Much like Heavy Rain, Alan Wake is an experiment in storytelling in gaming. Unlike Heavy Rain, however, this game appealed to me because it more closely resembled an actual game. The irony is that it is mainly the game play that I have problems with, though the execution of the story is also flawed.
Alan Wake is a writer who has a severe case of writers block. He and his wife, Alice, take a break in the secluded town of Bright Falls and wackiness ensues. Alice is lost at the bottom of a lake, taken by the dark presence in the town. He then looses a week of memories and discovers that during that week he wrote a horror story that is now coming to life around him.
The story is told partly by cut scenes and partly by voice-overs. The voice-overs are problematic because they are presented like a first person narrative in a book. Books tell us what happens, games show us, and while they often sound good, they feel out of place, such as when Alan stands on a bear trap. The player can see what has happened and yet a monologue is heard, telling us, meaning the same information is being conveyed in two different ways, rendering one of them redundant. Voice overs in games can work, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver did it brilliantly, but it did it by tapping into the thoughts and feelings of the main character and fleshing out the world the player was exploring. While this does happen at times, it’s odd that a game released over a decade earlier managed to execute it so much more successfully.
The other big problem I had with the story was that things occasionally happened not because they flowed naturally from the narrative, but because they padded out the game. For example, at one point I had to make my way to a radio station, which was an hour long journey through a wooded area on foot. When I finally got to my destination I was there for about a minute before the police showed up and I had to go on the run again through the woods. It was hard to ever feel like I was making any kind of meaningful progress, because whenever I reached a goal, I would just be given more of the same to do.
The graphics are lovely to look at and combined with a haunting soundtrack do a nice job of bringing everything to life. The times I was running around forest areas made me think that this is what I wished Final Fantasy XIII had been. That was a game that created the illusion of openness, but the player was often running down an invisible corridor which restricted your movements. Alan Wake, on the other hand, dropped me down in an area, told me where I had to go, but would then leave me to get there at my own pace, whether that was going directly, or taking my time to do some exploring, which often lead to finding extra supplies. One complain about the graphics, though, is facial expressions, which tend to look rubbery and expressionless, making it difficult to connect to the character during cut scenes in the way that the game clearly wanted me to.
Combat is a bit different from the typical third person shooter, in that you don’t have a cross hair on screen, instead you aim your flash light at at enemy. The enemies being nightmare creatures they are weakened by light, so the player has to keep the light trained on them until they become vulnerable enough to kill. The deadliest weapons in this game are not shotguns or assault rifles, but flares and flash bang grenades, which was a nice contrast from something like Resident Evil‘s gore and decapitation. Unfortunately the novelty wore off after a while, because the game play remains largely the same throughout, and the enemies rarely change. In Resident Evil 4, we begin with standard people to fight with, then once night falls, their heads often explode to reveal the parasite. This parasite comes in different variations as the game progresses, from simple bladed tentacles to a worm-like creature that will eat Leon’s head and result in an instant death. There were times when I got overwhelmed with larger numbers, but I was fighting the same enemies at the end of the game that I was at the beginning. This is something the game really missed the mark on. The enemies come from the pages of a book which should allow for some crazy stuff to happen, for creatures that are over the top, or even go against the laws of physics, logic, or sanity.
This game never claims to be survival horror (and just as well since it’s not scary) but still, I couldn’t help but develop a survival-horror mentality: save ammunition, only shoot when necessary, and never use the powerful items, like the flash bangs, because there will be a boss battle eventually. At the end of every chapter, I lost my entire inventory. Everything I had spent a couple of hours collecting was gone, and I would be completely defenseless again. Granted, this makes sense from a story point of view, such as when Alan is jailed by police, who are hardly going to lock him up with his weapons. But with a little imagination, the game could have found a way to get them back, for example, retrieving them from an evidence locker. In the last section of the game it started happening mid-chapter, for example, when Alan had to jump out of a helicopter. When he landed, he gave us a voice-over about loosing his guns in the fall. It was frustrating, and it felt like the developers were trying to artificially create more challenges by taking away the items that made fights easier instead of coming up with a variety of enemies that require different strategies to defeat. Those boss battles never came. Perhaps if you want to be generous, there are a few confrontations that a boss battle label could be slapped onto, but they were never anything more than slightly beefed up versions of regular enemies. Once I learned to use the items I had when I had them, the difficulty of this game plummeted. Then final battle is essentially a tornado. There is a box of unlimited ammo at the players feet.
Still, I’d say give Alan Wake a go, if you can pick it up cheap. The graphics are, for the most part, lovely, and the way the game plays around with darkness and light is something different to the usual third person shooter. The story, while not executed as well as it could be, is still compelling enough to keep you playing. While it never truly delivers any memorable game play moments, you’ll be intrigued enough to stick with it till the end…an ending which might as well say: “To be Continued in the Downloadable Content.”