Alan Wake has been in development for a bloody long time. Announced way back in 2005, I remember reading previews of it before the Xbox 360 was even released. Not much was known back then other than it was being made by Remedy, the team behind the Max Payne games, and was a Stephen King-esque psychological thriller. Since then, the game has been through more changes than Pennywise. With games that usually have a development cycle of around 5 years, the end result is usually poor, luckily Alan Wake breaks this mould and manages to become quite a page turner taking tips from The X Files and Twin Peaks. So let's dive into the mystery to see who killed Laura Palmer...Sorry.
You take on the role of Alan Wake (Alan Wake...A.Wake....awake...get it?), a world famous writer who, after the success of his last book The Sudden Stop and an attempt to break the writer's block he's had for two years, takes a vacation with his wife, Alice, to the idyllic mountain town of Twin Peaks...I mean Bright Falls. Whilst relaxing in his hired cabin on the lake, Alice goes missing and Alan begins to find manuscript pages to a book he never remembers writing but that is slowly dictating the actions in the real world.
The narrative style of Alan Wake is where it really shines; the game is split up into six episodes each with its own theme and story thread. Of course, it's used to suit the style of narrative it is, but practically it does work extremely well. Everything is split up extremely nicely, the Previously On... style beginning similar to that of many other serial dramas such as Lost help you to keep track of the story and the cliffhangers at the end of each episode make it a treat to see what happens next. I'm a sucker for great cliffhangers, usually leading me to watch the next episode of a show straight away. The same can be seen here when I found myself diving right back into the world of Alan Wake to find out what the hell happened at the end of the last episode.
The plot is akin to some of the better thriller TV shows and movies of the past half century, it could easily stand amongst them if it wanted to. With hints of The X-Files and numerous Stephen King novels and stuffed full of cultural references, Alan Wake manages to make a great story full of twists and turns which will most probably leave you in a state of confusion. Any game that has an homage to The Shining and references to The Birds within the first hour or so is instantly in my good books. The characters you meet throughout the game are extremely quirky individuals who are all interesting to talk to. In that sense, it is very much like Twin Peaks so much so that the sheriff department receptionist sounds almost exactly like Lucy and Bright Falls has it's own Log Lady (Lamp Lady here). The story can be a little over-the-top at times but, by its conclusion, I found myself wanting more after the sequel-opening ambiguous ending.
Alan Wake is very combat heavy, as you traverse the forests of Bright Falls, all sorts of ghoulies attack you from the darkness. These ghoulies are "The Taken", ordinary village folk possessed by the Dark Presence, a part of Wake's latest story. The Taken are extremely interesting and unforgettable enemies due to their garbled cries of nonsense before they attack, usually something associated with the possessed form (A Taken dressed as a fisherman shouting about the correct way to catch fish for instance). To defeat The Taken, you must use light to your advantage. Destroy the darkness shielding The Taken and you can destroy their physical form using standard weapons such as hunting rifles or the classic revolver, as such, the game uses light in interesting ways.
Your gun is not your best friend, you torch is. Shining your torch at an enemy and boosting up the intensity, at the cost of battery power, destroys the darkness but you can also uses other light emitting sources such as flares, flashbangs or spotlights to keep The Taken away. The Dark Presence also has the capability to possess inanimate objects such as barrels and haystacks and, as it grows stronger, cars and school buses. These poltergeist items can be defeated by prolonged exposure to the light. Juggling between taking down The Taken as well as a possessed tractor leads to some interesting battles; it's all about keeping your distance from the enemy - if you get overwhelmed, pop a flare to keep them at bay. Unfortunately, combat is marred by the lack of a real targeting system which can often lead to wasted shots and, with ammo for the bigger guns scarce, it feels like you've wasted a shot. There are other problems too; the dodging system, although cool when in slow-mo, is problematic. It can often back Wake into a bush, where you can't see your enemies, or even off the side of a cliff, it can be a pain when many of the deaths feel a bit cheap.
Remedy really knows how to ramp up the tension. The addition of certain QTEs to create Safe Haven spots of light can become extremely tense as you try to power a generator while a group of Taken breathe down your neck with axes and chainsaws. Little background things can really add to the atmosphere too, with the Dark Presence occasionally felling trees in the forest or the occasional crow flying from a bush can really give you a fright. Pro tip: play Alan Wake with the lights off and surround sound on, you may need a change of pants pretty quickly. Alan Wake also has a number of great set pieces. My personal favourite feels very similar to the finale of Dark Carnival in Left 4 Dead 2 involving lots of pyrotechnics and rock!
Visually, Alan Wake is fantastic, the unique art style really brings more atmosphere to the game. What, during the day, looks like a quaint, peaceful town, at night becomes a place of darkness where anything can lurk. The lighting effects are equally amazing; stepping into a fully lit barn after exploring the dark outside temporarily blinds you as you adjust to the light. It can get a bit overbearing at times but Alan Wake really does look stunning. It also has a top notch soundtrack featuring some unconventional commercial tracks, not only on the radios scattered throughout, but bookending each episode. Each song choice suits the mood absolutely perfectly and whoever compiled this soundtrack is my new hero.
Despite it's flaws, Alan Wake is not a game you can miss out on. The five years, although a long time, has clearly been worth it. Alan Wake is like a fine wine; left to age, it really has let the quirky flavours and fun notes of pop culture blossom. The combat can be a bit iffy but the story and character interactions are top notch. Any lover of Twin Peaks will feel right at home as well as any lover of a psychological thriller. Play it now; it's brought the freshness to the survival horror genre it has been lacking for so many years.