Well, took Remedy long enough. Roughly 472 years, give or take, since Alan Wake was announced, it’s finally reached the platform it was originally designed for, and it’s quite good and quite weird. It has a good, smart implementation of a limited set of gameplay mechanics, building on foundations in a way that would make VALVe nod with stern approval, and the story hooks that really define a Remedy game are all here. People, it’s been awhile since Remedy’s put out anything for the PC and, yes, it’s good to hear from them again.
The titular Alan Wake, the biggest Stephen King fan on Earth, is a big-time writer. Severe writer’s block has prevented him writing more mega-hits, so he and his wife Alice go up to the town of Bright Falls, where they’ve rented a cabin lodged in the middle of a lake. Things get weird quickly, and somewhere in the chain of events, Wake wakes up in a car crash of which he has no recollection. Plus, he can’t find his wife, is stuck in a dark forest, realizes that two weeks have gone by, and he has no idea how the hell any of that happened.
This game is weird. It takes a hard left early on and never looks back, which is good, because Alan Wake makes a poor first impression. The cut scenes display a level of uncanny valley previously unheard of, with human-looking-things-who-actually-are-human characters doing human-like things to awkward effect. Everything about them looks wrong, from how they talk to how they animate.
This starts to go away once you’re in-game, in the thick of all the madness. Somewhere between getting to Bright Falls and waking up in a crashed car, a darkness chases Wake, figuratively and literally. It’s the game’s primary antagonist and a central theme to the narrative that crazy ol’ Remedy has cooked up, and just how Remedy manages to take this central concept of darkness across fifteen hours of video game is truly impressive.
It starts with a flashlight and a gun. The two-step combat of shine then shoot works well: shine the light on darkness-engulfed crazy men throwing sickles at you, and then take them out with bullets. It’s double the satisfaction, because it’s almost like killing them twice. Remedy builds on its base mechanics, with flares to create some temporary space between you and everything that wants to kill you and flashbangs as last-resort light explosives. A bunch of one-off gameplay situations, like shining a massive headlight into a group of crazy men, also offers a good variety into the whole experience. Even with the gunplay being inherently fun and exciting, the game miraculously, and this is key, still has this element of survival.
“Mechanically, Alan Wake falls into the third-person shooter category, but the emotions and sensations it generates are more in line with survival horror.”
Most of the game takes place in dark forests, with tall pines and the moonlight piercing through. As an exploratory space, it’s some extremely handsome stuff. Games don’t usually get forests right, but here it really feels like you’re in one. As a gameplay space, it makes for opportunities to get lost and disoriented while constantly surrounded by them. A dodge mechanic allows for quick evasion, but with multiple AI variants, Wake’s limited health, and overwhelming numbers, the situation often feels desperate. Play without the HUD, not having a yellow dot guide you makes getting confused and lost easier (remember, this is a good thing), while level design remains logical and makes smart use of bright light sources to guide the player. Mechanically, Alan Wake falls into the third-person shooter category, but the emotions and sensations it generates are more in line with survival horror.
Sadly, this doesn’t last throughout the entire game. The last-third gets heavy on action and light on “Oh god oh god oh god, GET TO THE GODDAMN LIGHT, WAKE” as you smash the sprint key. It does show that Wake has grown accustomed to the strange proceedings, and so in that way this new action bent is justified, but it’s considerably less interesting than everything before this turn. That said, the two extra DLC packs, which come with the PC version for free, go back to what makes Alan Wake truly great.
Then there’s that other half, the narrative part. The monologues, the asides, the metaphors – all the things that have defined Remedy’s games since Max Payne are in full force here. They are an integral part of what defines Alan Wake as a unique. Pages of a manuscript Wake doesn’t remember writing are littered everywhere, foreshadowing events that have yet to happen. It creates a tension and an excited expectation, because you know that the things written in these manuscripts will happen, but you don’t know when. It’s a good hook to keep things going, if the gameplay isn’t enough.
The game just gets weirder and weirder, as you keep playing, and it’s an all-in move from Remedy to just keep pushing its story to its absolute limit of insanity. It reaches its zenith of crazy by the last episode of the game, and it’s just such a great culmination of everything that’s happened before, that if there were such an award as Best One Hour of a Game, Alan Wake would take the prize.
Priced at a generous $30, Alan Wake is a nice reminder that Remedy can make great game, a reminder that the developers of Max Payne and the classic and completely audaciously-titled Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne – A Film Noir Love Story are still relevant. Let me just say again: Hi, Remedy. It’s really nice to see you. I hope we see you again really soon, because nine years is quite a long time. Don’t be a stranger!