Artful storytelling and imposing darkness collide with dramatic force in the Xbox 360-exclusive action game Alan Wake. Remedy's first original effort since Max Payne trades heavily in densely creepy forests, small-town mystique, and no small amount of third-person shooting. The game weaves a powerful narrative web around a core third-person action model that's largely satisfying even when its lack of variety becomes apparent in the later stages of the game. Even a thousand plaid-wearing axemen aren't enough to slow the driving momentum of these uncanny events, or make the game's foreboding forests one iota less unsettling.
The eponymous lead character certainly isn't your typical video game hero. Wake is a wildly popular Stephen King-esque horror writer whose three-year bout with writer's block has lead him and his wife Alice in search of creative inspiration, taking them from a posh Manhattan condo to the sleepy Pacific Northwestern logging town of Bright Falls. The couple has scarcely arrived in town and checked into their cabin before Wake finds himself abruptly short one wife and one whole week's worth of events in his memory. In exchange he finds plenty of terror, courtesy of a pervasive dark being that's moved into town and targeted him for reasons that become clearer as the game wears on.
Wake's journey to uncover the fate of his wife, the secrets of Bright Falls, and his own importance to the dark presence provides the game's narrative impetus, and Remedy uses an internal episodic format to expertly delegate the flow of the mystery from one scene to the next. The natural breakpoint at the ending of each episode gives the writers ample opportunity to mete out pieces of the story slowly and control the falling and rising action, building to a crescendo right before the "credits" roll, just like a serialized television drama. Each episode ended with a "holy crap" sort of cliffhanger that made me eager to plunge ahead and make sense of newly revealed information. But a couple of times I found greater value in making myself turn the game off and stewing over what had just happened for a bit before returning to continue. This isn't the "episodic" sort of gaming you're used to, but it's a great way to tell a story in a video game.
He might sit behind a word processor during the day, but Wake sure knows how to handle a revolver. And a shotgun, a hunting rifle, a flare gun, and flashbang grenades. Those are your tools against the demonic residents of Bright Falls who are "taken" by the dark thing infesting their town and turned against Alan Wake and his efforts to find Alice and get the hell out of Dodge. The game has that unusual combination of loose, free character movement and fast but precise aiming control that to me defines the best third-person shooters. No twiddling of sensitivity settings required. Other than a few wonky jumps from time to time, Remedy's pedigree as a maker of action games is plainly evident here.
Under and around the shooting, Alan Wake's gameplay revolves around the contrast between the darkness of its antagonists and the light from literally any source you can get your hands on. Flashlights, road flares, spotlights, headlights--anything that provides illumination is a potential weapon to stave off the encroaching shadows. The enemies are swathed in a tangible darkness that shields them from your attacks until you literally burn it off of them with a light source, and aside from your handy flashlight, the game finds some neat opportunities to arm you with heftier firepower (lightpower?) as found in the environment. Conversely, some of the best tension comes from the moments when ammo is scarce or nonexistent and you're left to dash from one light to another in an attempt to escape the gloom.
There's a lot of gloom. Bright Falls and its dense forests form a supporting character all by themselves. Remedy does the forest primeval really well; the outdoor areas are packed with stifling foliage and dense fog, the tension rises along with fast-moving shadows, and ambient sounds heighten dread and obscure the movements of your enemies. These guys understand the simple value of silhouetting a crazed maniac with an axe against a misty, backlit tree line, though they find ways to arrange plenty of more complex but equally creepy scenarios. Alan Wake is a disturbingly great-looking game from top to bottom.
The game is also relentlessly linear, though, a price I feel like you have to pay for that kind of tightly packed design. You can rarely stray far from the critical path, and there isn't much to do on either side other than find a huge host of collectibles. There are scores of coffee thermoses hidden around for the achievement-seeking completists, but there are also just as many mysterious manuscript pages strewn around that do tie into the story. Each one foreshadows events to come or clarifies those that have already passed, and these are well worth seeking out as an enhancement to the game experience itself.
Similarly, the game gets a tasteful amount of mileage from the authorial nature of its protagonist, with frequent descriptive voiceover narration that's just ham-handed enough to sound like it's ripped right from the pages of one of Wake's own bestsellers. You'll find some references to King, Alfred Hitchcock, and other masters of the macabre in here as well. And of course, Remedy also gets in one of its signature touches with a series of operable television shows that display full mini-episodes of a fantastic fake Twilight Zone program, and there's a pitch-perfect small-town AM radio host who you'll hear provide color to the events and the area as you move through the story.
Alan Wake isn't an overly long game at maybe a dozen hours, but in the last quarter or so I found a sort of fatigue set in with what I was doing. It might be the very limited variety of enemies you face; there are only four or five types repeated almost ad nauseam throughout the game. Or maybe it speaks to the storyline's high level of intrigue that I just wanted to get on with the combat so I could uncover the next wild piece of the mystery. Earlier in the game, the nighttime action is broken up by expository daytime sequences that almost feel like an adventure game, but the pacing suffers a lack of brevity in its last couple of hours. A more condensed final act would have wrapped this package up a little tighter.
That's small potatoes in the grand scheme, though. Alan Wake is on the whole a propulsive, thrilling, and downright spooky action game from start to finish, quite unlike anything else on the market in visual style and storytelling format. It might take Remedy forever and a day to get from one game to the next, but Alan Wake proves once again their toil is well worth the wait.