Alan Wake (2010)

Alan Wake is a story-driven action game developed by Remedy Games. It is a psychological thriller and many have likened it to “Twin Peaks meets Stephen King”. It is clearly inspired by Stephen King and plays out similarly to his works, it even mentions him a few times. I generally like psychological thrillers, and Alan Wake has received generally favorable reviews, so I was excited to play this title. Unfortunately, I was sorely disappointed as I felt Alan Wake achieved nothing higher than mediocrity. The only thing that I really liked about this game was its atmosphere, everything else was just average at best. Both the story and the gameplay felt like they had potential to be interesting and unique, but both went nowhere interesting.

In a story-driven game the story better be memorable. Sadly, for Alan Wake that is not the case. At times, I was certainly drawn in and intrigued by the story, but those moments are fleeting in Alan Wake. The story revolves around a writer who is struggling to write his next story. The novel that the main character does write ends up coming true, and now you are living in it. You constantly are dropped into dreamlike sequences where you fight a dark presence that infects and controls people. At the start of the game, you are meant to be confused and disoriented by the surreal experiences that make up the majority of the game. This is similar to some other psychological thrillers like Memento, The Game, and Shutter Island in the sense that you are meant to be confused. Unlike those movies however, Alan Wake never has a big payoff or moment that makes you say “I get it now.” As I was playing I understood where the story was going pretty quickly as the clues and hints that the game gives you lack any subtlety. While a perceptive viewer could piece together the plots of the movies I mentioned through subtle clues, in Alan Wake the solution is completely obvious and in your face. The dialogue and characters are solid for the most part, but the facial animations and lip-syncing are a little off putting. While the characters are certainly interesting they cannot carry the story. The story interesting enough to grab my attention for a little while, but it just lacked a big payoff to really bring it all together. Any surprise that the game did have in store for the player was completely ruined by the goofy collectible system.

In Alan Wake the main collectibles are manuscript pages. These give further detail to the story and help the player understand what is happening in the story. They are generally pretty easy to find as they are lit up and lay out in the open. Many of the manuscript pages that you find end up detailing events that are yet to come. There is no feeling of suspense when you are told exactly what is going to happen before it happens. Any element of shock that this game could have had is completely stripped away by the manuscript pages.

Despite the issues with the story, it was engrossing enough to keep me interested for a little while. The biggest issue with Alan Wake was the gameplay. The gameplay is a mix of third-person shooter, action-adventure, and thriller. In Alan Wake before you shoot enemies, you must first shine a light on them until they become weakened. This was great idea thematically, but it needed some changes for me to like it from a gameplay perspective. The flashlight that you use to weaken enemies runs out of juice so fast, you can weaken maybe one enemy with a fully charged battery. So, you either have to put in a new battery, which you have to collect like ammo, or you can just wait for the flashlight to slowly regain its energy. You mostly want to save the batteries for intense fights where you need quick bursts of energy, so most of the time you are left waiting for the flashlight to recharge, which is unbearably slow. In most of the fights I found myself kiting big groups of enemies around and waiting for my flashlight to recharge. A lot of the time I just ran past enemies and to the next safe zone to conserve ammo and time. The other big issue was just how repetitive the gameplay became. After the first hour or two of playing the game I was just tired of how similarly every single encounter played out. There was one sequence of gameplay that I actually really enjoyed that I felt really upped the intensity, speed, and pressure. In this particular sequence, you are fighting on a stage that produces its own light, so you do not have to worry about slowly weakening the enemies with the flashlight, it is just pure, intense, gameplay for a few minutes.

My biggest personal gripe with the gameplay was just how clunky it was. Alan is a little tough to control, but more frustrating than that was that he was incredibly slow. You can sprint for maybe three seconds at a decent pace before you run out of stamina, and once that happens Alan is the slowest character in the history of video games. This is extremely distracting and off-putting, as I am trying to run from evil beings that are trying to kill me, or a possessed train that is going to crush me, Alan cannot muster enough energy to move faster than an anemic tortoise. Another irritating feature was the cinematic zooms during combat. As an enemy sneaks up on you, sometimes the game will zoom in on them and go into slow motion. This not only ruined any surprise or thrills that the game could have had, but it was also extremely disorientating. As the game snaps back to your perspective after one of these sequences it takes a second to readjust to your surroundings. On top of that, the game is still going on in the background as these cinematics play. You can still control your character, even though you cannot see him, and enemies can still approach and attack you. There was one particular instance that the game zoomed in on an enemy 10 meters from me as I was running from two other enemies. As the game went back to my perspective the enemies that I was closer to had closed the gap and begun attacking me before I could even do anything about it. These slow-mo sequences were frustrating, disorientating, action-breaking, and unnecessary.

With everything that let me down in Alan Wake, the one redeeming feature was its impeccable atmosphere. Set in rural Washington state, Alan Wake is a mix of serene forests, lakes, and mountains. At night, these typically calming and relaxing features turn into nightmarish environments for the player to traverse. Nowhere is safe in the dark, enemies can creep up on the player at any time and this instills a sense of fear and dread at all times. Alan Wake is not a horror game, it is not particularly scary or disturbing, but it is great at unnerving the player with the motif of light and dark. The darkness surrounds the player and gives you the feeling that nowhere is safe and that something is watching you. Seeing a beacon of light in the distance is a very reassuring feeling. Areas like the gas station or radio station in and of themselves are not particularly comforting, but the feeling of safety imbued by their light makes them such a huge relief once you reach them.

All in all, Alan Wake was disappointing for me. A story that starts off as compelling and intriguing, but goes nowhere. A collectible system that ruins any suspense. Unique gameplay that grows repetitive after an hour. Everything feels like it is almost good, but just falls a little short. The only stand out feature from this game was its atmosphere. The theme of dark and light conveys feelings of danger and safety so incredibly well. Overall the entire experience was just mediocre in almost all aspects. I would not say Alan Wake was bad, but it was not particularly good either. Alan Wake is just decent.

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia (2017)

Remakes of older games often struggle with finding a balance between fixing the games shortcomings, but at the same time remaining faithful to the core design. Done correctly, remakes can be the definitive version of a video game. If the developers change too much, then the game may hardly be recognizable. If they change too little, then the same problems from the originals are just as persistent and frustrating. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is a remake of the second game in the series, Fire Emblem Gaiden, which was released back in 1992. Gaiden is without a doubt the black sheep of the Fire Emblem franchise. Most people who have played it can attest to its frustrating designs and its sluggish gameplay. Shadows of Valentia has a tall order to fill: keeping true to the original but fixing the glaring problems that plagued it.

Shadows of Valentia did a lot of things right, but my absolute favorite feature was that the game was fully voice acted. This is new for the Fire Emblem series, but it is a massive step forward. Having all the characters voiced definitely brings them to life and puts a lot more impact to the dialogues that they have. Speaking of characters, Shadows of Valentia is a big step-up from previous entries Awakening and Fates in the characters department. The latter games characters were one-dimensional and a single personality trait defined their entire character. In Shadows of Valentia the cast is a lot more interesting and fleshed-out, they feel like they could be real people, not just a wacky cast from a video game.

The story of Shadows of Valentia is simple but satisfying. It is not a mind-bending experience, but the plot is extremely gratifying and gripping as you fight your way through the continent of Valentia. Alm and Celica are two childhood friends that split paths and each attempt to save the dying continent of Valentia. Alm’s path focuses on militaristic battles and war, while Celica’s path is a much more religious journey. Alm attempts to reclaim his homeland and fight off invaders, while Celica must visit the temple of a goddess to learn why the farms have gone barren. While the story can be cliché and predictable at times, it was still intriguing and engaging enough to keep me playing. What really stood out to me in this game was the world building. Being able to explore the world map for yourself is something that I love in Fire Emblem games. This was a huge step up from Fates, in which the continent that you play on is not even named. Being able to visit villages and talk to the locals gives the player a much better understanding of what is going on in Valentia rather than “This guy is evil, go fight him.” Even the allies that you recruit constantly comment on the happenings in the game and give their perspectives.

There are some new gameplay features in Shadows of Valentia. The biggest addition to gameplay was probably the dungeons. Fire Emblem is traditionally a top-down, turn-based strategy game, but in dungeons you explore in 3rd person view. When you run into enemies, the game starts a classic top-down battle. To be completely honest I am not a big fan of this feature. For the most part, these dungeons felt like filler and I do not think that they added a whole lot to the game. All of the battles that were had in these dungeons were incredibly repetitive and boring. Every single battle fought in the same dungeon uses the same map, only occasionally the enemies are rearranged in a slightly different fashion. All of these battles blend together and are all together bland, dungeons just felt like filler to pad out the game length. Dungeons were definitely a unique new addition to Fire Emblem, but they are going to need to see some tune-ups before I am sold on them.

Some other noteworthy gameplay changes include abandoning mechanics from newer Fire Emblem games and returning to the classic style of gameplay. The pair-up feature from Awakening and Fates has been left behind, and I think this is a good thing. The pair-up feature led to many balance issues and just encouraged the player use characters as stat boosters for other, more powerful characters. Another feature that was left behind was skills. Personally, I thought skills added extra dimensions to characters and their utility, but they definitely were difficult to balance and often relied on random chance to activate in battle. The skills have been replaced with combat arts, which are activatable abilities that units can learn by using certain weapons. Some combat arts are simply more powerful attacks, while others have special properties like dealing extra damage to armored units, or dashing through the enemy unit on the battlefield. All of these combat arts come at the cost of health and I felt like they certainly added some extra tactics to each encounter.

An entirely new feature was the useable item called Mila’s Turnwheel. This item allowed the player to go back in time and revise moves that they previously made. If you make a bonehead error, or you misclick, even if you get unlucky and a unit dies to a 1% critical hit chance, you can use the Turnwheel to give it another shot. This is a welcome feature as it mitigates frustration from bad luck or just a lapse in judgement. You no longer have to reset and redo the entire chapter if a unit dies to a roll of the dice thanks to Mila’s Turnwheel. Of course, you only have a limited number of uses so you cannot just use it all the time. I actually avoided using this feature outside of just testing it out because I felt like Shadows of Valentia was already relatively easy, even on the hardest difficulty. Mila’s Turnwheel definitely makes the game easier, so avoid it if you want a more difficult experience. That being said, it is a great tool if you are not looking for a tougher time. It also has some interesting narrative uses, as it allows the player to see “memory prisms.” These are flashbacks to years before the happenings of this game. These set up the story a lot better when you can see the events leading up to the present rather than just reading about it through some text. There are some other unique gameplay aspects of Shadows of Valentia. Archers, mages, and clerics are all drastically different from previous iterations. They are a lot more utility focused and I think these were solid changes.

The original Gaiden was known for being tedious and frustrating, and this is mostly due to the games maps. This is the most common complaint about the original, so I thought for sure that the maps would be fine-tuned and improved for this game. I was wrong. Many of the maps are 1-to-1 remakes of the original. This is mind boggling to me. The developers had to know that the maps of the original are criticized heavily, so why move forward with the exact same designs? I understand wanting to be faithful to the original, but if something is obviously bad I expect the developers to at least attempt to make it better. What makes these maps so bad you ask? Well, they range from tedious and boring, to obnoxious and infuriating. Many of the earlier maps are just boring, repetitive slogs. Giant, open, grassy fields dotted with some forest tiles here and there. No chokepoints or interesting features, just flat nothingness. There are not even side objectives to spice things up. These types of maps are bad and completely forgettable, but they are nowhere near as bad as what is to come later in the game. Many of the frustrating maps have deserts, which inhibit movement, or swamps than inhibit movement and deal damage to you. Giant clusters of enemies with no tactical way of approaching them. Some maps were even reused multiple times throughout the course of the game. But the biggest issues with the maps were witches and cantors.

Witches are one of the single most frustrating designs in any video game ever. I am confident of that. Essentially, they are mages with the ability to teleport wherever on the map that they want, move, and attack, all in the same turn. If their AI was any good at all, they could simply just teleport to your lowest resistance unit and gang up on that unit and kill it, and there is no possible way for you to stop this. The only thing making these witches even bearable is that their AI is complete garbage, and I think that it is this way on purpose. They just randomly teleport around instead of focusing on your weaker units. Sometimes they do not teleport at all. In the entire course of the game I think I only had to reset because of a witch maybe two times. Still, the fact that they are so incredibly inconsistent is nerve racking. At any given moment while you are playing, a witch could just make the right move and force you to reset with no plausible way of stopping it. You just have to hope that they keep making dumb moves. Cantors are another story. They are summoners that spawn weaker units every few turns. On paper this actually sounds like a good idea, it is a way of speeding up the player. Saying “if you do not kill this cantor quick than you are going to have to deal with hordes of enemy units.” Unfortunately, it does not work out that way. Instead cantors are often surrounded by powerful enemy units, forcing you to take your time dealing with the tough guys first. Many maps with cantors become slogs of killing massive amounts of weak summoned units as you slowly pick off the more powerful enemies. Towards the end of the game, there are cantors that spawn witches. I think that speaks for itself. The thing that really bugged me was that plenty of the maps would have actually been good maps had it not been for the witches or cantors. Just take them out and there are some actually decent maps in this game.

My last gripe with the game are the random encounters. As you travel the world map enemies will crop up from strongholds and chase you around the map. These small skirmishes are fairly boring and they are unavoidable. Sometimes I just want to get on with the main story, but no, first I have to slog through some small battle on a map that I have already seen and played. I feel like this really punishes the player for exploring the world map, visiting towns, doing quests, even going to shrines to promote your units. Doing any of this will lead to the random encounters cropping up and forcing you to play them despite their dullness.

Fire Emblem definitely has a divisive fanbase. The series varies wildly, and people enjoy the different games for different reasons. I consider myself to be fairly central and I appreciate a well-rounded game. Fire Emblem traditionally mixes strategy elements with story and RPG elements, and I do not think that Shadows of Valentia struck a good balance. Shadows of Valentia definitely has positive story and RPG elements, and it is a huge improvement over Fates which was a disaster in that department. Unfortunately, the gameplay is bogged down by dreadful map design. Most of the maps are just bland and repetitive, but towards the end they just get frustrating. For the most part I enjoyed Shadows of Valentia, the story and characters were certainly enough to keep me playing despite the maps. For these reasons, I give Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia a 7/10. Before you pick up this game, ask yourself why you like the Fire Emblem series. If you are into it for the tactics, strategy, and map design, I would probably avoid this title. If you enjoy the series for its characters, world building, grand fantasy, plot, music, or any other of its RPG elements, definitely check out Shadows of Valentia.