Review by AK_the_Twilight

"The Writer's Crucible"

The role as a fiction writer is one filled with mental mazes and emotive thrills. A creator's mind is a generator of worlds, a breeding ground for the haunted and the perverse. It's a home for the abnormal. Horror scribe Alan Wake knows this better than anyone else, and Remedy Games has chronicled his treacherous descent into the pits of unknowing in their long-awaited title, Alan Wake. Five years after its announcement, Alan Wake has crept out of the darkness and has arrived on store shelves. A captivating narrative and a purposeful adventure, Alan Wake pushes storytelling and survival horror gaming into daring and bold new directions.

Alan Wake follows famous, but struggling writer Alan Wake, a protagonist who has more than your typical writer's block on his plate. After suffering from a number of haunting nightmares, Alan travels to the Pacific Northwestern town of Bright Falls with his wife, Alice. Upon arriving at Bright Falls, Alan discovers a manuscript supposedly written by him, only to find out that the events of the manuscript are coming true. Not only that, but a looming phenomenon known as The Dark Presence is turning the locals into creatures called The Taken. Things turn from bad to worse when Alice disappears, leaving Alan in a haunting struggle with the very essence of Bright Falls itself. The story is told through Alan's own narration, which expands as the game progresses. Collectible manuscript pieces also further the mystery. Alan Wake takes a much more subtle approach compared to other survival horror games, following a psychological suspense instead of a surprising funhouse scare. The story constantly alludes to Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft as influences (along with a clever reference to the sci-fi television hit The Twilight Zone) and the trappings are clear, but putting these different influences into an interactive medium really changes things. The way that the story is told coupled with the many twists throughout makes Alan Wake one of the most unique narratives ever seen in survival horror video games. While the story tends to lose a bit of momentum in the later chapters, Alan Wake possesses a story that stands tall alongside its influences. From the characters to the twist occurrences throughout, the narrative draws the player in with such finesse that you'll no doubt want to follow Alan's story from beginning to end.

A survival horror game's atmosphere is one of the most crucial components it can possess and Alan Wake does a fantastic job in showing an unsettling and ambient world. The town of Bright Falls feels like your typical getaway during the daytime; friendly characters, homely locales, and relaxing weather illustrate a town that anyone could enjoy. Once the sun sets, however, things expectantly take a serious turn. Alan Wake shows a struggle between darkness and light, and the atmosphere is its best method of portraying that battle. Frequently, Alan will be thrown into a shadowy region of the town, usually with only a flashlight as his disposal. Seeing the flashlight beam pierce through the darkness captures a creepy suspense that really defines Alan Wake's experience. The way the enemies move and swing their weapons, the way the thin hints of light shimmer in the flashlight beam, it all feels unsettling. The only graphical problems are that the cinematics can feel a bit mechanical-looking and there were the occasional glitches. The audio, however, is top-notch. Alan, Alice, and the many secondary characters are performed superbly. Even Alan's narration throughout the spooky sequences feels appropriate to its storytelling. The musical scores enter a pounding heartbeat when The Taken arrive, always delivering the scares on near-perfect cue. The presentation in Alan Wake has a few technical hiccups, but it's easily one of the most creative implementations of atmosphere in a survival horror game seen in quite a while.

The atmosphere in Alan Wake makes a great first impression, but it would be pointless if the gameplay wasn't functional. Don't worry, though; Alan Wake not only has a great combat system, but it matches up with the storyline seamlessly. The main enemies are The Taken, possessed people who wield a number of dangerous weapons. Alan can use typical armaments like revolvers, shotguns, and rifles to take out enemies, but the best ways to eliminate The Taken is light itself. Enter Alan's flashlight. By shining the flashlight beam on The Taken, Alan can weaken the enemies considerably, making a final blow with a gun much simpler. Items like flares and flashbangs make combat cinematic, while also showing the importance of light to both the gameplay and story. The controls are good, but can feel a bit clunky in the midst of battle, especially the “cinematic dodge” and how it can confuse the camera at times. Also, enemies, regardless of how scary they are, can get a bit stale after the hundredth axe-wielding maniac creeps from the shadows. Still, the gameplay compliments the storyline superbly, signifying the importance of light and the unknowing of darkness.

The game takes place in chapters and follows a format similar to that of a psychological drama like Lost. The six chapters are surprisingly lengthy, but deliver cliffhangers and terrifying encounters aplenty. Clocking in at a bit over 10 hours, the story may seem a bit short, but collectible items like hidden weapon stashes and coffee thermoses offer some incentives to return to Bright Falls. Even better are the collectible manuscripts which tell more and more about Alan Wake's story. Higher difficulties are good inclusions, especially the Nightmare difficulty, which even offers special manuscripts which can only be found in that difficulty setting. Alan Wake rewards diligent and investigative minds, offering more parallels and plotpoints to find for those who truly want to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Pros
+ Absolutely incredible storytelling constantly keeps the player guessing
+ Combat is easy to jump into and possesses a narrative purpose
+ Atmospheric, suspenseful, and ambient presentation at every turn
+ Rewards investigative players

Cons
- Combat can feel a bit clunky
- Pretty repetitive enemy design
- Last couple chapters tend to drag on a bit

Alan Wake's unique approach to survival horror, the way it harnesses a formless, psychological Stephen King-esque fear instead of relying on surprise funhouse scares gives it a definition in the genre. The story is clearly the most important aspect in Alan Wake, but the gameplay doesn't feel neglected at all. The light-and-darkness theme is present throughout the entire game, but the combat implementation of that theme is profound and powerful. The atmosphere seals the deal. The suspense that permeates the world of Alan Wake is thick and enticing; you never know what'll happen next, but you'll always be thirsting to find out. Diligent players will find hours upon hours of mysteries to uncover in Bright Falls, long after the end credits roll. The world that surrounds Alan and the horrors that dwell within its shadows is rich and captivating; it's worth revisiting. Alan Wake's true essence is as formless and ephemeral as its story, but it retains just enough structure to be one of the year's most creative gaming experiences that simply must be explored. Without question, Alan Wake has opened door after door for the survival horror archetype and with any luck, the future looks as bright for the genre as the comforting morning sun over the quiet town of Bright Falls.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 06/03/10

Game Release: Alan Wake (US, 05/18/10)


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