Alan Wake

Status: 1 Normal playthrough of Alan Wake complete, now playing on Nightmare
Achievements: 31 of 50
Gamerscore: 490/1000
DLC Purchased: None

As I sit here channeling Alan Wake, writing in the light to keep away any Dark Presence that may have seeped from my Xbox 360 over the past week,  I take a brief moment to reflect on just how many years it has taken for this game to finally see the light of day. I recall the hoopla surrounding the announcement at E3. Alan Wake would be one of the feature titles for the upcoming Xbox 360. It would revolutionize the survival horror genre. That was back in 2005.

Five years after the game was officially announced, Alan Wake finally found his way into my home. Like a good book or TV series that you can’t bring yourself to put down when you know it’s time for bed, Alan’s experience in Bright Falls is a wonderfully written tale delving deep into the darkness and taking all sorts of prisoners. Expectations were high seeing as I am both an avid survival horror junkie and bookworm. And like any good book, setting up the plot and creating atmosphere will set the entire tone of the story. It is here where you will either bring to life something amazing which will keep your audience glued to their seats or run the risk of losing them due to lack of uniqueness.

Waterfront view of Bright Falls

The Manuscript

For me, if the story on which a video game has been built blows me away, I can forgive almost any other flaws I might find. Alan Wake’s journey into the deep and twisted realm of the true nature of Bright Falls and Cauldron Lake kept me on the edge of my seat (literally and figuratively) as I played through each of the six episodes.

Suffering from a long two years of writers block, Alan and his wife leave the hustle and bustle of city life to relax in a small town called Bright Falls. A nice quiet town where the biggest festival of the year revolves around deer hunting, Bright Falls has its fair share of odd. On the surface, its just a mountain town where everyone knows each other. But the residents know something lurks in the darkness and they keep whatever they know about it to themselves. Reminiscent of Twin Peaks, minus the over the top crazy.

Alan and Alice are just about to settle into the cottage they’ll be staying in when they get into a small fight. Upset, Alan storms outside, knowing that Alice won’t dare follow him as she is deathly afraid of the dark. Only moments later, Alan hears the frightened screams of his wife tearing into the calm and rushes back inside to find his wife missing. There are signs of a struggle. He spots a break in the wooden railing outside hanging over the lake and dives in to rescue his wife. When he comes to, he is a long way from the lake and Alice is nowhere to be found. Now Alan must search Bright Falls for any clues as to Alice’s whereabouts with or without help from the police and with some mysterious presence always two steps ahead of him.

Alan’s story is made of up six episodes which play out just as if you were watching a TV show. From the first nightmare before his arrival in Bright Falls to the final scene, you will guide Alan through both his waking and nightmare worlds, usually with nothing more than a flashlight. In addition to Alan’s narrative, mysterious manuscript pages are hidden along the paths leading him closer to the truth. By combining the main story narrative and the pages strewn throughout Bright Falls, Remedy pulls us into a world that makes us question what lies beyond every bend. Nothing is exactly what it seems, and even the ending of the game will leave you scratching your head, full of questions.

You can also absorb extra story tidbits from listening to the radios and checking out what’s on TV in Bright Falls. Some televisions bring you clips from a show called Night Springs, an homage to The Twilight Zone. Shining your flashlight on others will bring forth images more pertinent to the task at hand. Every single element is woven together to bring you further down the proverbial rabbit hole that is at the heart of Bright Falls.

Barry brings the comic relief to the party

The Cast

Like any popular TV program or best selling novel, the success of a story weighs heavily on how much the viewer can identify and relate with the selected cast. The proper balance of maintaining the mood is a delicate thing to achieve; you don’t want your story to be too intense or you might push the audience too far, but you also want it to be some-what credible and eerie. Engaging all of your viewer’s senses includes making sure you have developed characters who, love them or abhor them, interact with the world in ways your audience can understand.

For the most part, everyone seems to have been cast well. Alan and Alice are a successful couple trying to mend a frazzled relationship. Alan’s extremely hands-on literary agent Barry brings some comic relief to the table, even in situations where one needs to keep their heads about them. The coloured townsfolk of Bright Falls bring that small town friendliness to the table and round out the supporting cast: Rose, diner waitress and zealous Alan Wake fan; retired rock star brothers, the Andersons; Sheriff Sarah Breaker, a level headed woman who knows a little more than she is letting on. The list goes on.

There is one character that feels extremely out of place in this tale: FBI Special Agent Nightingale. Portrayed as the stereotypical muscle-headed FBI agent, Nightingale disregards protocol and abuses the names of great literary minds, slinging them as intended insults at Wake.  He shows up out of nowhere, presumably to investigate Alice’s disappearance, and just doesn’t feel like he belongs in the story. It’s as though he was an afterthought, someone thrown in to antagonize Wake and get under the skin of the local authorities as filler so they could set up the next scenario for Alan to live through.

Birds of a feather fry in the light together

The Light

You never know what is waiting for you in the dark. For me, I worry about spiders, silverfish and other creepy bugs that seem to find their way into my apartment. But in Bright Falls a mysterious matter referred to as the Dark Presence lingers around every corner just waiting to possess its next victim. These Taken vessels cannot bear illumination, thus making a flashlight and nearby light fixtures your best defense. Directing the light at Taken will banish it from them, however they still pose serious threat and need to be disposed of with a good shot to the head.

Other tools to help you make it through the evenings in Bright Falls include flares, great for providing a quick burst of light to keep them at bay while you destroy your attackers. And when you are low on ammo and about to die, running like hell for the nearest beacon of light you can spot. Not only does seeking shelter in the light cause the Taken to vanish for a short period of time, but it also quickly regenerates your health.

Using light as the main weapon with a secondary focus on the firearms was a refreshing change of pace. Granted, there are plenty of times when I find myself low on batteries and cursing that there were none to be found, especially in Nightmare mode. Incapacitating the enemies and taking down possessed items with a flashlight just gives you a satisfying feeling.

Hidden messages will guide you to Safe Havens

The Verdict

Exploring Bright Falls was definitely a positive gaming experience, and was a very welcome change from the last couple survival horror games I’ve played. While I did feel that the ending was a bit predictable, I think the majority of the story was intriguing. It did keep my attention, making me want to complete each episode as best as I could. Treating each episode like you would a serial TV program was a wonderful touch. It really gives the player a sense of accomplishment when the outro song plays. The “Previously on Alan Wake” recaps are a great reminder of what has played out if you stepped away from the game for a while and need a quick refresher as to where you are in the story.

Some people like to point out that the characters do not look as realistic as those we have seen during this generation of gaming. While its nice to push the limits and see just how real and detailed we can make everything in a video game, it is not the main focus of this form of entertainment. Gamers want a lot of things, but when you get to the heart of the matter, combining all the elements (story, battle mechanics, graphics, controls, etc) it is the overall experience that is the most important outcome. So while the characters in Alan Wake might not look like CGI masterpieces, they are still better than some others I have seen and match the overall visual design of the game.

However, I did feel that the game is just a bit too short. My first play through took me about 12 hours of game time. They had already announced downloadable content before the game was released, and after completing the story, I am afraid that this DLC should have originally been in-game content that was not ready for the retail launch. It is as though they had a firm date with Microsoft to release the product and they packaged together everything that was playable to be shipped off, keeping the last little bit to be developed instead of pushing back the release and shipping the entire story at once. For a game that had been in development for over five years, if this is truly the case, it is nearly unforgivable. I guess we shall see once both announced DLC packages have been released.

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