On the Summer Game Fest 2023 stage, Sam Lake said that Alan Wake II will be Remedy Entertainment’s “first survival horror”. So what is the first Alan Wake?
It’s best not to think of Alan Wake as a horror game or as a cinematic game, two categories it is closely associated with. It makes use of horror stylings and, as expected of a game by the creators of Max Payne, it has an effective, character driven story. But ultimately it is a linear action game, and will probably be best enjoyed by people who go into it with that expectation.
Alan Wake can’t be a horror game because it is too predictable. This is best demonstrated in the build up to each battle. It certainly looks like a horror game: the air gets hazy and dark, there is a hiss with a rising tone, elevating the tension, and dark figures emerge (sometimes from behind you, though the camera always reveals where they are coming from). This happens every time. Almost every encounter is telegraphed in the same way, giving you a comforting warning of what is coming. Its consistency is antithetical to horror.
Alan Wake can’t be a cinematic game because it is too devoted to its combat encounters. Though there are cutscenes at the start and end of each episode, and the occasional non-combat scenario, massive stretches of this game consist of only encounter after encounter with few unique actions or story driven sequences to break up the action.
But despite these apparent shortcomings, it’s okay: when you take Alan Wake for what it is, a linear action game, it comes out alright. The important thing in combat here is crowd control. I didn’t get that at first. Don’t keep the flashlight focused on enemies. Just focus quickly, with a button tap, to stagger them, then do the same to another enemy, and let your passive flashlight beam do most of the de-darking work. The game is pretty damn easy if you play like this.
The mistake I made was thinking I should focus light on one enemy until it was dead, but this drains your flashlight way too quickly, and meanwhile other enemies decide to flank you and throw knives and Alan just doesn’t have the moves to deal with that. I was tearing my hair out in the early fights until I realised I was playing it wrong.
Now I think the combat is pretty fun, if simple.
- You can stagger any enemy with a trigger press.
- A rising pitch signifies your light is weakening the enemy, until their shield vanishes in a flash of light.
- When enemies die, they sizzle like the vampires in Blade.
- A flashbang bypasses the need to drain the enemy of their darkness, and has a wide range, but doesn’t harm you, making it one of the most effective grenades in the history of games.
- The dodge has a huge timing window, and the game slows dramatically when you use it to avoid an attack.
- When the last enemy dies, the game slows and brightens momentarily and you hear a rush of sound like metaphorical deflation of tension. It reminds me of getting the last hit in Kingdom Hearts.
And these actions felt good from the start of the game to the end. Even if the frequency of encounters is a little high, and the variety a little low, the game feel is top notch. And you can add that to the exceptional environment design, and exceptional lighting effects, for a pretty damn fun experience even in 2023. As long as you have the right expectations.