Sunday, April 15, 2012

Review: Alan Wake

Alan Wake

Playing a novel.

Developed by Remedy Entertainment
Published by Microsoft Game Studios
for the Xbox 360, Windows
Released May 18, 2010 (360), February 16, 2012 (PC)

As we inch closer to a future where the Resident Evil franchise has all but devolved into a cawadooty action shooter, the times beckon horror fanatics to look elsewhere for a good heart-pounding thrill. While PC gamers have enjoyed the likes of Amnesia: The Dark Descent and The Killing Floor, the horror library for consoles has been rather abysmal this generation. Ah, but behold, as you shine thine overpowered flashlight through the darkness, there reveals Alan Wake, a gleaming example of how to tell a horror story the right way.

Alan Wake is labeled as a Psychological Thriller, which in my opinion, is the best kind of horror. Just having an enemy jump out at you every few steps may make your heart skip a beat but it's still just a cheap scare. Now, remember that feeling you had as you looked up in the sky at the falling moon in Majora's Mask and knew the end was coming. Remember the eel in Super Mario 64, the Regenerators in Resident Evil 4, Earthbound (that entire freaking game?) and feeling a type of fear that felt more legitimate than having a skeleton popping out and saying boo? It's the subtlety and it's the constant ingraining of uncertainty, thrill and fear in the back of your head. It's this kind of psychological fear that Alan Wake creates so well. Alan Wake excels at telling an intriguing and thrilling tale that keeps the player's hands grasping the controller.

The story of the game tells of Alan Wake, a famous author of multiple best-selling novels, and his wife Alice, who decide to take a vacation in the remote mountain town of Bright Falls. After making their selves at home in their cabin in the middle of Cauldron Lake, darkness casts its presence over the island and takes Alice. Alan soon finds himself living through the events of a story he has not yet written in a search for his wife and in a fight against the all consuming Dark Presence.

The story and the game's overall presentation is its shining aspect. Alan Wake is split up into six chapters that are presented as episodes of a tv series with Wake himself as the narrator (recapping each episode with "Previously on Alan Wake"). The game did a great job of balancing the story telling and the gameplay; mostly placing cutscenes and the majority of the story during day scenes while giving the player back control during the nights when the feeling of vulnerability kicks in. Scenes of falling trees, and boats meld with the sounds of revving chainsaws, distorted voices, and a creepy yet brilliant score to create a gorgeously horrific atmosphere to immerse yourself in.

The environments are absolutely breathtaking. I often found myself gazing out across the mountains and lakes and admiring everything around while listening to some of the haunting tunes that they incorporated into the game such as Nick Cave's "Up Jumped the Devil", Among the Oak and Ashes' "Shady Grove" and even David Bowie's "Space Oddity".

While the gameplay isn't awful by any means, it is very limited and can be repetitive at times. The action consists of fighting the Taken who are drenched in darkness and must be bathed in the light of a flashlight or lantern in order to be made vulnerable to gunfire. The flashlight can simply be pointed at a Taken to gradually deteriorate their defense or focused on one using the left trigger to rapidly drain them of darkness. The only problem with this mechanic is that the left trigger is also used to aim your weapon so when I am focusing on taking out an enemy I find that my flashlight will unintentionally drain out of battery and I must wait to recharge it or use up a whole new battery if a new enemy comes along. The flashlight can be prevented from being used if the trigger is only slightly pressed but during intense moments there is no way I could keep myself from dying while carefully feathering the trigger to just the right pressure. The aimer is also very sensitive even when I have it toggled to the lowest possible sensitivity causing sporadic movements during tense situations.

If you think you can avoid combat by running away, think again, because every enemy runs much faster than you making escape futile. Luckily, though, dodging is quick and fluid. If an enemy is about to attack simply press the dash button and Alan will avoid the attack with a stylish visual which leaves you enough time to shine your light and take the upper hand. The game will also show you if an enemy spawns behind you by slowing down the action and zooming out to give you a better look at the playing field. The camera will also focus on certain puzzle elements which can be helpful, unless you're fighting enemies. During these moments, you will not be able to see yourself and during the confusion you can be easily taken out by a few hits. Beacause of this I had to make sure I killed every Taken before I moved on to any area.

I wouldn't have too much of a problem with the few flaws that the combat has if I had some variety in gameplay. Yes, puzzles are sprinkled here and there but they are so simple that they seemed non-existent. Driving sequences let you run over hoards of Taken as you throw caution to the wind. Too bad there's only about three driving sequences in the entire game.

Throughout the game there are coffee thermoses and manuscripts to pick up. The thermoses serve no purpose other than to collect but the manuscripts add more depth to the story and the game. The manuscripts come from the book that Alan is living out during the game. The manuscripts will give you a more in-depth look at an event that has already occurred or a person who have already met. They give you insight on enemies you are currently facing or puzzles your are about to solve. They will also tell you about future events so you are better prepared to face whatever it is. " . . . things were looking up. But then I heard the chainsaw." And sure enough, a huge psycho busts through a wooden gate and comes chasing me with a chainsaw. Sometimes, however, the manuscripts will spoil the story for you by telling you what happens at the end of a chapter before you're even halfway through it and if you're constantly reading the manuscripts there is no way to avoid it.

Alan Wake doesn't need gore or mere scare tactics to instill fear in the gamer. It gets into your head and places the fear in the back of your mind. Alan constantly states that no character especially the protagonist is safe and that there can be no happy ending. Fate is determined by the story as is the appeal of the game itself. Alan Wake is a horror novel disguised as a video game. While the gameplay is solid, there is no denying that the true selling point of Alan Wake is its psychologically thrilling tale.


Fun: 3/5
Lasting Appeal: 2/3
Controls: 3/5
Graphics: 2 /2
Sound: 2/2

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