Alan Wake: The Signal Review

The story in Alan Wake's first downloadable episode lacks a purpose, but exciting combat and a moody atmosphere make this a good addition.

Alan Wake has a tenuous grasp on reality. The Signal is the first episode of downloadable content for the nighttime survival-horror game, and in it the troubled author is trapped in his own slowly unraveling mind. Just like in the original game, the story is inextricably tied to the gameplay, using thoughtful narration to slowly develop why the world seems to be crumbling all around you. Unfortunately, the surreal nature of the tale makes it difficult to empathize with Alan's struggles, and with only a loosely defined goal at the end, the entire episode feels oddly directionless. However, where the story falters, the gameplay shines through. The foreboding atmosphere and novel combat have been carried over unchanged, so while you may not care about why you're fighting, at least combat is fun. Despite the story's missteps, this DLC is still a worthy addendum to the main game.

The story in the original Alan Wake had an ambiguous ending, but it still provided an interesting resolution to your horror-filled adventure. By the end of the main game, Alan's biggest issues had been resolved in the real world, which means your struggles in The Signal take place entirely within his mind. This gives the episode a surreal bent in which rules are continually broken and you can't trust anything that you see. It's a neat concept, but there is little motivating force to push you along the path. Unlike in the original game where you desperately tried to rescue your kidnapped wife, there isn't much of a goal to strive for, so it feels as if you're walking where you're told to without a reason. The ending does little to clear up these issues, making the entire experience feel lacking because no significant progress has been made.

The most disappointing aspect of The Signal is that there aren't any story-related collectibles to seek out during your quest. In the main game, there were manuscript pages to read, radio spots to listen to, and television shows to watch, and these rewarded adventurers who traveled off the beaten path. All of these were instrumental in drawing you into this world and connecting you to the characters. However, none of these optional pieces are included in this DLC, which makes the adventure feel hollow. Instead, there are 10 alarm clocks to find buried among the fallen trees and brittle rubble. These clocks certainly tie in to the idea that Alan desperately needs to wake up, but like the main game's coffee thermoses, they're ultimately empty collectibles that don't add anything of substance to the story.

Although the story is just an empty shell in The Signal, the gameplay is able to rise up in its place. The frantic action from the main game has been replicated beautifully here. The taken are just as aggressive as ever, and there are many situations in which you're completely surrounded by these evil demons and you need to use all of your wits, plus any bullets you have handy, to stay alive. For the most part, the encounters are similar to what you would find in the main game, but there is one twist that separates these fights from the expected. Alan's active imagination sees words strewn across the environment, and if you shine your flashlight on them, the item you illuminate appears in your reality. For instance, you get ammo and weapons by shining your light on "tools," a "bomb" can be exploded to clear out enemies, and you can conjure a "bridge" out of thin air. This technique was briefly in the original game, but it has been greatly expanded here and makes fights more unpredictable.

Television sets show up in the darnedest places in The Signal.
Television sets show up in the darnedest places in The Signal.

The chilling atmosphere that made Alan Wake such a scary experience has been replicated faithfully in The Signal. Many of the environments you travel through have been borrowed from the original game, but they have been changed in the transition. Because this episode takes place entirely within Alan's mind, the world has undergone some transformations. A plot of land that was empty before may be populated by a forest of scrawny trees now, or a road may have been torn asunder by an invisible hand. These changes keep this content from feeling like a retread of the original game, and the ominous atmosphere does a great job of sucking you in. Also, any people you meet along the way have a translucent sheen so you can look right through them if your angle is right. These apparitions, like everything else, have been formed in Alan's head, and the conversations you have with them are an interesting way to further develop Alan's character.

Although the story in The Signal isn't nearly as impactful nor as focused as what was found in the original game, the rest of this episode lives up to what came before it. The thrilling combat is harder than it was the first time around, which makes it even more satisfying when you finally kill the last taken. And the creepy atmosphere creates a tense mood in which every gust of wind makes you jump with fear at some unseen presence. The Signal can be downloaded for free by anyone who purchased Alan Wake new, but for everyone else, this DLC cost $7. The directionless story keeps The Signal from being a must-play for Alan Wake fans clamoring for closure, but this is still an enjoyable add-on with many intense moments.

The Good

  • Imaginative combat scenarios
  • Environmental changes make everything look fresh
  • Atmosphere is still creepy

The Bad

  • Story lacks direction
  • No cool collectibles to hunt for

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