It’s very difficult to call Alan Wake a horror game. In fact, categorizing Remedy’s long-awaited Xbox 360 exclusive is as much a struggle as it is to categorize The Twilight Zone, with which Alan Wake shares many similarities. It is at times horror, dark humor, mystery, and psychological thriller. The game never really falls into one category, as its tonal shifts keep the player wondering, “Just what am I playing?”
Everything weird that Alan Wake does contributes to its greatest draw: it is an experience that by the end feels truly new, unlike any games that have come before it. And, while the game does not always fully embrace the creative and the weird, it provides a wealth of impressive moments, making it a largely rewarding and entertaining game to play. Especially so for those crazy enough to care about things like game structure.
A number of things stand out after a playthrough of Alan Wake; perhaps the most obvious and compelling is the game’s structure, which plays out like a television series. The game is split up into six episodes, which take roughly two to three hours each to complete. Every episode begins with a “Previously on Alan Wake” recap, and each ends with a licensed song meant to evoke visions of television credit rolls. While both of these may sound like strange choices for a videogame, it’s surprising how well this works.
While the episode structure can feel strange to someone who powers through the game in one sitting, it gives the suggestion of a different way to play: finish one episode per play session, making it truly feel like a TV series. The design and editing of the episode recaps feels genuine and entertaining, and the song choices for the credits are quite appropriate.
Over those six episodes, you’ll begin to unravel the mystery of a strange dark presence in Bright Falls, where writer Alan Wake and his wife have gone for a bit of escape and relaxation. However, as the dark presence begins to take control of the town and Wake’s wife disappears, a much larger mystery begins to unravel. Each episode reveals a bit more about the strange happenings in the town, and there are plenty of twists and bizarre moments to keep you interested in the story up until the cliffhanger ending, which will presumably lead into the game’s “second season.”
While the game’s story can feel a little silly (for instance, much of the story revolves around a prophetic metal band and a handheld light switch) and the ending gives too few answers to provide any real sense of completeness, the ride is a lot of fun. The characters are largely well-developed and varied, with Wake’s agent and best friend Barry being the standout. Plenty of backstory is given on Wake and his wife to allow us to care about them and their situation; while not everything in the story makes sense, one can assume that this is exactly where writer Sam Lake wanted to position us to make playing the upcoming episodes irresistible.
While the story unravels, you’ll take control of Wake as he travels throughout the town of Bright Falls. The game places you on fairly linear paths, moving from point A to point B without a lot of room for diversion apart from some collectible searching, which can actually hurt the game’s sense of immediacy and tension. This tension is provided by the “taken”, the game’s enemies, which take the form of possessed people and farming equipment. To defeat them, Wake must first bathe them in light from his flashlight or a number of other light-based objects, and then gun them down.
While this is a initially a welcome departure from the typical “just shoot” mentality of a lot of horror games, the repetitive nature of enemies and your approaches to defeating them begins to make the late-game combat drag. While you’re given an expanding arsenal including flash grenades (my favorite!), the game never really departs from the combat structure of “walk along forest path, watch enemies appear around you, shine flashlight, shoot.” Possessed objects can only be defeated by shining the flashlight on them, which can often take just a bit too long. As such, by the end of the game, you’ll likely be running from your enemies, but not out of fear.
The look and presentation of the game definitely strives to make it feel as much like a television program as possible, with cutscene direction being quite strong, though the actual technical graphics can sometimes fall short. The in-game engine makes the game look quite good most of the time, with the environments of the American Pacific Northwest being featured prominently. Interiors are appropriately detailed as well. Characters look mostly good, but some awkward animations (Wake is not good at climbing or jumping) and facial design can occasionally distract.
The use of licensed music in Alan Wake is legitimately some of the best I’ve ever experienced. Song choices are extremely deliberate and quite varied (like the inclusion of Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut,” which reminds you to put the lime in the coconut, and drink them both up). Furthermore, their placement is masterful, such as the aforementioned moments at the end of each episode, as well as some great moments during the gameplay. The rest of the sound design is also quite nice, with mostly fantastic voice acting and some cool sound tricks to build tension. Some audio tricks done with enemy voices are simultaneously terrifying and hilarious.
While comparisons have been made to the Silent Hill series, it is important to note that the game doesn’t feel nearly as open as that series, nor does it contain the same level of psychological horror. Alan Wake is an experience that watches like a thriller and plays like an action game, with a couple of somewhat frightening moments peppered in here and there. But that’s perfectly fine. It’s a wholly worthwhile experience for those interested in the many ways to present a game narrative, and while this particular narrative isn’t perfect, you’ll find yourself drawn to the town of Bright Falls and its mysteries.
Aside from some awkward animations and facial expressions, Alan Wake is presented masterfully, with strong graphics and a plethora of unique, television-like production tricks.
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The control is perfectly competent, but the repetitive design of enemy encounters begins to feel grating by the end of the experience.
Some fantastic licensed song choice combine with strong audio design and voice acting to give the game's sound a definite personality.
Expect to spend ten to twelve hours on a single playthrough, and there's little incentive to play again unless you're obsessed with collectibles.
Alan Wake takes some risks, and each one helps to make the game feel fresh and rewarding. However, those areas where it doesn't take risks can introduce some tedium into an otherwise engrossing experience.