Developer: Remedy Entertainment
It’s difficult to categorise Alan Wake. What genre does it belong to? Is it survival-horror, or action-adventure? It certainly contains elements from both genres. Is it an homage to King and Lynch, or a pale shadow of its influences? It’s been incubating for half a decade, but is Alan Wake a cinematic dream, or a five year nightmare?
Welcome to Bright Falls
Alan Wake is a popular novelist, but for two long years, he’s barely written a shopping-list. He and his wife, Alice, plan a vacation to the idyllic resort of Bright Falls to recover. But when Alice disappears, Alan is plunged into a mystery where pages from a manuscript he can’t remember writing begin to come true.
A dark force is slowly consuming Bright Falls, changing its residents into the ‘Taken’, axe-wielding maniacs cloaked in shadow. It’s no doubt responsible for Alice’s disappearance, and seems intent on claiming Alan, too. But is this dark force a manifestation of Alan’s psyche, or a malevolent entity he cannot control nor defeat?
Steven King’s influence on Alan Wake is strong. The opening cinema, a flyover of Bright Falls sprawling forests and mountains, is evocative of The Shining. A struggling writer whose work comes to life? The Secret Window. Wake himself even reveals his admiration for King and how he’s shaped his writing.
Step into the Light
Light is Alan's only weapon against the darkness. Be it torch, flare or flashbang grenade. The dark force protects the 'Taken' and its possessed objects in shadows, and Alan must remove this barrier before he can defeat them. It's a tense but satisfying mechanic, as Alan struggles to hold his beam on an approaching 'Taken', whittling away their shield then unloading a few rounds from his revolver. Flashbangs clear swathes of 'Taken', and a flare-gun practically becomes a rocket-launcher.
What Alan Wake's combat best demonstrates is the frailty of its hero. Alan isn't a soldier. He struggles to defeat three or four 'Taken', let alone an army. What I found amusing about the Uncharted series, is how hard it tried to portray Drake as an everyman. An everyman who can climb crumbling ruins and engage well-armed military outfits. Alan is no such oxymoron. He's weak, slow and lacking in firepower, which means when he stumbles on a single 'Taken' wielding a chainsaw, it's an epic and potentially fatal encounter.
But repetition threatens to derail the Alan Wake experience. Over and over, you'll explore a path in the forest, or an abandoned logging site or coal-mine, run into 'Taken' and struggle to escape with your life. Now and again, you'll stumble on a car you can drive, but again it's linear and the controls fidgety. Set-piece moments pack cinematic flair, but fail to involve Alan beyond being an onlooker.
Previously, on Alan Wake
Alan Wake is structured like a TV series. Split into episodes instead of levels, it begins each episode with a recap of the last. The comparisons with the likes of Twin Peaks, The X-Files and Lost are apt. Gameplay segues seamlessly to cutscenes, the presentation is top-notch, the editing strong. Lip-syncing is quite awful, but the animation in general is comparable to Uncharted and even Heavy Rain.
It's quite incredible to look at, too. The realisation of Bright Falls is fantastic, and the small touches, like authentic machinery in the logging site or the scattered patio furniture in a trailer park, steep you in the universe Remedy has crafted. With light being Alan's best weapon against the darkness, special attention has been invested to ensure it looks and reacts in a convincing manner. The beam from Alan's flashlight illuminates individual leaves on a tree-branch, or if directed at an object or person, casts a realistic shadow on the wall behind. The vistas and backdrops are phenomenal.
But while the presentation, both in structure and aesthetic, is excellent, the story itself is a mixed bag. Riffing on the location of Twin Peaks, the mystery of Lost and the underlying mythology of The X-Files, Alan Wake seems like a dream. Problems stem from the actual writing itself. The dialogue can verge on fan-fiction quality, sometimes, and the actions of characters feel forced. Wake is a bland protagonist. He's essentially Mario, constantly searching for his Princess, except with a tendency to narrate matters and wear a hoodie underneath a blazer.
During the game, Alan stumbles on pages from the manuscript he apparently wrote, the same story that is coming true before his eyes. It's an interesting mechanic, as certain pages foreshadow events from the game, or flesh-out moments from the story when Alan wasn't present. But the writing is frankly awful, and Wake's insistence on narrating absolutely every moment in the game can grate.
Mind over Matter
Alan Wake is an altogether original experience. Like Heavy Rain, it values its story and the development of its characters above gameplay gimmicks and set-piece moments. In an ordinary game, roaming the woods for long passages of time would become boring. But the presentation, the atmosphere and the execution of Alan Wake lends these moments an oddly alluring charm. The story might not be original or even well-written, but at least it's not about marauding aliens or super-soldiers.
Personally, I feel Alan Wake would've benefited from being the sandbox title it was originally conceived as. I often found myself on a hillside overlooking Bright Falls and yearning to explore. I understand Remedy's desire to generate atmosphere and tension relies on linear and structured design, but when you consider the likes of Grand Theft Auto and Fable contain more surreptitious charm than any well-crafted action game, it forces you to wonder what an open-world Alan Wake could have been like.
- Original gameplay mechanics, light versus dark
- Excellent presentation and atmosphere
- Solid story
- Bad writing
- Linear and repetitive mission design
- Lip-syncing issues
Short Version: Alan Wake is a solid adventure game with survival-horror elements, structured in a very unique fashion. However, while the story is solid, the writing is flawed, and the game lacks variety and often drowns in repetition. But if you're in the market for something fresh and original, Alan Wake is most definitely the game for you.