It was 2005 when Remedy, developers of the Max Payne series, announced Alan Wake, a game about a writer stuck in a strange, mysterious town. Beyond that, not much was divulged, and the game underwent a fairly quiet development for the past five years. Now, finally, the game has been released, carrying with it a huge amount of anticipation from fans, and skepticism from those wondering if it is even possible for the game to be worth the wait.
Alan Wake has writer's block. Despite being a best-selling author, he has found himself incapable of putting a word on paper in nearly two years. In hopes of reigniting his creative juices, Wake’s wife Alice brings him to the small town of Bright Falls, a trip that, at first, appears to be a simple getaway. When Wake finds out that his wife’s plans involve getting him back on the typewriter he feels betrayed, something only made worse when she explains that a doctor in town specializes in helping artists overcome their obstacles. He leaves her at their cabin, something he comes to regret when he returns to find her missing, taken by a dark presence that has found its way into Bright Falls, corrupting townspeople and turning them into shadowy “Taken.”
In order to defeat the Taken, Wake needs to first use his flashlight before finishing them off with gunshots. In a way, it’s almost like a grown-up version of Luigi’s Mansion, with pistols, shotguns, and flare guns replacing the vacuum cleaner. Beyond firearms, Wake also has access to road flares and flashbangs, both of which make defeating the Taken a simpler task. As the story progresses, different types of opponents will attack Wake, including flocks of corrupt birds, possessed objects, and more powerful Taken, though the enemy variety feels as though it could have been spiced up a bit more. The same can be said about locations, as a majority of the game is spent in Bright Falls’ forests, which begin to look the same over time.
That said, Remedy has absolutely nailed the atmosphere for Alan Wake. While the forest locations cease to feel original after a few hours, they never fail at evoking emotion, and walking through the dark, smoky woods with nothing but a flashlight is as frightening as anything released this generation. The visuals, on the whole, are fairly impressive, even if the characters themselves aren’t up to par with some of the better looking games released this year. The cinematics and voice acting, however, more than make up for any graphical inadequacies, selling the mood completely. Things are made even tenser when Wake begins to find pages from a manuscript that he doesn’t remember writing, portraying the events that are currently happening, and some that have yet to unfold.
Broken up into six chapters, the game forces itself into an episodic model, with each section ending with credits and beginning with a recap of the previous segment. It works, in a way, but feels strange amidst the nonstop literary references, as if Remedy couldn’t decide if they wanted to make a Steven King novel or a season of "Twin Peaks." This confusion continues into the story itself, which begins to unravel and fall apart near the finale. While Alan’s narration seems to know that stories need to be true to themselves and follow a cohesive path, the writers break their own rules, instead opting for an open ending that doesn’t feel even remotely rewarding. Their ambition to expand the series via downloadable episodes and sequels isn’t ignored, but they still should have pulled together a better conclusion for this game before looking to the future.
Remedy’s latest is a unique experience, and one that almost sells itself as Microsoft’s answer to Heavy Rain. Bright Falls is completely filled to the brim with content, from radio and television shows to signs telling the town’s history. There are collectible coffee thermoses, manuscript pages to find, and plenty of other things to keep completionists happy. For as unique as it is, however, it’s just as front loaded, and the best parts come in the first few hours, before burning out as the game goes on. Instead of adding new opponents and challenges, old ones are reshuffled and rehashed, and it’s often easier to just run through some encounters instead of dealing with all of the opponents.
It's a shame, but Alan Wake fails to live up to its own potential. The high moments are certainly high, and while it doesn’t have too many “lows” to speak of, the conclusion certainly fails to inspire any sense of satisfaction, making the previous hours of character development, storytelling, and foreshadowing feel weaker. It breaks its own rules, goes against the key elements of storytelling, and lands with a dull thud, instead of going out with a bang. The interesting and unique gameplay mechanics are fun enough to justify a playthrough, just don’t get too excited about what lies on the other end. Worth the wait? It's up for debate, though there's no denying that it's a good ride while it lasts.