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The RPS Advent Calendar 2023, December 21st

Hark! The herald of darkness sings

A close up of Horace the Endless Bear looking at a big pile of presents with his name on, next to a plate of cookies with a glass of milk. It's the 2023 RPS Advent Calendar!
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

Before you open this door on the Advent Calendar, make sure you have enough batteries for your mega-powered torch. The environment be damned, throw those spent batts on the floor where you stand and open-palm slam the new ones in, because light is the only way you're getting out of here alive.

That and fabulous dance sequences, that is! Say hello to Alan Wake 2!

A train station decorated with the lights and symbolism of a cult hideout in Alan Wake 2
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Epic Games Publishing

Katharine: 2023 may be a year that's best remembered for its great RPGs, but I reckon it will also go down as a pretty good year for survival horror, too. After all, it began with some of the best all-time great excavations of the genre's former glory (looking at you, Dead Space and Resi 4 remakes), and ended with what can only be a glimpse into its weird and wonderful future with Alan Wake 2.

It can be a bit of a hard sell, picking up the story of a game that first came out 13 years ago, and I would honestly still recommend playing the first one (or at least watching a recap video) beforehand to give yourself the best experience. But Alan Wake 2 still does a pretty good job of getting its players up to speed with what's been happening in the Washington state town of Bright Falls since our last outing here, and that's all thanks to the introduction of new deuteragonist and FBI agent Saga Anderson.

Saga is, hands down, one of the best female characters I've come across since, well, I don't know. Alyx Vance? Aliya Elasra from Heaven's Vault? She's excellent fun, is what I'm saying, and her no-nonsense, level-headed approach to solving a string of strange, ritualistic murders makes her feel both refreshing, capable and easy to warm to. Her outsider perspective grounds the story in a way that nervous wreck Alan simply can't all by himself, and the way she so confidently steps into Alan's old shoes of the torch-wielding, gun-toting mystery-hunter is almost enough to make the last 13 years melt away in an instant.

And yet, so much has changed during that time in Bright Falls, not least for poor old Alan, who's been stuck in the alternate reality known as The Dark Place ever since the conclusion of Alan Wake 1. His sections play like a living nightmare, bringing to bear over a decade's worth of technical advancements to create a realm where ghosts and spectres haunt the streets with menacing overtones, and the shifting, kaleidoscopic walls of reality twist and bend to the will of some greater, evil power. Alan still has his trusty torch and gun to keep the darkness at bay, but he must also use his talents as a writer to literally rewrite the scenes in front of him to find an escape. It's very artfully done, and if we ever see a more confident realisation of what it is to be trapped inside a dreamlike hellscape, we'll be in for a right old treat indeed.

Saga looks at a crime board in her mind palace in Alan Wake 2
Image credit: IEpic Games Publishing
A dishevelled and panicked Alan Wake wakes up on a lakeside in an Alan Wake 2 cutscene.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Epic Games Publishing

Admittedly, you could argue that Alan's sections leave Saga's feeling quite pedestrian by comparison, but it's precisely this contrast between the sane, logical reality of Saga's problem-solving and the nightmarish, visceral duplicity of Alan's life inside The Dark Place that makes this game feel so uniquely singular. One cannot exist with the other, and the ways they dovetail and intersect with each other provide some of the most visually impressive moments I've seen in any game all year. Indeed, Alan Wake 2 is positively stuffed with such graphical jaw-droppers, from its (quite literal) all-singing, all-dancing set pieces to single quiet corridors where one reality bleeds into the next so convincingly that it takes your breath away. Remedy have always been experimental in the way they make their games, but Alan Wake 2 pushes the envelope even further, creating a horror experience that draws as many gasps of shock as it does of amazement.

There really is nothing quite like it, this year or otherwise, and I cannot wait to see what the next decade of Remedy games bring after this.

Alice Bee: When I played some of the original Alan Wake earlier this year, I was disappointed because nobody had ever bothered to tell me Alan is basically Garth Marenghi. If they had, I would have played it much sooner. Alan Wake 2 feels like it leans into the genre of it all much more, both taking itself less seriously (and therefore being better) and doing as much multimedia vamping as it can. It's great! And I maintain that a lot of the critical discussion of Alan Wake hasn't fully engaged with the strong element of complete and utter nonsense that I find every time I play it. Sam Lake is in it as about a million different characters, leading me to suspect that our ostensibly real life version of him is in fact not a real life person at all. Saga, canonically, has investigative ideas manually, where she goes into a Mind Place in her head, which is a replica of their field office in town, and walks around looking at imaginary files and pinning evidence to an imaginary wall before she can come to a fairly obvious conclusion. And this takes place in real time! She just goes AFK in front of people whenever she thinks! It's ridiculous (complimentary).

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Alan Wake 2

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