Growing up with visits to the Pacific Northwest (and Washington more specifically) throughout my life, I've come to appreciate its diverse ecosystem. Beyond the salt of the ocean and outside of metropolitan areas exist country of dense, ancient forests where rays of sunlight fracture and cut through their canopies to make for beautiful scenery when the familiar overcast of the region takes a break. Should you find yourself in these spaces under the moon's presence, however, the shadows cast through the thicket coupled with the eerie creaks and moans of the wood can send any with an imagination scurrying for the comfort of an illuminating light source.
Awe-inspiring and unnerving, the backyard of the Pacific Northwest caters to both emotions in 12-hour cycles. If there's anything to say for sure about the long-awaited, much-hyped Alan Wake, it's Remedy Entertainment's ability to capture this deceiving interplay with true-to-life scenery and spectacular real-time lighting. Their long-in-development departure from Max Payne isn't a sightseeing expedition though, and it takes more than some pretty foliage to entertain hardcore players. Not surprising enough to be called an intense or suspenseful thriller, and too lite on action to fall into such a category, Alan Wake isn't the masterpiece we've been hoping for, but it does have its bright moments.
Aside from the gorgeous environment artwork, Wake's strongest element is that which it is so heavily centered around: its story. As you progress through the six-chapter, roughly 10-hour game, you piece together the mystery of small mountain town Bright Falls' haunting by the “Dark Presence” while Wake tries to save his wife after a week-long blackout. Too much of the plot can't be properly discussed without divulging spoilers, but composed of “ah-ha” moments throughout, it's more than just context here. It may be more supernatural oddity than psychological fiction, but the twist is undoubtedly unexpected.
Similarly, the way in which Remedy unveils the story's exposition is successful. Though seemingly unnecessary, an episodic structure to the game works well for relatively short, digestible portions, able to be played like a premium cable mini-series, complete with “Previously on” segments and cliffhangers sandwiching each. This formula is a bit dubious for marathoners (or reviewers) who like to complete their adventures in a single sitting, but the superb music choices that complete each chapter are welcomed goals.
The uncommon, yet not wholly novel episodic delivery isn't the game's only narrative tool, however. Once a best-selling author, Wake's visit to the old mining town was devised as a chance to recharge and work on his next novel in peace and seclusion. Its these literary skills which add an extra element to Wake's storytelling as you find pages of an unwritten manuscript scattered about Bright Falls. Each page you pick up either offers a foretelling of events yet to unfold or deeper insight into characters and the current situation. This literal paper trail to the game's conclusion helps keep the momentum of the experience while adding direction in the large levels.
Narrative-driven, Wake is an appreciable example of videogames being about more than just big explosions or a mindless romp—it simply takes the whole “interactive story” role too literally.
For all of their effort crafting a believable setting and intriguing dilemma, Remedy seems as if they were lost in their own wood of development when it comes to the action element of Alan Wake. The constant inventory management between batteries, ammunition and ultra-bright defensive weaponry helps develop some anxiety in your first couple of encounters with “The Taken,” but nearly every ambush unfolds in similar fashion; after the first threat to Wake's life, you'll have learned to quickly check your six o'clock as soon as the slow-motion attacks are initiated.
As each skirmish becomes less frightening with forewarning and familiar packs of enemies, the nuisances only serve to belabor the climax of the unfolding story. Tactics stay the same, but when the game is played on the hardest “Nightmare” setting, only available after completing the game once, these encounters offer more challenge. Unfortunately, with such repetitive action and a mystery already unraveled, a second playthrough turns into a tedious scavenger hunt for more than a couple kinds of hidden items—at least the low-budget, live action “Twilight Zone” knockoffs will entertain you and can be re-watched from the main menu.
In fact, there's not much challenge or learning curve to Wake as you wander around Bright Falls. Besides dispatching enemies in nearly the same manner with every bout, the adventure of rescuing Alice involves anything but actually adventuring. The size and scope of each level is impressive, with linearity that doesn't feel claustrophobic, but a sole 'puzzle' near the conclusion of the game keeps the path to resolution simple, even with the opportunity spectacular set pieces belie. The accessible nature of the game may cater to a broader audience, but even Heavy Rain's Bear Trial was more strenuous than the entirety of Remedy's game.
Despite having its fair share of time in development and such high expectations, it's hard to see Alan Wake as more than an accomplished rental. Surprises that turn into expectations; non-adventuring; facial animations that can't keep up with the scenery and objects in the game world without weight physics: these are all elements, that if done well, would round out the game to make it the epic it was hyped to be. In the end, I feel safer in Remedy's woods than I do in the actual backcountry of Washington.
Where on Earth scares you the most? Are you afraid of the dark, or are you a night owl? Share with us on Twitter @Gamers_Hell