Note: This review was written in cooperation with Future Sack editor Annagram.
Thriller writer Alan Wake finds himself hunted by the Dark Presence that took his wife in the small town of Bright Falls, although there’s much more at stake, with his grip on sanity and reality slowly slipping away.
Greetings from TV and movies
The popular culture references to movies and books like The Shining (and in general Stephen King’s work) or TV shows like Twin Peaks are obvious, but it doesn’t mean that the story about a writer’s fiction coming to life in a town full of eccentric people doesn’t offer a few surprises. Like the Max Payne games before, genre conventions are used to play with the audience’s expectation, just to throw them overboard in the course of events. The more the plot develops, the more one falls into narrative traps until one doesn’t really know what’s going on. What first seems to be a simple case of Wake’s wife’s disappearance soon turns into a meta-fictional journey through the writer’s mind.
While the number of characters he meets aren’t on par with Twin Peaks, they’re still memorable, even if some references are almost too much, like Cynthia Weaver, the “Lady of the Light” who instead of carrying a log with her (like the Log Lady), has a lantern in her arms. Still, despite the obvious small town weirdness, it’s the surrounding area that is even more immersive. Driving around mountain roads, visiting abandoned buildings or a lodge, and looking at the expansive landscape is already impressive. But one even learns more about the region when reading signs that tell something about the region’s history, therefore making it a believable setting that would have made for a great open-world game.
Writing about writing and playing the writer’s writing
Before one dives into the game, expecting a straightforward mystery story, one should be aware that the meta-fictional elements become more and more prominent the further one progresses. Alan’s rambling about writing and his psychological state can get a bit tiresome after a while, and even if he’s an interesting character fleshed out in flashbacks, one can get a headache with all the twists and turns the story takes (even more so in the DLCs, but more about these later).
It’s also worth mentioning that collecting manuscript pages, while not essential (at least in the main game), complicates matters even further and at the same time gives an interesting spin on typical storytelling techniques. These pages contain parts of past, present, and even future events Alan witnesses, witnessed or will witness. It sounds crazy and makes one’s head spin, but it’s a great way to learn more about what is really going on, while being playful with meta-fiction. Completing the game and then playing through it again on “Nightmare” adds even more manuscript pages so that one will have to look everywhere to unlock the whole story. The idea to present the chapters in episodes works extremely well, as each one closes with a cliffhanger and a song (which unfortunately led to the expiring of music licenses and therefore digital removal) and starts with a recap of the previous one. Unfortunately, the quality varies as much as the length of the episodes which is mainly due to the gameplay.
Light, fire, rinse, repeat… laugh about it
A lot of good things can be said about the plot, character development and especially atmosphere. Unfortunately it’s the gameplay that disappoints the most, which is down to repetitiveness. While there is an interesting mix of adventure and action elements, the latter prevails, as puzzles usually revolve around finding a switch, key, or interacting with the environment in other ways. Talking to people is pretty linear as well, even so much so that they stop walking if one stops walking or that two characters’ voices can’t be heard if one decides to deviate from the written path and explore the surrounding area.
What sets the game apart from other third-person shooters and survival horror games is the use of light (although it’s not too dissimilar to Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare) that robs shadow enemies (called The Taken) of their darkness, making them vulnerable to weapon attacks. This is done by shining with one’s flashlight (or stronger light sources) on them. A sort of light aura around them depleting shows how strong they are and by using flares or much more effective flashbangs their shields can be broken down faster. Shootouts can become very intense and explosive, especially with the sheer number of enemies attacking from all sides. It’s possible to evade their attacks, but it happens too often that one is hit from behind without having a chance to react, due to camera issues. It’s a frustrating experience that takes away much of the joy the game holds in setting, characters, and plot. Enemy types not being very varied doesn’t help, with boss fights not being much different and the A.I. not being the brightest bulb in the darkness, either.
Sometimes it’s advisable to simply run towards light sources that serve as safe havens and checkpoints with so many unfair gunfights, although Alan’s stamina stands in the way of achieving this goal every time. If these encounters weren’t enough, after some point in the story objects and even whole cars are thrown at the player which aren’t always easy to evade and have to be fought with flashlight, flares, and flash bangs. Crow attacks add to the frustration, so that one is lucky to get from one checkpoint to the next, especially in a few segments where ammunition for pistol, shotgun, flare gun, and rifle is spare, turning the game more into a survival horror game.
While this might all sound very negative, especially for a playtime that drags on, one should persevere, as there are some pretty cool set-pieces in the middle and near the end of the game. Without spoiling too much, suffice it to say that Alan’s agent, Barry, has some great one-liners and doesn’t only serve as comic relief, with a cool shooting-while-rocking-out scene that again shows that Remedy Entertainment can mix humor and drama like very few developers.
Collecting, listening, viewing
This can also be seen in the TV and radio shows one finds throughout the game. While these are optional, they still make for a much-needed break from all the shooting, running, and jumping around, even revealing some additional info about characters and plot holes in the case of the radio shows. The “Night Springs” episodes on TV screens are very entertaining, as they use real actors and are reminiscent of the Twilight Zone. Even if the acting isn’t the best due to the involvement of the development team and no real actors involvement, the stories are inventive, funny, violent, and creepy at the same time, making them a joy to discover.
One can also try to find other collectibles, like coffee thermoses, in addition to doing other open-world nonsense, but these activities are for completionists only, as they don’t offer much reward. As the dark surroundings and some light sources are irritating, it’s easy to overlook them, though, and with the game often closing off certain parts of the environment due to its linearity, one should decide if these are worth the time.
Aging well with sounds and visuals
Even if the original Xbox 360 game is already 7 years old (and the PC version 5), it still looks pretty good. The reason for this is that the PC conversion takes advantage of quad core CPUs and supports higher resolutions as well as the AMD Eyefinity 3D 3-screen mode. While I haven’t tried this new technology (with only one non-3D screen), the graphics are superb with great lighting and water effects as well as convincing character models. The cinematic cutscenes are also of a very high quality, as are the cool slow-motion effects. Together with good if sometimes exaggerated voice acting and a great soundtrack, the cinematic presentation shows its AAA heritage.
More Alan Wake
Playing through the game is only the beginning, as the DLC’s The Signal and The Writer continue the story and are the closest one can come to a sequel. Ironically, where other DLCs fall into the category of just-more-levels-without-any-new-ideas, these surpass the base game in originality and even gameplay. While the core shine-and-fire formula remains and some settings are recycled, these episodes are much more experimental and surprising. With playtime of around 1-2 hours each, they don’t outstay their welcome and offer a unique twist on the meta-fiction elements, as Alan is now able to write his surroundings into existence by shining his flashlight at words which turn into things, people, and buildings. It sounds crazy and it certainly is. With more nightmarish sequences and settings that constantly change, the story becomes more convoluted but also more interesting. If one already had problems with the base game, then these episodes will boggle the mind even further, but in a good way if one accepts that nothing is as it seems.
Unforgettable if flawed experience
Alan Wake is a game that came with a very long production time of 5 years and received as much praise as disappointment. Even after all these years, it’s difficult to pinpoint what it actually is. It might not be the revelation the Max Payne games were in terms of bullet-time shooter mechanics, because the light/darkness gameplay becomes rather repetitive with samey enemy types. But compared to other third-person shooters or survival horror games, it has a deep story dealing with meta-fictional elements in a way that require full attention to details and patience, something that is usually lost in most shooters.
Playing the DLCs is a must if one wants to experience the whole story and go through some mind-altering sequences one won’t easily forget. It still looks and sounds great, so hopefully the current state of not being available in digital form will not last forever, because despite its gameplay problems, there’s simply nothing quite like the story about a writer fighting against a darkness that takes people and storytelling to unseen places.
If you’re wondering what happened to Alan Wake 2, then I have to disappoint you. It simply never happened (at least not in name, but in another spiritual form with the release of Quantum Break), although there’s a longer DLC called Alan Wake’s American Nightmare the Xbox 360 version of which I already reviewed here. Fortunately this one is still available online, as it doesn’t face the music rights problems of the original.
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