mechanically rich and varied, and full of risk / reward mechanics. Light and sound are both thematic effects and also full-fledged mechanics with strategy associated with them. It has an ever-present sense of dread and danger. The existence of the save room and item box suggests actual stakes for failure, and the presence of healing items and fuel suggest that the battle against this Beast will be one of attrition. It's looking to be a modern take on classic survival horror from one of the studios that innovated modern horror gaming.

Can I just give it an A+ already and start singing its praises on social media and YouTube? Well, let's actually play it and make sure. You know, just for shits and giggles. I mean, I haven't even seen the monster yet, so I should probably get at least that before I make up my mind, right?

The opening hours feel like pitch-perfect, classic survival horror.
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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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