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Alan Wake Review: A Beautiful Nightmare

I once read an article that said game reviewers should make more of an effort to recognize the innovation of imperfect titles. That, for games that strive to do something new and interesting but fall short of perfection, we should try to highlight what they’ve done right rather than focus on what they did wrong.

There’s something to be said for that philosophy, and Alan Wake is a perfect demonstration of why that is.

Alan Wake is a writer with a rather severe case of writer’s block. He comes to the seemingly sleepy little town of Bright Falls with his wife, Alice, to relax and take his mind off of his worries. Obviously things don’t go quite as planned and soon some evil force has possessed the town and most of the people in it and made off with his wife to boot. Wake must find out what’s going on, battle the dark forces at work, and try to save Alice.

This spooky tale is full of enough atmosphere and intriguing plot twists to keep you on the edge of your seat until the credits roll. It accomplishes this using a compelling blend of familiar elements that come together to form a game unlike any other. The front of the box calls it “a psychological action thriller”, which seems about as apt a description as any. It’s not quite survival-horror in that it’s not usually outright scary, but the heavy focus on atmosphere makes it deserving of a label other than “action”. 

Though there is indeed a lot of action, in the vein of a fairly typical third-person shooter, it’s not really the game’s focus for the most part, serving more as satisfying filler. The game does get a little overconfident in its combat near the end, however, throwing a few too many difficult battles your way for comfort.

This is easy to forgive because of how well the game handles combat throughout the majority of the experience. One of the things I’ve always wrestled with when playing traditional survival horror games is that I love the atmosphere but I hate the way that the games are forced to use intentionally clunky mechanics and frustrating game design against the player as a way to artificially induce tension. I understand why it’s done, but that doesn’t mean I like it.

Alan Wake is a lesson on how to do things right. The control is precise. The weapons are satisfying. The mechanics are sound. A couple of mechanics do get in your way, but just enough to create drama without the usually associated cursing and controller throwing. Reloading, for instance, takes just a hair longer than you’d like during combat. Tapping Y to put in new batteries for your all-important flashlight is a simple matter, but gives you more to think about and juggle during the already frantic combat. Ammo management gives you enough tools to work with for the fights you’ll face, but only barely. You’ll have to play smart and safe if you want to survive.

The combat in Alan Wake is constantly thrilling and tense, but almost never frustrating. It’s the perfect balance; a level of combat quality I honestly didn’t think the genre was capable of until now.

The game’s pacing is superb as well. It never overloads you with too much of any one thing. A little combat is followed by a little exploration or a little story. The occasional driving sequence is scattered here and there. The game works hard, and largely succeeds, in keeping things constantly interesting. This is, of course, another vital element of any great horror game. Too much of anything leads to predictability and predictability is the mortal enemy of fear. 

A couple mechanical issues do genuinely get in the way, sadly. The dodge move in particular feels sluggish and imprecise, which is a problem as you’ll often find yourself surrounded or being pelted from afar by projectile-wielding enemies. This leads to another mechanic that’s worth mentioning because of its absence: a quick turnaround move a la Resident Evil. Seeing as the game delights in attacking you from behind, only occasionally being nice enough to warn you beforehand, such a move would have been greatly welcomed. 

Outside of the combat, the wonderful presentation goes a long way toward selling Wake’s otherworldly tale. The game does spooky forest so much better than any other game I’ve ever seen that it doesn’t matter that it’s all you’ll be seeing through the six episodes. The lack of obvious loading screens is greatly appreciated. The soundtrack is wonderful, with carefully chosen licensed material accompanying perfectly crafted original music. The voice acting is usually marvelous, selling both the serious moments and Wake’s intentionally corny narration with ease. Finally, breaking the game into six distinct “episodes” helps to hammer home the importance of mid-story cliffhangers while providing a unique presentation wrapper for the game’s events.

The graphics might not be the most technically impressive to be found on Microsoft’s console, but they’re plenty adequate and coupled with some of the most amazing atmospheric lighting ever seen in a game. It’s too bad the game is positively plagued with horrible screen tearing, one of my personal presentational pet peeves. It doesn’t ruin things by any stretch, but is still an unfortunate distraction.

Alan Wake has a few tricks up its sleeve and it does those tricks well. If you’re keeping count, you might notice that it has a tendency to reuse those tricks a little too often and that mechanically it’s kind of a shallow experience without significant variety. Odds are you’ll be too enthralled by the game’s atmosphere and story to care.

It’s the perfect example for why we should strive to be at least slightly less cynical when approaching games with new ideas. It would be truly a shame if niggling worries about imperfect controls, a bit of repetition, or a some unsightly screen tearing kept people away from this brilliant psychological thriller. 

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