A meta mystery
At this point in the review, you might be a little confused about Alan Wake's actual plot. That's okay. Explaining the story in any clearer detail would not only require many confusing and difficult paragraphs on our part, it would ruin the experience and enjoyment on your part. The less you know, the less you expect, the better.
What we can say is that this game will make you think. Yes, about the mysteries of Bright Falls and Alice Wake's disappearance, but also – as the line between Alan's reality and Alan's fiction grows increasingly blurry – about much bigger ideas, like the power of creation, the nature of free will, the meaning of sacrifice and even (seriously) the existence of a God or the Devil. The game also takes a cue from BioShock and Batman: Arkham Asylum, manipulating the player through scattered pages from a manuscript Alan doesn't remember writing. These collectibles don't break the fourth wall, but they do play with your perception of time, describing scenes that are minutes away from happening and thus setting you up for a creepy sense of déjà vu.
Despite all the layers within layers, however, Alan Wake's story is so easy to digest that we could easily imagine it being adapted for film or television. Maybe it's the strong writing, the well-directed cutscenes, the convincing acting or the Hollywood-ready soundtrack. Or, more likely, it's the clever structuring, which splits the game into six episodes, complete with cliffhanger endings and "Previously on Alan Wake" introductions. Ironically, while this same approach felt forced in 2008's licensed Lost adaptation, it works perfectly here.
Let there be light
Another contributor to Alan Wake's cinematic vibe are the graphics. You won't necessarily be blown away by the texture detail of the world or the facial animation of the characters, but you will be in constant awe of something that's arguably more important to the survival horror genre – the game's lighting effects.
They're captivating… and alive. Street lamps cast warm pools of light, beckoning you in the suffocating night, only to flicker and die as soon as you reach them. Red highway flares explode like supernovas, offering you a too-brief flash of the dangers that surround you. Alan's flashlight beam is almost a character in itself: projecting shadows that stretch and twist dynamically on the walls or floor, diffusing realistically as it cuts through blankets of fog and blinding other characters, forcing them to cover their eyes whenever you shine it into their eyes.
Light isn't just for show in Alan Wake, either. Your primary nemesis in the game is literally darkness – referred to as the Dark Presence – and light is the sole weapon that can "kill" it. When a human hunter is possessed, for example, you must use your flashlight to dispel the darkness off his body before your gun's bullets can hurt him. If you're ambushed on all sides, a flare can instantly remove every enemy's darkness at once, while a flashbang grenade can destroy them in showers of sparks. Without these tools, your only option is to continuously dodge attacks… or run like hell.
The monotony of monsters
Sounds scary, right? At first, yeah. Most of the monsters in Alan Wake are local townspeople who have been "taken" by the Dark Presence, and although this basically makes them zombies, their design is definitely original. Each is smothered in shadows, less human than a human-shaped black hole. And you hear the Taken before you see them, speaking in slithering, static hisses that sound as if they've been downgraded through ancient, broken audio equipment until all personality and individuality has been erased.
Once you've faced a dozen or so in the first level, however, you know what to expect and fear quickly changes to bored frustration. Run a hundred feet, fight a handful of Taken. Run a hundred feet further, fight some more Taken. Explore that abandoned building and… Surprise ambush! Oh, nevermind, it's just another group of Taken that look and act exactly like the last 20 or 30 groups of Taken.
Plus, don't expect much escalation or variation. Eventually, a few Taken upgrade their weapons from axes to chainsaws, and some learn how to teleport, but you can still dispatch these with the same flashlight-then-gun techniques.
As for other types of enemies, well… Do flocks of angry birds frighten you?
And as for bosses… Are you terrified by the thought of a poltergeist bulldozer? A satanic refrigerator? How about a homicidal pipe or barrel?
If not, you'll soon learn to dread the nighttime combat segments of Alan Wake. Not because they're terrifying, but because they're kind of boring.