Darkness is a powerful force. Not knowing what lies beyond the safety of the light can be absolutely terrifying to those with an overactive imagination. But fearful fantasy turns deadly in the bucolic town of Bright Falls, Washington, where the whispering shadows hold untold horrors that reach out from the darkness. Alan Wake spins into an intensely atmospheric psychological thriller that bends the barrier between reality and fiction until it snaps, delivering a chilling story-driven experience without leaning too heavily on schlocky gore. With a beautifully updated graphics engine and free pack-in downloadable content that fills in some of the gaps left by the original's cliff-hanger ending, the PC version is worth the long wait.
For successful big-city writer Alan Wake, a much-needed vacation to the remote countryside turns nightmarish as he is beset by demonic beasts and haunted by a malevolent paranormal presence that seeks to destroy him. When Wake's wife goes missing from their lakeside cabin retreat, he sets out into the dark woods to find her and winds up a protagonist in his own horror novel--one he doesn't remember ever writing. Unfolding across six TV-show-like episodes, the main story features top-notch suspense packed with memorable characters, humorous moments, bizarre plot twists, and an abundance of eeriness. Wake's narration of each freaky event as it unfolds in and around Bright Falls weaves an inner monologue laced with self-doubt and disbelief. It makes him an intriguing, troubled character and serves as one of many effective storytelling mechanics put into play.
Manuscript pages found scattered throughout each chapter flesh out the tale in other ways too, offering backstory and perspective on the creepy town, its people, and what's happening to them. These snippets of narrative text are most potent when they describe horrific foreshadowed events that have yet to happen to Wake. It's pleasantly nerve-racking to pick up a page that describes a gruesome encounter only to realize a few minutes later that you've just stumbled into the setting where its about to take place. Alan Wake's classy horror vibe relies on escalating tension and building suspense to keep you hooked. You might not jump out of your chair outright, but expect sweaty palms and general anxiousness at every turn on the gripping trek through this unsettling tale.
Bright Falls is anything but--the gloomy mountainside town is a patchwork of gas stations, a small downtown with shops and houses, a radio station, a sawmill, an abandoned farm, underground mines, scattered pockets of communities, and lots of wilderness. It's an isolated place cloaked in dark mystery, which provides a fitting, rural setting for the supernatural adventure to play out. Exploring the diverse terrain through each distinct area, often with little more than a flashlight or dim lamp in the distance to light the way, is simply captivating. These remote vistas were hauntingly beautiful on the Xbox 360, but the extra visual details, enhanced lighting, and overall crispness found in the PC version make it even more impressive. While some of the character animations feel a little jerky and dated at times, the tightly crafted presentation gives off a great moody atmosphere.
More than just a thematic hook to hang the journey on, light and darkness are integral components of Alan Wake's unique combat system. The demonically possessed entities that come howling out of the woods at Wake are sensitive to light. Using flares, flashlights, flashbang grenades, and other sources of bright illumination is the only way to hold them at bay and weaken the beasts enough to finish them off with a revolver, shotgun, hunting rifle, or another conventional weapon you pick up along the way. Other times light alone suffices, like when murders of crows swarm at you from the skies or when inanimate objects suddenly spring to life and hurtle toward you fueled by raw evil.
Thankfully, venturing off the obvious path reveals secret stashes to help in the fight. Scrounging every hiding spot for ammo and batteries turns into an obsession, and the stretches where these precious resources dwindle often lead to moments of panic-stricken chaos as you frantically try to dodge and weave your way to the nearest light source to escape being ripped apart. Since stopping foes requires a sustained blast of light that drains your flashlight, you're often forced to use it conservatively while also tackling large gangs of insidious creatures. This injects tension into every surprise encounter. It's a great, crafty battle system, even if the initial thrill it provides wanes slightly further in the game when such encounters become more predictable.
In addition to the main story campaign, the PC version includes two DLC installments, The Signal and The Writer, that serve as a two-part continuation of the main plot and delve deeper into Wake's troubled psyche with a more surreal take on the twisted world he finds himself in. While the DLC gets off to a predictable start reminiscent of the main game, the second half breaks out of the box with weirder environments and a climactic conclusion. Even if they don't add much in terms of fresh gameplay, these story-expanding diversions do set things up for an eventual proper sequel and are absolutely worth playing.
Alan Wake feels right at home on the PC. While it retains some of the repetitive elements of the original console version, it does look prettier, and the extra content free of charge is a welcome addition to the package. Even the minor flaws are forgivable when you soak in the heady ambiance and get caught up in the foreboding current of this spook story. Killer storytelling, creative combat, and some of the slickest horror atmosphere you can find in a game make this supernatural showdown a memorable excursion to the dark side.