The lights are on
If you've ever seen any of Alfred Hitchcock's renowned psychological thrillers, then you're no stranger to how they bend logic and consciousness into something dark and disturbing in order to create an enthralling sense of suspense. Alan Wake, Remedy's own psychological thriller, is no different. Alan Wake is filled with a lot of questions, and just when you think you've begun to understand the plot, the game shifts suddenly and inexplicably, leaving you just as desperate for answers as before. Using this technique, Alan Wake successfully plays of the mind's need to use imagination to create a logical explanation for situations that exist outside of logic. Through this it conveys a simple message - a vivid imagination can be a powerful thing.
Alan Wake, the game's protagonist (and namesake), knows this better than anyone. He's a writer, famous for his bestselling crime novels and getting in nasty altercations with the paparazzi. However, his once fast-moving career has hit a roadblock - he hasn't been able to write anything for the past two years. In order to cure his long-term writer's block, Alan's wife, Alice, decides to take him on a vacation to the scenic town of Bright Falls. Here, things soon take a turn for the insane - when the sun goes down, darkness consumes the town, possess the local populace, and tries to hunt down Wake. Throughout his journey, Alan Wake battles this mysterious force called the "Dark Presence" and tries to uncover the dark mysteries hidden in Bright Falls.
Like any bestselling novel, Alan Wake contains a strong central cast of characters. Alan Wake can be a bit brash and rude at times, but an unwavering devotion to his wife and friends makes his likeable and relatable. The relationship between Alan and his wife, Alice, is detailed through a series of flashbacks and conversations, and it's ultimately one worth caring about. Wake's friend and agent, Barry, also joins the crew throughout the campaign. Barry serves as the game's primary source of comic relief, and he helps to break the tension that Alan Wake builds so well. Alan Wake, Alice, Barry, and a couple of sympathetic townsfolk make for a strong central cast throughout the game's narrative.
Alan Wake's narrative stays true to the psychological thriller formula - it uses the uncertainty of the darkness to play with your mind. Throughout the game, I was constantly searching for answers and bending logic out of desperation to find an explanation to some of the game's more obscure points. Wake's situation feels like a nightmare that won't end - horrible things keep happening and there's little explanation as to why.
This focus on questions, rather than answers, makes Alan Wake's narrative one of the more unique I've ever seen in a video game. Plot points are left intentionally hazy to allow your imagination to run wild while searching for an answer to what's actually going on in Bright Falls. For the most part, this is very effective, as it keeps you wondering about the mysterious powers lurking in Bright Falls and maintains an uncertain undertone throughout the duration of the game. So, if you're hoping for answers, a majority of Alan Wake may disappoint you, especially when it comes to the ending. The final moments of Alan Wake continue to follow the philosophy that the rest of the game uses - that questions are better than answers. This normally wouldn't bother me, except for the fact that once I did manage to decipher the game's cryptic and vague message, I was fairly unsatisfied by the game's conclusion.
Thankfully, despite the ending misstep, the game's narrative remains exciting throughout the game. Alan Wake features some of the best foreshadowing I have seen in a while, and the compelling cast makes it easy to overlook some of the narrative's flaws. Though it can be a little slow in the first few hours, the wait is worth it - once Alan Wake drags you in, it's a game that's hard to put down.
Accompanying this intriguing narrative on the mental state is a setting that's just as interesting and unique. In fact, the tired old town of Bright Falls may be one of the best settings I've seen in a horror game. It's surprising, but during the daylight hours, Bright Falls seems incredibly harmless. Through the use of stellar character writing and a detailed world, Bright Falls portrays itself as a harmless small town tucked away beneath the sublime beauty of the Pacific Northwest. From the moment he arrives in Bright Falls, Wake soon realizes that all of the locals are friendly, hospitable, and very eager to maintain a simple way of life. A local radio show highlights the events going on around town (such the town's upcoming celebration of "DeerFest") or interviewing local fishermen, hunters, or law enforcement officers. It truly feels like everyone in the town knows everyone by name - locals call into the radio show simply to discuss the weather or talk about recent hunting outings. Bright Falls is almost flawlessly portrayed as a quiet town where nothing much happens - and the locals are perfectly content with this. So naturally, Bright Falls is the perfect place for a horror story.
When the sun goes down and the night rolls in, the darkness turns the beauty of Bright Falls into something terrifying. The inky darkness consumes the town, and the once welcoming lights of a gas station or visitor center are now gone. The blackness of the setting transforms the harmless world into something mysterious and unnerving. In this world, your only friend is the light, and there's every little of it in Bright Falls once the night rolls in. The game constantly reminds you that you are alone, and it portrays an impressive sense of dread and loneliness throughout the game.
The only solace in the night is the flashlight in Wake's hand. It serves as your primary means of exploration and combat throughout Alan Wake. You'll use it to investigate objects and search for enemies in a world that takes on a completely different meaning at night. In fact, the most impressive thing about the game's setting is its dual personality that shifts with night and day. It's very rare that a setting can seem so harmless and harmful at the same time.
At night, when Bright Falls becomes a playground for the darkness, Alan Wake contains some awesomely terrifying set pieces. The darkness might begin to tear to forest apart, cutting down trees and leaving destruction in its path. A boat might fall out of the sky and land right in front of Wake with little or no explanation. When the darkness rolls in, buildings shake, the ground rumble, and the wind howls. This immersive sound and level design creates an impressive sense of intensity and terror, and throughout your quest you will be longing to find shelter in the light.
When trouble begins to boil in Bright Falls, Alan Wake must quickly transform into a capable warrior in order to defend himself from his foes. Wake's primary tool in combat is light. The flashlight in Wake's hand soon proves to be your new best friend, as it allows you to burn away the dark shroud that shield enemies from bullets. Once this dark shroud it removed, enemies can be finished off the old fashioned way - with bullets. In addition to the normal variety of pistols, shotguns, and rifles, other tools can be used against for more devastating effects. Flares serve as the primary means of crowd control, flashbang grenades can be used to take out large groups of enemies, and flare guns can be used as an RPG-like weapon to take down more formidable opponents.
When enemies attack, they do so quickly and effectively - you will have very little time to react and get in position once the first foes appear. It's for this reason that Wake can use a dodge mechanic to evade attacks from his adversaries. This mechanic requires a precise sense of timing to use, and it required a bit of skill and awareness to keep up with all of the foes lurking in the darkness. Running like crazy to the next light-filled safe zone is an option in several fights, and this allows a bit of choice during some of the more difficult encounters. The entire notion of light vs. the dark results in one of the more unique combat systems I have seen in a long time.
However, the combat is also were Alan Wake makes a majority of its mistakes. Occasionally, I had minor problems with the camera not being positioned properly, and it made it unnecessarily problematic to tell where my attackers are coming from. Additionally, the game introduces most of its combat features fairly early in the game, and many of the encounters lose their sense of fear and intensity late in the game. This does make the combat feel a bit repetitive by the end.
Despite a few problems, Alan Wake is still an engaging horror mystery that expertly plays with the mind's psychological state. Some excellent environment design makes the game's setting feel alive, and the beautiful landscape and bright visuals make the game feel oddly relatable. Alan Wake's true creativity comes from its reliance on questions rather than answers, and you will definitely have a few lingering questions after finishing the game. Through a compelling narrative and a unique interpretation on the psychological state, Alan Wake remains thrilling, mysterious, and even funny at times. Ultimately, it's a nightmare that you won't want to wake up from.
Alan Wake - 8.75/10
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