Last year, one of the best video game stories I have ever seen was released and quickly died. Alan Wake developer Remedy made the incredibly poor decision to release their game on the same day that Rockstar Games released one of the biggest selling games of the year, Red Dead Redemption, and at sixty buck a pop, most people just buy one game at a time.
Alan Wake is an Xbox exclusive action game that feels more like Twin Peaks than Gears of War. This is no accident, as Twin Peaks was cited as an inspiration for the game. Another clear inspiration is much of the early work of Stephen King. The character, Alan Wake is a successful thriller writer, more Castle than King, suffering from writer’s block, which is the worst thing ever (ed. We know. We’ve been waiting a year for this review). He and his wife, Alice, go on a lovely vacation to clear his head. But things go predictably, and horrifyingly wrong.
Almost immediately, Alice goes missing and Alan wakes up a week later with no memory of the time. Things get weird from there. He finds pages from a manuscript he wrote during that missing week. The story, they tell is the one you are playing. Before long, Wake is attacked by creatures called the Taken, locals who have been consumed by some sort of darkness (ed. I believe in a thing called love, just listen to the rhythm of my heart). These guys are the perfect way to transition to the gameplay, as I don’t want to get too far into the story, which is one of the best I have seen in a game, or any other medium.
Alan Wake is an action game with a unique twist. While you find a pistol fairly early in the game, your strongest weapon is light. When confronted with several Taken, you must first knock the shadows off them with your flashlight. After that, they are relatively weak and can be quickly finished off with the pistol. The use of light as a weapon elevates some seemingly innocuous tools to implements of mass destruction. A flash bang becomes a room clearing grenade, and a flare gun can just straight-up murder a group of these monsters at once. Now, while every bit of the action in this game is incredibly fun and well-constructed, the real star of the show is the story.
I am reluctant to share any more details, but the story, which is told in six episodes, roughly an hour and a half long, is spectacular. The episodes, each beginning with a “Previously on…” and ending with a cliffhanger, would have made a very well received HBO miniseries, but instead, you get to play it.
The atmosphere in the game is incredible. Alan Wake reminds you that there is nothing scarier than being alone in the woods at night. The thing that this game brings more than anything is a sense of dread. The two thoughts that competed in my head were “What the hell?” and “I don’t want to go into the woods.”
I have been putting off this part because I think it is the least important part of the game, but it should be mentioned. The facial animation is not very good. In a story driven game, to have the story elements weakened by poor animation is a bit of a problem, but it is something that stops being a problem pretty quickly. I tried to look at the character’s eyes, and put on the subtitles. Just think of it in the same way you think of the terrible rubber monsters in earlier Doctor Who. It could be better, but it can only affect the game if you let it.
Ultimately, in a year that saw the release of Halo: Reach, Mass Effect 2, the latest Assassin’s Creed, another freaking Call of Duty, and the aforementioned Red Dead Redemption, Alan Wake was one of the best games of that year, and is worth playing. It is available for download on the Xbox here.
Finally, because it is not a review without a number, I give it five terrifying fever-dreams out of five.