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Alan Wake (Xbox 360) artwork

Alan Wake (Xbox 360) review

"While it doesn't boast the same degree of maddening obscurity as Twin Peaks or the seriously refined scripts of The X-Files, it's up there as far as games go. Wake's increasingly loose grip on reality makes for a satisfyingly confusing plot, though a few more risks with the presentation and pacing could really have made his journey as screwed up as the one that Dale Cooper undertook in Twin Peaks."

Stop pinching yourself. There's no need to blink and rub your eyes. Alan Wake really is here. Remedyís much-anticipated psychological thriller, once the source of debate over its very existence, has finally arrived in stores after what feels like a lifetime. As I placed it in my Xbox 360, I almost expected the disc to vanish into thin air, to leave a puff of smoke in its place.

What actually unfolded as I began playing proved far creepier than that. The game starts off with a nightmare as a set piece. That introduction functions marvelously both as a tutorial and as a way to set the scene. Things quickly calm down, though. The player joins titular hero Alan Wake and his wife as the two make their way to what they anticipate will be a peaceful respite in the town of Bright Falls. Wake is getting away from the stress of his high-profile life as an author. The open arms of the isolated small town in the Pacific Northwest should make for the perfect getaway.

Unfortunately, thereís darkness lurking behind the smiles, donuts and coffee mugs that greet the two upon their arrival in Bright Falls. Naturally, the pair get all kinds of caught up in the intrigue. An hour into the game, the missus has gone missing, Wake can't remember a thing and he's lost in the town's surrounding woods as darkness falls. Oh, and a horde of demonic creatures are hunting him.

If the setup sounds familiar, thatís because thereís more than a pinch of 90s mystery show Twin Peaks infused in the setting and the plot, with sprinkles of The X-Files and the works of novelist Stephen King (in particular, works such as Secret Window, Secret Garden). Early on, Wake starts to discover pages from a manuscript for a book that he was planning to write but hadnít yet started. Obviously thatís not the mirror image of Secret Window, but you can definitely see the influence in the way that things unfold. What makes the inspirations even clearer is the way that Alan Wake doesnít attempt to shy away from them. The game tosses around countless pop culture references. Authors, books, TV shows and films are constantly alluded to or even directly referenced. Perhaps to reinforce the feeling that Alan Wake is meant to sit alongside material outside of the games industry, the title's episodes Ė not chapters Ė are introduced by "Previously on..." videos, in a style similar to hit serial shows such as 24 and Lost.

Does the plot in Alan Wake reach the lofty levels attained by the numerous sources of its inspiration, though? Not entirely. While it doesn't boast the same degree of maddening obscurity as Twin Peaks or the seriously refined scripts of The X-Files, it's up there as far as games go. Wake's increasingly loose grip on reality makes for a satisfyingly confusing plot, though a few more risks with the presentation and pacing could really have made his journey as screwed up as the one that Dale Cooper undertook in Twin Peaks. Nonetheless, there are enough twists and turns that I finally reached a point where I wasn't entirely sure that I could trust what I was viewing. The plot really comes alive in the game's concluding three episodes, as Wake nears the truth behind the town. The ending is a cliffhanger obscure enough that even David Lynch would surely be proud.

Unfortunately, the gameís first half is less inspiring. After Wake first finds himself in the darkness of the woods, he returns to it over the course of those first three episodes. While the atmosphere of the darkened woods is certainly creepy, and while the combat system in place as you make your way through the shadows is strong enough, the repetitive scenery does the experience no favors. After awhile, the unchanging scenery drains the sense of danger from what began as a chilling backdrop. Itís a shame that the respite in later episodes where Wake is roaming around town feel welcome only because what's there is different from what has come before it.

Two main driving forces kept me playing through that less satisfying first half of the game. The first of those forces was the afore-mentioned combat, even though there's not actually a lot to it. Fending off Wake's shadowy oppressors, known as Taken, requires the player to first shine a flashlight on them to remove the darkness that shrouds them. There's a weird sort of logic in play there, but work with it; this is a horror game. When their darkness has been drained, there's a flash and you'll be able to see the Taken clearly enough to blow them to smithereens, the only way that you can truly defeat them.

Combat works well mostly thanks to the lock-on system that the flashlight beam enables, while inspired twists come in the form of additional weaponry that helps to spice things up. Equipment includes a flare that can be used like a flaming torch to fend off attacking crowds, or the flash bang that makes for a very bright grenade. Itís not all that innovative, though, and after awhile the combination of using the left trigger to shine a light and the right trigger right trigger to shoot feels overly reminiscent of other horror titles. Thankfully, it's all kept interesting by the level of challenge on hand. Even on its 'Normal' difficulty setting, the game is engaging because of the shifty ways in which the Taken will approach you. They come from every direction at a multitude of speeds. You'll need to be handy with your dodges and conserve bullets if you want to survive each episode.

The other main element that kept me playing the game is the afore-mentioned collection of manuscript pages that Wake discovers on his journey. Itís appreciably weird to find pages that predict what will happen next. They can be wonderfully foreboding. One describes Wake feeling safe until he hears a chainsaw, while another points toward the gruesome demise of a certain character who Wake is attempting to meet. In many ways, the manuscript is the main narrative force in the game.

It's disappointing that in order to read those pages, the player is essentially forced to exit the game's action sequences, unlike the situation in a game like Dead Space, where players are kept within a ghoul-infested space station at all times. The pages add to an already strong plot, but their delivery too readily breaks the sense of atmosphere. Maybe it would have worked better if the contents of those pages had been preserved as voice recorder messages instead. After all, many authors do use such devices. Such an approach would've tied in well with the many references to Twin Peaks; Dale Cooper famously spoke into a tape recorder throughout that show's run.

The real shame is that to a certain extent, the pages seem to invalidate Wake as a character. It's odd to see him fail to react to the content of those strange pages, especially when the plot delivers some convincing, excellent characters. Going through the game, it's refreshing to see that Wake, this character with whom I am expected to sympathize, was mostly a jerk before the events at Bright Falls. I feel for him because he never means for harm to befall his wife, even though the game's horrific events seem to be triggered by his decision to storm off in the middle of an argument with his spouse. Peripheral characters might not be given enough time in the limelight outside of the manuscript, but this is Wake's story and I did get a good feel for him by the end of the game.

Despite its occasional oversights and moments where the textures look dated or facial animations seem odd, Alan Wake delivers a convincing and engaging horror story. A strong action base and some memorable set pieces in the second half culminate in an excellent final few hours. The flaws in pacing, the repetitive setting and the narrative delivery are curious given the long development time, but Alan Wake avoids being a disappointment even after the long wait. You'll want to see it through to its conclusion, and when the end does come you'll be counting the days until the forthcoming DLC arrives to carry on from where the game ended.


shoinan's avatar
Freelance review by Sinan Kubba (May 23, 2010)

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LowerStreetBlues posted May 23, 2010:

This review needs some proofreading: "afore-mentioned" and "right trigger right trigger" offhand. I also noticed some unnecessary commas and wordy constructions that give the writing a lulling rhythmic quality ("After Wake first finds himself in the darkness of the woods, he returns to it over the course of those first three episodes") -- something to be mindful of in the future.

I remember being excited for Alan Wake years ago and it had me leaning towards getting a 360... so I'm thankful it was continuously delayed until Microsoft's faulty hardware quelled all interest. After half a decade it certainly doesn't seem as -novel- as it once did either.

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