Quirky, engrossing plot involves encroaching darkness, warped reality similar to a Stephen King creation
I’m not sure I’ve ever played anything like “Alan Wake” before. It’s quirky, dark, engrossing and action-packed; it’s glitchy, more than a bit confusing thematically and possesses an ending that fails to do the game justice.
But I couldn’t stop playing it. Not once throughout the entire playthrough did I ever want to move on to something else. The story — about a popular fiction writer who’s simply seeking some solitude from the outside world only to have that world turn dangerously paranormal, with more a few outside influences guiding the narrative — is simply captivating, even if it does leave you scratching your head more than once.
You see, “Alan Wake,” developed by Remedy Entertainment, was marketed as an action game with a strange, strange story, but not far removed from the confines of a basic third-person shooter. In reality (not that this game deals in that very often), it’s much more the other way around: It’s an absolutely absurd story that uses action-game mechanics to progress forward. Yeah, you have to fight the bad guys (called the Taken), but it’s the Stephen King-meets-H.P. Lovecraft essence of the game that matters here.
Our author-turned-reluctant hero’s story starts simply enough. An author suffering from writer’s block, he and his wife travel to a small town for Wake to recharge, to find his creative spirit once again. But, as is the norm with any type of thriller, the couple’s vacation takes a dark turn once Wake’s wife goes missing and the night morphs into a violent dream conjured out of Wake’s own mind.
You see, the nightmare Wake finds himself in is actually one of his own creation, except he doesn’t remember writing this particular story — or how it ends. But it’s safe to say that it doesn’t happen quietly or without consequence. What happens along the way is gripping, confusing, sometimes scary and altogether amazing. It’s by far one of the best character-driven games I’ve ever played.
For the Pacific Northwest lovers out there (myself included), you’ll be happy to know this game takes place in Washington state, in a fictional town called Bright Falls. And maybe with the exception of “Life is Strange,” I haven’t seen such a beautiful rendition of the place I call home. The game’s entire environment is simply breathtaking, from the town itself to the forests and mountains that surround it. And it doesn’t hurt that the people you run into along the way simply remind you of great “X-Files” or “Twin Peaks” episodes. Everyone is just a little bit off, clearly not quite as upfront with Wake as they should be. Everyone has secrets, it seems, in this small town where everyone knows the protagonist. It even pulls a thread from the “Silent Hill” games, where some people don’t even seem to notice the evil chaos that surrounds them.
And then there’s the detail work. From the weather to the plants to the town stores, every bit of the environment feels alive, as if live video was taken and then altered to appear in video game format. The level of nuance is impressive; everything is so familiar, so recognizable. You’ll find comfort in that once the world gets a little crazy — which tends to happen at night in Bright Falls. In the daylight, you can talk to people and explore pretty much without interruption, but once the moon comes out, things change into something King would dream up.
“Alan Wake” utilizes episodic storytelling, portraying the game’s six sequences more as TV episodes derived from a novel rather than as one continuous game. (So, more like Remedy’s “Quantum Break,” which went even further with its episodic play style, instead of Telltale Games’ style of releasing the first episode before the entire game is finished.) There’s even a recap section at the beginning of each episode, in case you need a refresher.
The miniserieslike vibe can be distracting at times, especially when you’re just getting to some of the game’s more interesting parts, but it’s not the first time a game has used cliffhangers and recaps to break up sequences or to refocus the player’s attention. Which clearly was Remedy’s intention here. That, and to perhaps merge multiple media forms together to make something that doesn’t neatly fit into any one particular category.
As you advance through the story, “Alan Wake” pulls elements from novels, television and cinema to offer insight that wouldn’t normally be in a game while offering character control that’s not available in other media. Voiceovers add background and access to Wake’s thoughts without the need to explicitly state them out loud, while radios and TVs scattered throughout the landscape offer another way to show that what Wake is seeing is clearly removed from reality, a constant theme in this game.
On that note, two things: The first is that you should watch the in-game show that pops up on the TVs you find. “Night Springs” is clearly the game’s version of “The Twilight Zone,” and the snippets of video you watch give a surprising amount of depth to the game’s universe, even if they tend to be more self-referential than anything else. The second, and probably the more important one, is to take time to find and read the manuscript pages that are strewn about. The connection they have with the story, both with what already has happened and what still may come, is crucial, and skipping over them in favor of simple progression does a disservice to the game. Besides, who doesn’t like a good foreshadow, right?
The controls, built for the Xbox 360, handle about as well as you can hope, though there were a few times were camera angles went wonky and command inputs didn’t seem to register, especially when it came to dodging. The animation itself was fine, but since it requires perfect timing to avoid incoming damage, it generally was more trouble than it was worth.
But those are minor complaints, and they did little to hinder general gameplay or action sequences in particular. Which is good, because Wake doesn’t have a lot to use when it comes to defending himself from the denizens of this dark and twisted nightmare of his.
In a lovely twist of expectations, it’s light that does the most damage here; you can’t even do damage with the normal weapons (pistol, shotgun, rifle) until you take down enemies’ defense with your insanely useful flashlight or other light-emitting tools. Which, by the way, are the stars of Wake’s arsenal. As you progress, the items you acquire become more powerful. The flare, which casts a wide aura of light that fends off the darkness, is outdone by the flare gun, which can clear an entire horde of Taken with a single, blinding shot. You even get flash bangs, which are among the strongest weapon in the game.
Combat itself is fine, if nothing spectacular. It’s a lot of point-and-shoot and trying to remember how certain Taken respond and move after being engaged. For the most part, you take down their dark shield with your flashlight and then fire a few rounds into them, and then it’s time to move forward. The hardest aspect I faced was simply learning to look behind me. When you enter a zone with Taken, they can spawn from any direction, so it pays to be aware of all your surroundings, not just what’s in front of you.
And I wouldn’t normally mention it in an action game, but “Alan Wake” has a strange combination of open-world elements without actually being open-world. In fact, aside from a few side areas you can explore for ammo and collectibles, the game is incredibly linear. But there are scenes, particularly when you’re in a vehicle, that seem to point to the game having been designed to be more open than it is, only to have been scaled back before release. It’s an odd thing to see.
What really sticks out, though, is the superb sound in this game. From the rustling trees to the shrieking wind to the animalistic groans the Taken make, just about every sound is perfectly tuned to enhance each scene. It’s a master class in how sound can save even the most mundane of scenes, such as walking through a diner or talking to a perfect stranger.
In the end, “Alan Wake” is simply unique. Its story and characters capture your imagination, the same way Wake’s imagination captures his entire reality. It’s riveting to learn more as you explore Wake’s nightmare, and it doesn’t hurt that the action sequences aren’t terrible (a fate that befalls many plot-driven games). Aside from a few bugs and hiccups here and there, the game was simply one of the best I’ve played in a long time. It makes me excited to play the two expansions and the standalone downloadable content. Because, for all the praise I have for this game, I do have one big issue: The ending is terrible. And I hope the extra content answers at least some of the myriad questions I’m left with. Still, sometimes a good story leaves you hanging, and if that’s the cost of playing “Alan Wake,” it’s a price I’m more than happy to pay.
Four “Why can’t I see anything?” stars out of five, and a critic’s pick.
Editor’s note: This Xbox One-compatible digital copy of the Xbox 360 version of “Alan Wake” came with my purchase of “Quantum Break,” another Remedy release. As of this review, the only way to play “Alan Wake” is to buy a copy of the physical Xbox 360 version; no other version seems to be available for sale.