Alan Wake (Review): A Beautiful Nightmare

Alan Wake is a beautiful, Lovecraftian nightmare. Written to resemble old television shows like the Twilight Zone, it feels like a Friday night from the ’90s watching horror movies in your living room with the lights off. As most of this game takes place in the dark, it’s also best played with the lights off. Developed by Remedy Entertainment and published by Microsoft, Alan Wake was a sleeper hit from 2010 that would go on to become a cult-classic amongst horror-survival fans and live in the backgrounds of future Remedy games like Quantum Break and last year’s Control. While a full sequel has never seen the light of day, Remedy continues to tease one to this very day. After all, despite how amazing the game is, it never truly answers the most important question regarding its main protagonist: What happened to Alan Wake?

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The game puts you in the shoes of writer Alan Wake, who, after writing several best-sellers featuring a character named Alex Casey, finds himself crippled by a severe case of writer’s block. With his wife, Alice, they embark on a journey to the small town of Bright Falls, Washington. At first glance, Bright Falls is just a cozy little town nestled deep into the mountains. Mysterious lakes, endless forests, creepy coal mines, it’s definitely not a place where scary things would happen. Upon their arrival, Alan goes to get the keys to the cabin they’re renting, but instead encounters an old woman dressed in black. She claims that Carl Stucky (the owner of the cabin) has fallen ill and entrusted her to give him the keys. Not knowing any better, he accepts them, putting things in motion that will change the town forever. As Alan and Alice drive down the road, Carl Stucky emerges from the diner, out of sorts and out of breath, holding the keys he meant to give Alan.

The cabin that Alan and Alice drive to instead of Carl Stucky’s is located in the middle of Cauldron Lake, a lake in the middle of a volcanic crater, and it’s also the heart of many local folktales. As they’re unpacking their bags, Alice points Alan to a typewriter in one of the rooms. It’s here we find out that Alice, with the help of Alan’s agent, Barry Wheeler, planned the whole trip, hoping the change of scenery would help Alan with his writer’s block. Alice also arranged for Alan to see a Bright Falls Psychologist by the name of Dr. Emil Hartman. Angry, Alan runs from the cabin, knowing Alice won’t follow him outside, because Alice has a severe phobia of the dark. As he catches his breath on the wooden bridge outside, the power goes out, and Alice screams. In a desperate race to get to Alice, Alan runs back into the cabin, only to hear the sound of wood breaking and somebody falling into the lake behind the cabin. Seeing Alice floating in the depths, Alan jumps in and everything goes dark.

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When you regain control of Alan, he’s climbing out of a car he just crashed. As the night goes on and they mystery of how he got there unfolds, you discover that it’s been a week since the events at Cauldron Lake. Alice has been kidnapped, and it seems like the whole town is in on it. In addition to that, the cabin on Cauldron Lake doesn’t exist anymore. It was home to another writer in the past, and then it was destroyed when the volcano beneath the lake erupted. The people of Bright Falls, while all quirky in their own right, are rather questionable, making you feel like there’s something far more sinister at work here. And there is. Speaking of the good people of Bright Falls, as the nights go on, they’re slowly being overtaken by darkness, turning them into creatures eager to see Alan’s demise. The only way to defeat them is by using the power of light . . . aka your flashlight, flares, flare-guns, basically anything that shines bright enough to make them vulnerable. Once they’re vulnerable, you can use a variety of weapons to dispatch them. Though, I would recommend using caution because as this is more of a survival-horror game than third person action, ammo can be rather scarce, depending on what difficulty you’re playing on.

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The rest of the story is presented to you in six episodes, narrated by Alan himself. As you fight the forces of darkness to unravel the mystery of the past week and save Alice, you find yourself pitted against a wide variety of enemy types, ranging from normal baddies to berserkers, speedsters and even birds. When you’re not being attacked by shadow monsters, you’re being attacked by flying objects. Throughout my play-through, I had tires, cars, and even trains thrown at me. That being said, be prepared for anything and everything. The poltergeist, while fun at first, eventually falls victim to the occasionally disorienting controls that make playing Alan Wake feel like driving a car on an icy road.

To avoid spoiling anything else about the story, lets talk about the gameplay. Whether you consider Alan Wake to be a third-person action game or a survival horror, it’s important to remember that you will spend a majority of the game scavenging for ammo. Granted, my only experience with survival horror is in the Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises, but the formulas are mostly the same . . . run, shoot, scavenge, and cut scene. So how do those mechanics work? Where Alan Wake‘s story is mysterious, fascinating, and terrifying all at the same time, the gameplay is mostly terrifying. And when I say terrifying, I mean it’s terrifying in the fact that you never quite know what you’re going to do, even when you press the right buttons on the controller. This is where the game’s short comings are truly visible. Sure, you can shoot, run, and use the secondary functions via the D-pad, but both moving and jumping feel very clunky and will often result in your protagonist getting stuck or accidentally falling off of a cliff or ravine.

As I mentioned above, disorientation is also an issue with this game. Due to the nature of the narrative, it’s best played in the dark, because any reflection on the television can have frustrating results when both fighting and exploring. As you traverse the many forested landscapes of the game, there are generators that need activating in order for the lights to turn on. In this game, light not only protects you from the darkness, it also heals you. So back to the generators . . . even if you make it to them, the game pits you against so many foes that you often don’t have time to turn them on. If you’re out of ammunition, you best keep running.

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For all of Alan Wake‘s issues, there are at least three positive things to make you look the other way. Let’s start with the narrative. I have never played a game like this . . . ever . . . except for the first time I played it, when it came out. The fact that I played it a second time speaks volumes to how much I liked the story. In a world where multi-player and battle-royale games rule the land, you don’t get a lot of meticulously crafted first person narratives. I know Naughty Dog is a master at their craft in this area, but there’s something about Remedy’s attention to detail in Alan Wake that makes games like The Last of Us and Uncharted feel very small in comparison. Alan Wake‘s story isn’t just something unfolding in the game and on your television screen, it’s something that unfolds in your psyche. It lingers in your mind until the credits roll, and even after that you continue to wonder about it.

The settings you find yourself in while playing this game are majestically terrifying. Imagine a survival-horror scenario in a place like Yosemite, a beautiful forest surrounded by small towns and cabins. That is only a fraction of the wonder this game holds. There are also the characters. There are no standard NPCs or stale written characters in this game. Each character has a story that leaves you wondering about their background. For example, there are the Anderson Brothers, two old men who used to be in a band called The Old Gods of Asgard. They’re the local crazies, but they know more than they’re letting on at first, making you wonder just how crazy they actually are. Then there’s Barry Wheeler, Alan’s friend and agent. Though he provides the comic-relief, there are parts in the game where seeing him is like hanging out with an old friend. Even the antagonists have depth. The good Doctor Emil Hartman, somehow got wrapped up in the schemes of the dark, and even when the credits roll you want to know more about him.

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Don’t get me wrong, Alan Wake does have its flaws. It is far from the perfect game. However, its imperfections almost feel endearing in their own right. The clunky controls, the disorientation, the way the game ends, still failing to answer some of the biggest questions. It all makes you want to keep playing . . . at least it did to me. If you asked me if I’d be willing to return to Bright Falls for another adventure . . . heck yeah, I would. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be Alan Wake 2 was scrapped a while back and turned into Quantum Break. Though, with Remedy getting the rights to Alan Wake back from Microsoft, that sequel might just materialize one day, especially with Alan Wake being featured in one of the add-ons for Control. In the meantime, if you want more Alan Wake, you can play the game’s two add-ons The Signal and the The Writer. There’s also the smaller experience and sort-of-sequel Alan Wake’s American Nightmare. If you haven’t had a chance to experience the original game, I would highly recommend you do so.

8.5 out of 10

Played On: Xbox 360

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