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.