Alan Wake is an episodic psychological-thriller action game that follows the titular author on his 'vacation' to the fictional Pacific Northwest town of Bright Falls. Alan has fallen on hard times, after writing his very successful Alex Casey crime-drama series, he hasn't been able to write another book for the last two years, and has become far more well-known for his violent out-lashes at the press. He and his wife, Alice, are hoping to get away from it all, away from the bustling city of New York that they're accustomed too to the small and peaceful Washington town ... However, this goes terribly wrong after a series of odd occurrences at their resting cabin ends up with Alan waking up a week later with no memory of what happened in the last week, his wife missing, and strange shadow people coming after him in the darkness of the woods.
Alan Wake at its best is an immersive trip both into the rather colorful and well-realized town of Bright Falls, and the more sinister and campy lurkings that pull from everything from Stephen King to Lovecraft to David Lynch. At its worst its a repetitive combat game where you'll often get lost in the woods.
Maybe more appropriately stated is that Alan Wake is a huge love it/hate it game. There are elements of Alan Wake that it pulls off beautifully, while other elements wear rather thin over its course. Honestly how much you enjoy the game deals completely in how grand you enjoy what it does right, and how much you can deal with what it does wrong.
Alan Wake is a rather gorgeous game. It has fantastic art direction, a well-done lighting system, matched with fantastic optimization for PC and probably some of the best realized forest settings and night lighting realized in games. Its visual flair suffers a bit from some weird facial animations from the characters, but during sections of the game where you stand on mountains overlooking a valley below full of details, it can be kind of breath-taking. Bright Falls feels like a real-place, and the way they connect everything and how it all fits together as an overall map is impressive. It does feel like a vibrant, lived-in place often during the daytime sections of gameplay where you get to explore and take everything in.
It also has a very elegant soundtrack to it. The compositions really switch between three tones; beautiful symphonic pieces for the more relaxing and emotional scenes of the game, low-keyed and sometimes a bit sinister down-time music to match exploration and dreary environments, and rather thunderous 'struggle' music of when the action gets going. From this, the beautiful symphonic pieces definitely stand-out, but none of it is really bad. On-top of this, a variety of licensed songs have been chosen for the game, which play on radios and during episode endings. And sound-design is rather top-notch, with atmospheric forestry sounds, creaks in rustic homes, and little sounds that really help make the atmosphere and world. The sounds of shining light on enemies, shooting your gun, and your flashlight turning on, are all also suitably satisfying.
The gameplay of Alan Wake is really split into two modes; Exploration mode, where you're in a location without enemies with a variety of small tasks you can do, both for progression and for fun, and Night Time, when often you're isolated and alone (or with someone who you question how long they're going to last) as monsters come out at you from the woods. The night time takes up probably about 80% of the game, while exploration mode happens about 20% of the time.
The combat system is fairly simple, though with a few tricks to it. Enemies are covered in shadows which make them invincible to bullets, so the first goal is to disperse the shadows with your light. You can focus-down a strong beam of light that will chip more at the shadows of an enemy, but rapidly consumes battery power, or do a normal light, which does a lot less damage to Taken but slowly recharges the battery. If you use up a battery, it will go out and be off for about 10 seconds, unless you put in a new battery, but of which come in limited supplies. You can also use light to also stun enemies by flashing them with a strong beam quickly, which is useful if you decide to flee rather than fight. The guns feel rather samey, but you also get flashbang grenades, which will kill in one-hit weaker enemies and damage stronger ones, and flares, which you can light to ward-off enemies or deplete at their shadows.
Alan's final form of dealing with Taken is to flee from encounters, but this can be a bit tricky at first. Alan has very limited sprinting (he'll tire out after about 15 seconds and lower his pace to a light jog), and the enemies can catch-up to you without some intervention. The real art of fleeing in Alan Wake isn't just running, but to manage your stamina meter (it's better to stop before you tire-out to recharge it than letting it run out), and managing the enemies with your light by briefly flashing a strong light on them to stun them for a few moments.
All-in-all, it can be satisfying, but as the game goes on it can also be fairly repetitive. There's only about seven types of enemies through the course of the game, and three of them are rather similar. The limited selection and the amount of times you face the enemies can be a bit tiring.
Also a good portion of the game is set in forests., especially early on. The game throws you into a lot of forests where if you're not good at keeping direction in mind or marking landmarks, it can get very easy to get lost.
But there is some good mix-up here. A variety of set-pieces and moments lay littered through the adventure to help break the tedium of combat, ranging from atmospheric and moody caverns, stage show showdowns, a variety of exploration and daytime sections, police chases, car driving segments, and more. In some parts of the game you won't be fighting alone, and notably during Episodes 4 and 5 especially, they tread you away from the forests to much more interesting locations.
Alan Wake may test on some gamers patience, but there is also a lot to love here. The characters are colorful, and through the game's course are very easy to like. Optional side-stuff, including interesting radio broadcasts and black-and-white Twilight Zone parodies you can watch on televisions through the world are enjoyable.
There are a total of 8 episodes in Alan Wake, and to beat them all should take you somewhere between 12-24 hours. The breaking point for many comes during Episode 3, which is notably the longest episode in the whole game, and with less story developments than most of the other episodes as well.
On a personal level, I really enjoyed Alan Wake. It has flaws, the biggest one being repetition, but the overall package I found to be immersive, to have enjoyable TV-show like gameplay segments (fun characters, cliffhangers, location design), and I got rather wrapped up in the story and world of the game. There's stand-out moments in gameplay, and I can honestly say there is no other game quite like Alan Wake. While it pulls from a lot of sources, it manages to be unlike any other game, and quite unique.
But there is drudgery here, and if you're less a fan of camp, world-building, and more dragged down by repetition of combat, you may very well not enjoy your trip to Bright Falls. To some, the game comes off as a mediocre game with flashes of brilliance that it unfortunately does not ever quite live up too.
Alan Wake will either strike with you or will not, a rather polarizing game. However, if you're a fan of horror authors, television programs like Twin Peaks or Happy Town, or want a believable Pacific Northwest setting, this may do you in.