A light at the end of the tunnel

After its showing at E3 2005, Alan Wake   has consistently been near the top of my most wanted games every year.  And now that it has finally arrived, it's hard not to be a little disappointment with the apparent transformation the title has undergone in its lengthy development process.  Originally touted as an open-structured horror game with a persistent day/night cycle in which you would seek clues during the day and fend off the denizens of darkness at night, Wake has devolved into a very linear 3rd person shooter with an exceptionally moody atmosphere.  The transition to the game we now have is probably to blame for the incessant delays and rough edges present but also leaves a streamlined experience that is much preferable to a clunky open-world game.
The game does an excellent job setting the scene for the gripping story to follow. Alan Wake, a famous crime novelist in the midst of a crippling spell of writer's block, travels with his wife to the sleepy town of Bright Falls to get away from it all and relax.  Little does he know that things are not what they seem in this idyllic forest setting, and soon Wake must stave off an increasingly menacing dark presence while trying to uncover the whereabouts of his now-missing wife.  Alan Wake lays the story on thick, and for good reason.  Perhaps the greatest draw of the game is experiencing the twists and turns in the mysterious narrative.  The game makes an interesting presentation choice, breaking the main sections of the game into television-esque episodes which almost always end on some sort of cliff-hanger and a selection from a quite excellent pool of licensed music - particularly from Poets of the Fall who contribute three songs to the game's soundtrack.  The narrative of Alan Wake doesn't have the same emotional punch of something like Heavy Rain and may not necessarily deserve the prominently displayed "Psychological Action Thriller" on its box but it contains enough twists and turns to definitely warrant a look.
The gameplay of Alan Wake is, as mentioned above, incredibly streamlined.  Over the course of the game, you will obtain only four or five guns and a few other projectiles to battle the forces of darkness.  The interplay between light and dark lies at the heart of the combat system as well as the story.  Using a variety of methods (but usually with your trusty flashlight) enemies must be robbed of their darkness before conventional weaponry can put them down.  This two pronged assault provides the vast majority of tension of the game, as enemies continue to advance towards you despite your constant light assault.  This becomes particularly jarring on the harder difficulties as the darkness depletes slower and enemies also take many more shots to dispatch.  Aside from a few stand-out moments set in the disorienting woods surrounding the town, the game places you on a fairly straight path with a clear objective always provided.  The hand-holding can become a little excessive at times and, as a result, there is never any moment in the game where you don't know what you're doing.  This is a blessing for those of us who dislike the tedium of attempting to navigate a complicated area filled to the brim with enemies but its surprising from a game that was originally intended to be an open-world game.  Though, if the driving mechanics they managed in the final version is the best they could muster, I'm truly grateful the open-world concept was left by the wayside.  
What Alan Wake lost in its transition between game types is more than made up for with what it retained and (presumably) added.  The story and atmosphere of the game is top-notch, despite a few extremely jarring facial animations which seem very last generation.  Otherwise, the visuals of the game do an excellent job of playing off the light/dark mechanics with brilliant flashes from flareguns and blinding explosions of flash grenades.  The town of Bright Falls and the surrounding countryside are depicted in startling detail, and the inclusion of an absurd amount of collectibles (which pad the length of the quasi-short experience) ensure that see some of the best parts of the local scenery.  The setting consistently bleeds atmosphere and the extra additional story content in the form of radio shows, Alan Wake's mysterious new novel manuscript and especially a Twilight Zone inspired live-action TV show do so much to transport you to this eerily well realized world.  The gameplay tries to meet these hold-overs halfway, relying heavily on a light/dark twist of combat to distinguish itself.  In the end, the combat is decent but nothing to rave about.  In many cases it seems to be there only because you have to shoot something in a video game.  But it is easily put up with in order to experience the fully realized world and narrative that is presented to you.  While the game may not have been what was originally promised, and while five years is a long time to wait, the final product here may just have been worth the wait.

3D Dot Game Heroes Or: Frustration Incarnate


3D Dot Game Heroes is the awkwardly titled new video game from Atlus and From Software, the evil, evil people behind last year's cult favourite Demon's Souls. It seems as though the company really has a penchant for making games with an old-school vibe to them, which is both a blessing and a curse. Set in the far off realm of Dotnia, Heroes tells the tale of a dark evil which attempted to take over the world before a young hero, wielding a magical sword imbued with the power of six sages sealed him away. Flash forward to present day, the evil is back and you must take up the mantle of the legendary hero, collect six orbs from these sages and defeat the Dark Lord once again. I'll stop there.

It's Zelda. No really, it's Zelda through and through. You collect four pieces of apple to get a new apple...container. There are upright pigs shooting arrows at you, octopi hopping out of water spewing stones at you and spiders hopping about after you. There is a hook on a chain which propels you between wooden posts. It's retro Zelda all the way. The interesting twist is two-fold. First, the game is in 3D. You see, the King of Dotnia was worried when tourist dollars began to disappear, so he converted everyone to 3D. The game has a very interesting aesthetic in that it is in 3D but still comprised of "pixels". Very original to say the least. The second major difference is the fact that your sword of legend can be upgraded to the point where it fills the entire screen and can pass through solid objects. In practice, once powerful enough, this means you can kill just about everything on the screen from the doorway. It's pretty cool. But necessary because, well, From Software also went retro with the difficulty of the game.

I consider myself a pretty patient person. I've long given up on playing games for any sort of real challenge. It's not a job. Why would I need to expend any effort above and beyond what I find enjoyable? For this reason, I very rarely get angry with a game. That said, today, while playing 3D Dot Game Heroes I am not proud to admit that I rage quit. I make a practice of quitting play sessions in an area where I'm not stuck so as to increase the likelihood that I actually come back and continue playing. There's nothing worse than sitting down for some relaxation and remembering that you ended on a sour note. But alas, Heroes quite righteously kicked my ass today. For, despite having a gigantic sword which engulfs enemies with steely justice, I failed to escape the grasps of the devilish programmer's whims. The culprit: the Fire Temple. The enemies: yellow tentacle assholes who, when you touch them, bring your health down to 1/2 apple (heart for those playing along at home with the Zelda comparisons) and drain you of all your magic. A dramatic re-enactment, if you will, of my reaction to this:


(Note: This was not a question.)

This would not be as big a deal if your gigantic sword was not reduced to a piddling normal size if you lose any health at all. It's like the lasers shooting out of your sword in the original Zelda if you're at full health. Except that if you lose the ability to swing your huge sword, it's a big deal. A "you will die for sure" kind of deal. Not right away though. The game will let you get far enough and then kill you off with some new ridiculosity later. Now, this wasn't a big issue earlier in the game when the dungeons were easier. And later, the dungeons at least became circular in nature, so that if you died you could get back to where you were in good time. Yeah, they also borrowed that terrible checkpoint system from Zelda. Start of dungeon only. Luckily, they do grant you all your health (and subsequent perks in the form of a huge sword) so you're good so long as you reached some milestone before dying.

But not the fire temple. No, it's based around those switch cube puzzles popularized in (surprise!) Zelda. In order to get back to where you were before, you must traverse the entire dungeon. If you touch one of them yellow things, you're done. Even if you lose a teensy bit of health, your survival rate plummets. After two hours, I had had enough. Swearing at the tv screen and giving it the finger, I shut the game off.

It's unfortunate, really, since the game is quite a bit of fun otherwise. It's loaded with references to retro 8-Bit games and other From Software titles and has a great sense of humour. I guess any game which has you swing a gigantic sword and allows you to create your own dot-character (among the pre-sets are such gems as a single shark fin or a reed acting as a snorkle for an underwater ninja) has to have this type of humour. The looping midis are appropriate but only further aggravate the issues with the re-playing of dungeons. I appreciate what 3D Dot Game Heroes does right and lament the things it does wrong. After all, I do really like Zelda.