Writers block is the reason Alan Wake, a renowned novelist, travels to Bright Falls, an idyllic small town until the sun sets. Things go bump in the night and Alan will have to face them if he wants to rescue his wife. The cast of colorful characters also includes: a hardboiled FBI agent who gets in his way, an honest local sheriff, and Barry, Alan’s agent who acts as comic relief.
The plot is the highlight of Alan Wake so I don’t want to write too much about it. Instead, I’ll discuss how Remedy Entertainment presented it. Pages from a novel are scattered in eerie forests and farms for players to find. Wake narrates these pages as they flesh out story details and the thoughts of side characters. Loose pages can be foreboding by foreshadowing events and fights with enemies you can only imagine while reading them.
Alan Wake isn’t advertised as survival horror, but it’s a scary game. Part of the reason why is the enemy is darkness itself. Ordinary places like tranquil forests and lake cabins become spooky venues at night. Townsfolk twisted by a Dark Presence called the Taken are your main enemy. They slowly walk towards Alan carrying large axes, knives, and occasionally chainsaws. When a Taken is about to strike Alan, you can make a Max Payne style slow motion dodge and escape. Being shadows, the Taken naturally hide in dark environments. The feeling that they can step out of the shadows and attack any time adds to the tension.
Alan’s main weapon against the Taken is a flashlight. Light shatters the dark cloud around the Taken making them vulnerable to his second weapon, a gun. Alan may be a writer, but he knows how to use a firearm as well as any action hero. Players have to balance both items by blasting a beam of light with the left trigger and shooting bullets with the right. Alan has a few other useful items like flashbang grenades and flares that make the Taken flee until they burn out. But, don’t get too attached to your arsenal. Alan… has a bad habit of losing his items. Remedy Entertainment also capped the amount of bullets and batteries you can carry. While players usually have a little more than just enough ammo to get through each encounter, it’s not unlimited and watching it deplete adds tension fights. But, before you run into Taken you usually get a healthy stash of stuff for your next battle. Combat is pretty much the same from the beginning to end so Alan Wake actually gets easier as you progress through it. Well, that’s aside from boss fights. Let’s just say the Dark Presence doesn’t only affect people…
Light isn’t just a weapon, it’s where you want to run to. A distant light is usually the goal point, unless you want to wander around in search of coffee thermoses or hidden caches. Your flashlight can illuminate paths to loot if you shine the beam on rocks which can reveal arrows and hidden messages. Alan can also create light sources by powering generators with a mini-game. These act as heal and save points, if you decide you need a break from Bright Falls.
Alan Wake’s story is presented in six episodes designed to feel like a televised drama. Each one opens with “previously on Alan Wake” and summarizes events from the last episode like Lost or any other primetime serial. The concept works brilliantly because it allows Alan Wake to leave players in suspense and jump around the storyline. Breaking Alan Wake into pieces also prevented the game from dragging. After beating each hour or two episode and hearing the licensed song at the end, I felt a sense of completion.
The very first line in Alan Wake references Stephen King, a clear sign that Remedy Entertainment wanted to make their game like one of his novels. At times, the story sticks to the horror novel theme too closely which led some plot clichés, but it’s still one of the better narratives this year. Remedy created an intriguing I want to know what happens next story that also cracks Lord of the Rings jokes and finally concludes like the ends of one of its episodes.