What do you get when you combine killer shadows, and a flashlight, with a psychological thriller mystery and a novelist protagonist in a videogame? You get Alan Wake, Remedy's Xbox 360 exclusive title and one of the most anticipated games of the summer.
Alan Wake is a writer of several best-selling mystery novels who is on vacation in the sleepy town of Bright Falls with his wife Alice. Surrounded by wilderness and fog, Bright Falls is the perfect setting for a supernatural mystery, which begins with the Alice's bizarre disappearance.
Alan's quest to find her leads to the discovery of a dark, evil presence that is enveloping the town. His connection to this dark presence comes in the form of his writing. The darkness of town has the ability to make Alan's words come true, and his latest work becomes the only thing that can save his wife.
Alan Wake combines all the elements of a supernatural-mystery-novel-turned-miniseries into a videogame with nods to Stephen King and the iconic mystery TV series Twilight Zone. The concept of the TV miniseries is found throughout the game, which is divided into six "episodes". Each episode beings with a "Previously on Alan Wake..." followed by a brief summary of the previous episode's events. Episodes end with musical "intermissions" which you can thankfully skip.
Extras in Alan Wake include collecting coffee thermoses, which seem fairly pointless and do not add to the story or gameplay, and TVs throughout the game that offer two-minute episodes of a Twilight Zone-inspired show called Night Springs.
The more useful and intriguing collectibles are the manuscript pages scattered throughout the game. They foreshadow what's to come and also give some more insight into events and the characters. The manuscript pages create such a compelling element to the game, it's easy to find yourself scouring the levels for more pages.
Alan is not a strong guy as far as most videogame protagonists go, so you'll have to pay close attention to the amount of damage he takes during combat. This can be extremely frustrating at the beginning of the game, especially as you're just getting used to the controls.
The controls could be smoother and the dodge maneuver is not always as reliable as it should be, but by the second episode you'll get used to the timing or just figure out ways to avoid even having to deal with dodging, like simply sprinting to the closest checkpoint.
Combat is awesome at first as you're managing the flashlight's battery supply, your ammo and your health. Unfortunately that thrill wears off by Episode 3 and it's the repetition that's to blame. Fighting the same enemy types over and over dissipates some of that initial suspense created from the limited ammo and low health once you get used to the enemy-attack patterns.
Ammo conservation is key in this game. You'll find flares, shotguns and flash bang grenades to use against enemies but these are very limited. Your flashlight will give you some space when being swarmed by enemies, but don't rely on it because you'll also have to manage its battery power.
Luckily there are tons of checkpoints in every level which is one of the better aspects of the game. Most of the checkpoints are marked by light. It's very unlikely that you'll get lost in the game (as the game has simple, linear level design and a foolproof map), but in the rare occasion that you do, just go toward the yellow dot on your map or head to the brightest light you see.
Character design is average and the animation doesn't do much to set Alan Wake apart from other games on the market now -- except for the lighting and shadows. Where the game falls short in animations and controls, it makes up for it with excellent lighting design and effects.
The contrast and interactions between light and dark are what make this game unique and creates the atmosphere that's essential for any good survival horror game. Light will provide Alan with safe havens, repel the dark presence and weaken enemies.
The main source of light Alan relies on in the game is a flashlight. The flashlight is essential in finding hidden paths and items and fighting enemies. In terms of game design, using the flashlight also creates moving shadows, which when combined with the wind blowing through trees and rolling fog, turn basic levels into environments that seem alive.
The game provides great pacing even if there is not a wide variety of environments. In the levels where the dark presence has taken over, Alan will be trying to get from point A to point B in one piece. In the daylight, the game pushes deeper into the story as Alan tries to get closer to solving the mystery of Alice's disappearance. Alan's voiceovers and the manuscript pages help set the tone and also move the story forward.
Overall, Alan Wake is a solid game with a unique concept. It presents some interesting elements and an intriguing story. And while it may not be as groundbreaking in the genre as many had hoped, it could be the beginning of a successful new action-adventure series.