It’s shocking to me that Alan Wake isn’t considered one of the scariest survival horror games of all time. It is so easily comparable to Silent Hill and is fricking terrifying! It’s also a visually beautiful game. And the attention to detail is astounding, right down to characters putting their hands over their eyes if you shine a flashlight in their face.
You play Alan Wake, a horror novelist who goes to stay at a cabin in the mountains where his wife, who is petrified of the dark, disappears! Screw his wife. You will be petrified of the dark. Just like Silent Hill, you get plunged into a nightmare scenario with very few breaks of sanity. It’s a trippy game. Is Alan dreaming? Is it real? Is his novel coming to life? Is he inside his novel?
You spend much of the game traveling through dense woods at night…and being surrounded by these damn dark shadow ghosts with axes! Known as “Taken,” they are generally all the same but they never fail to terrify and there is a hint of variety: the big Taken who are much more aggressive and totally charge you; the darting Taken that sort of go invisible and shoot around so quick it’s hard to get a lock on them before they rematerialize; and then there’s the chainsaw Taken. EEK!
The battles with the Taken give the game all its difficulty. These fuckers SWARM you. And they fricking throw axes at you! The dodge function sux and the only way to kill them is to first shine your flashlight on them until they burst into full color (the darkness is removed) and then shoot them. And while you’re doing that to one, you suddenly discover you’re being clobbered by one you can’t see behind you!
Ammo is limited. Your flashlight runs out of the powerful battery fast and the regular battery can only be used so much before you have to wait for it to recharge. And there’s NO melee. So if you are out of ammo, you’re out of luck. You can try to run, but the dark ghosts are faster than you, even before you run out of breath and start to slow down, which happens…fast. Oh yeah. It sux.
Your only hope is to be near a light source. There are occasional lampposts in the woods. If you’re lucky, there’s one just behind you or ahead when you get ambushed. And if you’re even luckier, you don’t have to first crank a generator to turn it on! Either way, once you’re in the light, you heal—light is the only thing that heals you (yet you can’t just turn your own damn flashlight on yourself). Light also makes the Taken go away. But as soon as you step out of the light and move forward, those same Taken come back after you if you didn’t already kill them. So you have to fight if possible to chip away at them while continuing to run back to the safety of the light. And best of all, light is usually a checkpoint.
Meanwhile, you can collect manuscript pages along the way that tell you the story you’re writing—or living. Only problem is, they’re not always ON the beaten path. Same thing for extra supplies you can find if you follow mysterious yellow markings on rocks and walls. But if you go off the path, Taken swarm you! Grrr! Argh! You can also collect coffee thermoses that serve absolutely no purpose in the game. Really. NO purpose.
You get a variety of guns including a pistol, shotgun, pump-action shotgun, and hunting rifle. You can only carry one of the big guns at a time. You also get a flare gun which totally rox. It gets rid of the dark and blows away a Taken and pretty much any Taken around him in one shot. Then there are the flashbangs, which are basically grenades that also take out Taken in groups. And for the simple goal of holding back Taken so you can just run away and hopefully get to the next light source safely, there are simple flares.
Really, while the combat mechanics are limiting and difficult, you can get by fairly easily once you get the hang of it. But as the game progresses, the Taken get more difficult and you also have to contend with flocks of dive-bombing birds. Then come the flying poltergeist objects. As “the darkness” begins to follow you, shit gets hurled at you! And we’re talking cars and trucks and shit! You can try to run and dodge, but the material world follows you, so you have to shine light on objects to disintegrate them. There are also fricking bear traps and black piles of dark goo you have to avoid on the ground at times.
Adding variety to the game, you also get to drive vehicles occasionally—that allow you to shine your headlights on Taken to get rid of the darkness, and then just cream them with the car. You also have moments when you are chased by approaching masses of darkness from which you must just flee—even though you still run out of breath and slow down after about 2 seconds. So frustrating. And then there are the boss battles with the bulldozers….
Near the end of the game, you work at times with some teammates. The good news is, this is some smartificial intelligence! They basically do the work for you, combating and killing the Taken if you want to just run your ass to the nearest light source.
The most difficult part of the game is definitely the long trek up a mountain to the final boss. You get hit by one wave of Taken after another. But the final boss is a fricking piece of deliciously sweet CAKE.
I’m really surprised Alan Wake was not made in conjunction with Stephen King because the game is heavily modeled after the career of the author. It is one nonstop homage to King and his novels (Misery, The Dark Half, The Shining, etc.) and even specifically references the author regularly. If you love King, you will appreciate this game even more. It is by far one of the best survival horror games I’ve ever played.
Alan Wake’s story continues in the first downloadable chapter. “The Signal” takes place after the original game. This one has more of a Silent Hill feel to it at the beginning—especially because it’s basically inside the madness in Alan Wake’s mind. But it still has plenty of familiar territory from the first game.
It’s a short game with lots of combat, but by this time, you pretty much feel like a pro. There are a couple of new challenging scenarios that require you to burn words with your flashlight—not only words like “tools” that uncover necessary combat items, but also words like “boom” that blow up when you hit them, taking out enemies.
There are even these sort of minefield scenarios in which you run through a section filled with words like “enemies” and “possessed” while being chased by flying Alan Wake novels. The challenge is, you have to try to keep your flashlight from hitting the words or otherwise—you guessed it. You release enemies and possessed objects that attack you. Once panic mode hits, it becomes a chain reaction of you accidentally hitting words with your beam while trying to fight and get away.
Some familiar faces return…as ghost guides. And finally, you are taunted by televisions that you eventually have to fight in a boss battle. Seriously. And this time, instead of collecting pointless coffee thermos, there are alarm clocks and cardboard standees of Alan Wake and other authors that can give you a near heart attack when you ruin into them in a dark alley and don’t realize they’re just…video game versions of cardboard cut outs….
The second downloadable chapter continues the journey through Alan Wake’s mind. However, this one involves less combat and a lot more climbing and jumping than “The Signal.” Like, platformer jumping. We’re talking platforms floating over nothingness, which I haven’t experienced since games like Maximo and Super Mario Sunshine.
The “word” game is back as well, with new additions like “roll.” You find yourself on hills with the “roll” words across the top, and as you run up, the idea is to burn off the word to reveal these exploding barrels that roll down the hill and kill your enemies as they approach. There’s also a “clear” segment in which you have to hit the word “clear” to blow away big boulders blocking the beam from a lighthouse—which fries your enemies. These segments are challenging but totally doable once you get the hang of them.
The game gets darker and darker as you start to lose it, and there’s even a segment involving you being trapped in a big spinning wheel of rooms—timing is everything as you move from room to room, otherwise you can plunge into good old nothingness.
The final boss is the big challenge here. It involves multiple teleporting enemies and those damn kamikaze flocks of birds.
American Nightmare is the sequel that’s really just a side story. It’s short and the plot is also pretty irrelevant to the story presented in the original Alan Wake, other than the fact that this time, it doesn’t dance around the fact that it’s totally mimicking the concept of Stephen King’s The Dark Half.
Even so, this is quite a fun game—especially since you don’t feel like you’re always running for your life. While the combat stays the same, this is more of a traditional exploration survival horror game with various tasks to do in between fighting Taken and some new enemies.
There are these awesome “bird men” who come flocking around you like the annoying birds in the original game, but instead of dive-bombing you, they form into a Taken! He stalks you for a short time and then transforms back into a flock of birds and flies off for a brief period. There are also really annoying spiders that you can pretty much just fry with your flashlight. Although, at one point, I don’t know if it was glitch or what, but one spider refused to die! I was hitting it with light and shooting the frick out of it but it just kept coming. So I ran extra fast so my two legs could outrun its eight legs! And then there are these Taken that split like three times when you shoot them! Which means that within moments, one enemy becomes a horde.
American Nightmare is also a more vivid and colorful game, there’s more humor, there’s more character interaction, and the limited locations you explore—you can actually explore. It’s not a constant threat of monsters coming out and you having to just run to the next streetlight. You have set tasks to accomplish. Plus, there are lampposts everywhere! It’s grand. They go out for a brief period after you use them, but if at any time you need to recharge your health and want to “save,” you can run under a lit lamppost for a checkpoint.
The feeling of dread has really been lifted in this game (a relief after playing the original game), and not just because of the lamppost convenience. There are supply boxes nearby at most times—and they refill after a few minutes! So you basically have an unlimited supply of ammo and flashlight batteries. And even when there’s no convenient lamppost, there are light sources that actually hinder enemy attacks and give you the upper hand, like car headlights, gas station lights, and lit vending machines. You’ll also find trunks that can be opened for cool weapons—as long as you’ve already collected the number of manuscript pages required to open them. Which means, you won’t be able to open them all the first time you play through the game.
And speaking of playing through the game more than once, remember that part in Elm Street 4 in which Alice and her hot man get stuck in a loop of reliving the same moment again and again? Well, in American Nightmare, there are three areas—a gas station, an observatory, and a drive-in theater. After you’ve completed your tasks in each area—you head back to the first area and suddenly find you’re doing the same exact thing all over again. The characters reference it. The narrator points it out. And you are just stuck doing everything all over again with very few changes in your tasks—like a path might be blocked by a huge boulder so you have to go around another way, or enemies might be a little harder than before. By the third time you are redoing the same exact things in the same areas, it starts to feel like an old school arcade game of repeating boards, like Donkey Kong or Ms. Pac Man. And there’s not even a final boss, just a task you’ve done two times already only with more enemies.
I guess you could say American Nightmare becomes a recurring nightmare. The game should have just been shortened instead of fluffed with repetition and sold cheaply as a third DLC expansion chapter to the original game. Or expanded into a full-length sequel.
And finally, Matthew Porretta, the handsome voice actor after whom Alan Wake is modeled, actually appears in the game in cut scenes—including some twisted clips in which he is Alan’s “dark half,” committing some sadistic murders.