A tiring crescendo of fights and frights.
Alan Wake (the guy) hasn't had any less of a tumultuous road. Writer's block prevented the celebrated horror author from putting anything on paper in two years and his desperation-fuelled mood swings have put a dent in his marriage. To escape the pressure and expectations surrounding him in the big city, he is taken on vacation to the tranquil town of Bright Falls by his wife Alice. Little did she know that the idyllic retreat is littered with things that go bump in the night, and it turns out that in Bright Falls these things bump pretty hard; supernatural powers snatch Alice no sooner than they arrive and Alan regains consciousness in a crashed car the very next moment, seemingly missing a week between the disappearance of Alice and his reawakening.
The set-up is really good, if not a little heavy-handed at times. Of course it turns out the rented lakeside cabin in which the couple unpacked their suitcases, was actually destroyed decades ago. Of course Alan's frantic testimonies to the local police are met with disbelief. Of course, because that's how it's supposed to go in these stories.
And Remedy should know, as it's so infatuated with the source material that Alan Wake teeters on the edge of mad lib. "A big city guy in a quiet strange town" could very well have been the pitch for Twin Peaks, there's a deliciously hammy (and fully acted!) Twilight Zone knockoff that's a few episodes long and the game even namedrops The Shining in its opening, going so far as to copy the "Here's Johnny!"-scene, albeit with a little less pizzazz (and a little more product placement). It's all about as subtle as a punch to the face.
Even in its presentation Alan Wake reads like a love-letter to shock and schlock. The game is structured like a television show with the story divided over six episodes complete with cliffhanger endings, "previously on"-openings and a licensed soundtrack to roll credits to, though the highly cinematic approach is marred by an omnipresent HUD. Its biggest wink, however, takes the form of collectible manuscript pages of a story Alan had thought up, but never actually written down, a story Alan Wake now finds himself trapped in. They are scattered from pillar to post, often describing scenes that will happen in the game sooner or later.
Naturally, sticking to genre giants means sticking to genre trappings, and no matter how hard Alan Wake tries to establish a believable mythos, it remains confined to a clew of dubious decisions and calculable mishaps that any sane person would never make or undergo. Since enemies are only abound in darkness, the writers had to tiptoe around daytime sections for the game to actually be a game, so whether Alan's drugged, jailed or waiting for someone who never shows up, the constant coincidences that turn day into night at the start of each episode coupled with the non-stop malchance that forces Alan from point A to point B in a curvy doodle instead of a straight line, inspire a feeling of predictability, up to the point where "just going along with it" becomes a hard thing to do.
Yet, despite its predictabilities, help for Alan comes in clever and unexpected ways. When the few people who do believe his story include an elderly woman obsessed with light bulbs, a spectre in a 70's diving suit and a pair of drugged-out former metal band members who pray to the Nordic gods, well, you probably can't even imagine the situations you end up in.
But Alan Wake has more crutches than just its storytelling, atmosphere too is an impressive feature. Since the theme is light versus dark, the game was going to live or die by its lighting, and Remedy has crafted a gorgeous and realistic engine in support of it. The way the moonlight breaks through the branches, or how the screen is flooded with a warm light when you face one of the high-power lamps is nothing short of breath-taking, especially when placed in stark contrast with the blackness of the outdoors. The whole forest and assorted cabins and paths form an incredibly moody backdrop that's worth going through, even if it is with the sprint-button on cruise control. Which brings me to my biggest issue with Alan Wake: it has the pacing of a shooter, but not the gameplay to back it up.
In fact, Alan Wake does away with the joy of shooters altogether: there's no instant gratification. Instead of aiming and pushing a button to tally a kill, you must first focus your rapidly draining flashlight on your enemies to burn away their protective shadow, and once these shields are gone enemies still take multiple gunshots to kill. In essence, you're killing every enemy twice. That doesn't mean it's bad, though. The mechanism itself feels great and the combat would actually have been a blast if the game was lenient in its enemy placement, but it isn't. They loom around every corner, making each step you take a precarious endeavour. By the end, I just couldn't be bothered dealing with the repetitive combat anymore and just ran passed everything, and since Alan Wake takes maybe six hours to finish as is, that's saying something.
Making matters worse is a constant inventory-loss. You start each episode empty-handed, and sometimes the game doesn't even wait for a new episode to pull a Metroid. It feels like a constant abilitease, even though most power-ups are either a slightly better weapon or a slightly better flashlight. At first I was okay with this because I thought that, for as long as I'm unarmed, no enemies will come after me. I thought wrong.
Combat is further hampered by the annoying staggered-when-hit animation, almost as if Alan takes each punch in slow motion while the world spins around him at normal speed. Knowing that some enemies deal three-hit-combos, it's ridiculous to think that even with full health, you won't survive the crossfire of two enemies. If you're lucky, you might squeeze in a dodge or a flare between the hit animations. If not, well, back to the checkpoint.
This will happen more often than you might think, by the way. The enemies tend to materialise out of thin air and as such, no place is ever really safe. A hallway you double-checked on your way through could fill up with enemies a few seconds later, so don't be surprised to get a couple of axes thrown into your back. The game also isn't shy of opening an occasional monster closet that spawns enemies ad infinitum: when the clouds start shifting like crazy, you better not linger. It makes hunting for the absurd amount of collectibles (including radio broadcasts, coffee thermoses, television shows, manuscript pages, hidden equipment caches and information boards) an unnecessary risk, punishing instead of rewarding.
It also doesn't do anything creative with its combat, happily falling back on its tried and true mechanism for its three enemy variants; common possessed, poltergeists and birds, the latter two of which can only be killed by keeping a light fixated on them. Poltergeists take possession of whatever lies around (be it a refrigerator or a locomotive) and fling it at you at high speed while birds are simply swarms of crows whose swooping attacks are forgone by a screech, but without being able to tell what direction they're coming from (and not having the time to find out) your only viable weapon against them is a fairly non-lethal flare.
Yes, your standard shooter arsenal of handguns, shotguns and rifles is enriched by flares, flash bangs and flare guns (mini rocket launchers, if you will) and you'll bump into other useful machinery along the way; floodlights that may or may not require you to mini-game your way through a generator activation first, or cars whose headlights rip through enemy shields like a knife through butter make quick work of the forces of darkness. Of course, the times you can actually get in a car and turn your rivals into roadkill are few and far between, and clogged tunnels and broken bridges will force you back on your feet soon enough.
But light is more important than just weaponry; running into a wayside lantern's cone of light will save your game, dispose of any enemies near you and bring you back to full strength, and the lamps you see in the distance indicate where you need to go next. Multi-functional indeed.
The five year development cycle definitely hasn't gone to waste since the production values are top notch. Character models seem a tad unfinished (with the exception of Alan) the lip synching has some distracting issues and the framerate can't always cope with what's on screen but overall, the experience is a very smooth and eye-pleasing one with some neat slow-mo effects where appropriate.
Sound design has been given an equal amount of care with plenty of eerie sound fx for the whistling of the wind and the creaking of wood. In true Remedy-fashion the brooding, eponymous main character monologues his way through the goings-on in Bright Falls while radio broadcasts will clue you in on how other inhabitants are dealing with the surrealism. The writing is perfectly in line with what it's supposed to be; a sense of silly seriousness that all voice-actors are in on, though Alan himself often comes across as a belligerent jerk, even before he has a reason to be.
There's a lot to like in Alan Wake. It controls, looks and sounds fantastic, but its design feels like a blueprint for another type of game. Some restraint in the combat would've gone a long way toward making this game a whole lot better, but as is, it's a nerve-wrecking, bullet-riddled lightshow through and through, and I can't help but feel how this issue would've been averted by the open world gameplay that'd allow gamers to pace themselves a little better. You'll have seen most of what the game has to offer in the first hour or so, but the well-written story will keep you hooked until the very end. In that regard, Alan Wake (the guy) has proven that he's still very much capable of penning a captivating ghost story.