“Keep the lights on”
It is not the tale itself what makes it good, but the way it is told, and Remedy definitely surpassed themselves in the area of how to tell a story in the art of videogames. For this, the use of plot twists, memorable characters, outstanding voice acting and unique combat mechanics became the focus points to create a game where the main theme is the constant battle between light and darkness. An Xbox 360 exclusive at first and later also a PC game, Alan Wake came from Remedy back in 2010 and 2012, respectively, to put the boundaries of narrative in games to the test for those who are fans of story-driven games.
This time the protagonist is (you guessed it) Alan Wake, a famous writer that has gotten a little sick of fame and decides to go on vacation with his wife, Alice, at the calm city of Bright Falls, Washington. What they don’t know is that the countryside has some dark secrets. What was supposed to be a relaxing time away from the pencil and paper suddenly becomes a total nightmare as some paranormal presence starts invading our main character’s lakeside cabin to hunt Bright Falls and kidnap Alice. When Alan goes to find her, the situation eventually becomes even stranger. He soon realizes it is all part of a horror story he supposedly wrote, but can’t remember doing so. What makes his journey more special, though, is the fact that he is just an ordinary guy, not a hero, nor with any special powers but the will to fight the Darkness and save his wife, no matter the cost. From this point on, Alan’s trial throughout the game will unfold many mysteries surrounding Bright Falls and himself while building up courage to pick up a gun for the first time in his life.
Alan Wake is all about the story. It is a brilliant combination of a book, a movie, and of course, a game. A big part of the story is narrated by Alan himself (from the book he supposedly wrote) as you play and all of the cinematics are so Hollywood-like that they have a big role at enhancing the immersive experience of the game. All this is shaped into six TV-like episodes where every one of them ends with a cliffhanger and a title screen while playing some of the outstanding licensed music the game has. Then, at the beginning of every new chapter, you get a “Previously on Alan Wake” cutscene that tells what happened in the last episodes of the game. Although well done, the only thing missing is an auto save feature that occurred at every ending of an episode (it only happens until the beginning of the next) so that every time you turned your console on the first thing you saw was the introduction for the new episode. It might not be something strong enough to make it a bad game, but it would have definitely enhanced the TV series-like experience. However, every other aspect of the game is brilliant to fulfill the strong writing.
From the very start to the very end, there are a lot of things that immediately catch your eye no matter what your current mission is. As you take control of Alan for the first time, it’s inevitable that the astonishing lighting of the sky and the beautiful architecture of the city and the woods don’t take your breath away. The voice acting of all the characters is also crucial to transmit everything they are feeling to the player and it is done in a phenomenal way, especially with Alan during his tale telling and his desperation to find Alice. Even Barry, Alan’s best friend and sometimes sidekick, delivers some of the funniest moments in the game. His appearance, by the hand of his humor, helps the player feel positive in a hard situation like this. It might sound exaggerated to some, but, again, this game is all about the story and it every single detail is carefully taken care of.
Story aside, the gameplay is rather creative, although for a limited time. It is still a shooter where you have some conventional weapons like a handgun and a shotgun but they alone will not help you get rid of the your opponents. The secret is to keep the lights on. The enemies come as normal men (called “Taken”) that have become possessed by the darkness. Some of them will have axes, others will throw it at you, some others are oversized, which means, they are tougher, and later on there will be some others that can run at the speed of light. So, the first thing to do is to get rid of that dark force in order to shoot them to death. For that, the game introduces some unique tools that are our first source of light and our very best weapons. Considering Alan has no experience in gun fighting, all this combat system results in a wonderful experience of using anything you can to survive. Your flashlight will become your best friend every time there’s an enemy nearby. It, by itself, can take away the surrounding darkness of a foe but it’s light can be boosted for a faster kill. To do so, the flashlight will also need its own “ammo”, which are Energizer brand batteries. What’s more interesting and another creative touch is that the flashlight also serves the function of your aim. So, not only does it kill the darkness of your enemies, it also takes away the need of a conventional on-screen aim.
Apart from that, you will be provided with other ordinary tools as cool weapons, such as the flares, which are very handy every time you are literally surrounded in every single corner. It’s huge light makes the baddies go blind for a moment and fall back, giving you time to do the same so you can rethink your strategy. If there are too many the flare guns and light bangs arrive as the equivalent of a grenade launcher and hand grenades, respectively, with the ability to eliminate a lot of enemies at once. However, after they become vulnerable, the shooting process is a little boring. Most enemies need 3 to 6 shots to die but the game doesn’t ask you to have a precise aiming. Your aim can be a few centimeters away from their body and still receive the shots. The only enemies that don’t need bullets to die are barrels, cars, or other unanimated objects that are also possessed. They only require a constant beam of light and it’s way easy to avoid getting hit by them because it takes them around 5 seconds to charge at you, giving you enough time to dodge them rather quickly. No challenge there, where’s the fun?
Anyway, if you happen to be out of ammo in the middle of a fight you end up helpless, there’s no punch button or anything else but the “dodge” move. Your only way out is to run towards the magic light pole (the checkpoint) so the baddies go away. This actually helps the atmosphere of the game to make you feel constantly haunted until you find a source of light to scare away the monsters. However, it is forgotten at around half of the game. As the story progresses, all types of ammo start to appear everywhere. There’s no real need to look for it because it shines right in your face. Even the loading screens advice you to “look beyond the obvious places”. Well, apart from the ammo and the weapons you find (again) in every chapter, the only relevant collectibles are some script pages (snippets of the horror story he is trapped on) and some thermos (with no real use) but after such a linear path with nothing but trees around you, a cabin with an opened door at your left or right and an arrow, which appears only with the beam of your flashlight, that points to a cave or another cabin right where you are heading to is more than obvious, to name a few.
In other words, the whole gameplay experience loses its charm over time. Every chapter is all about town-woods with “taken”-town and so on, the enemies are recycled every single time, their appearance becomes very expected that you lose the suspense, ammo is found everywhere, there are no new weapons past chapter 3 and even the trigger points to unlock the next path are re used a lot. The only “new” things you will get is Barry or the local Sheriff as your side-kick at some points of the story, but nothing else. Sadly, all this makes up the majority of Alan Wake but fortunately the story is strong enough to leave you in suspense and encourage you to keep playing at until the very end of the game. Yes, that much.
Alan Wake is a game that has it all: a powerful storytelling, creative and unique gameplay mechanics, gorgeous visuals and outstanding soundtrack. Unfortunately, this game doesn’t provide everything at the same time. The first part of the game is filled with the nicely innovative combat system, while the second half brings a gameplay already too repetitive to be fun. In some kind of way both parts have their own charm so the experience doesn’t become dull per se, nonetheless, it might not be fair for people with a high interest in the gameplay because they would probably get disappointed after the first few chapters. In conclusion, not every game has a story strong enough to make you keep playing even if everything else has gone down. This game is definitely innovative, no doubt, but if only it had kept that innovation for most part of it, it would have definitely been close to perfection.
Rating: 8.5 – Definitely worth it