Alan Wake Review «

While opinions obviously vary, most experts in the fields of psychology believe that we’re not born with an innate fear of the dark. It’s not until we start learning about the things that might be waiting for us out there in the blackness (be it from ghost stories, scary movies, or even our own minds) that we worry and fret when the power goes out or our parents’ car runs out of gas on a lonely road late at night. Even the most rational adult feels that twinge of fear when walking through a park or wooded area at night, checking over their shoulder every so often just in case something is waiting to pounce. The psychological thriller Alan Wake adeptly plays to these age-old fears by thrusting the player into a series of situations that would creep out just about anyone.

When the eponymous hero arrives in the quiet Pacific Northwestern burg of Bright Falls for a few weeks of rest and relaxation, he doesn’t expect to deal with anything more vexing than whether or not to put cream in his coffee. This potentially idyllic existence is promptly shattered when his wife disappears under mysterious circumstances, and Wake is forced to deal with a growing “darkness” that threatens both the town and his sanity. While the story (penned by Max Payne scribe Sam Lake) doesn’t quite reach its full potential thanks to a few muddy twists and turns toward the end, it’s still better than most of the writing in recent survival-horror games. This is due in large part to the fact that the game really doesn’t take itself too seriously, proudly wearing its inspirations on its proverbial sleeve more than any other game in recent memory.

Energizer’s latest pitchman just isn’t as cute as its last one.


Although many developers are afraid to ground their games in the real world, it’s obvious from the start that the developers at

Remedy had no such qualms. Alan directly refers to Stephen King as his biggest inspiration during his internal monologue, people compare him to other authors (my personal favorite was when a character said Wake was “the best thing to happen to crime writing since James Ellroy”), and the official soundtrack features everyone from Roy Orbison to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Movies and TV show references abound, from King’s own “The Shining” to the Twilight Zone-esque show that Wake cut his writing teeth on. Much of this stuff is presented to the player with a knowing wink and a nod, like the collectible coffee thermoses that might as well have a “Property of Twin Peaks” stamp on them. The similarities to David Lynch’s quirky 1990s TV show run so deep that you might be craving some cherry pie even before you step into the town’s diner for the first time.

Even calling Alan Wake a survival-horror game feels like a bit of a stretch, as it’s more of a psychological thriller than anything. Sure, plenty of evil spirits wield various implements of destruction in the woods where Wake spends the majority of his time, but this is a far cry from your garden-variety horror game. For one, Alan Wake relies more heavily on its oppressive atmosphere than on buckets of gore or terrifying visuals (twitchy Silent Hill nurses, I’m looking at you) to scare you — a tactic that actually works surprisingly well. Only a few scattered moments will genuinely make you jump out of your seat… but, like a good horror novel, Alan Wake succeeds in getting under your skin and staying there, even when you’re away from it.

Fun Fact: The day after I started this game, I went out and bought two dozen road flares.


Ultimately, the novel comparison fits perfectly, as the developers took great strides to saddle Alan Wake with a decidedly literary slant. Collectible manuscript pages flesh out the universe while furthering the game’s plot (not to mention occasionally spoiling future events!), to the point that a part of me wants to play through the whole thing again just to fill in blanks with the missing pages. Unfortunately, the most fitting literary comparison is that several long stretches of repetitive gameplay will make you feel like you’re wandering aimlessly through the woods of an unedited novel. Alan Wake’s pacing is pretty decent for the most part, but sometimes, I just wanted to get out of the woods and move on to the next set-piece.

In a remarkable display of self-control, I played Alan Wake as I like to assume the designers intended — one “episode” at a time, for six evenings. This TV-style presentation (it even features a “Previously, on Alan Wake…” montage, a la Lost) breaks the game up into nicely portioned chunks that will make you look forward to the next episode. One final note that probably goes without saying: The game is best enjoyed with the lights off and the surround-sound on, to maximize those bump-in-the-night scares. We may not be born with a fear of the dark, but at times, it’s nice having one.

 

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