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Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Alan Wake.

Today's spooky archive review is indie game The Path.

On with today's review!

Alan Wake.

Alan Wake might be the perfect case study of the principle of 'anger is the death of fear'. 

A curious beast, Remedy Entertainment's Alan Wake was a horror game styled after episodic American dramas - by which I mean that it was literally split into episodes with 'previously on' segments and breaks in the middle and all that stuff. In it, writers-block-afflicted crime author Alan Wake is dragged by his wife to the idyllic town of Bright Falls (a name that sounds about as comforting as 'Silent Hill') in the hopes that it'll spur him to write. What actually happens is that his wife vanishes, and Alan sets out to find her, learning along the way that Bright Falls is under the influence of a 'darkness' that takes people over, and has a greater plan for Alan. 

Sounds like a solid plot, right, at least for a survival horror game, where originality is quite often treated as an afterthought in favour of tried-and-true horror tropes that game developers know will produce a reaction from their audience. 

Alan Wake does produce a reaction. That reaction is irritation. 

I hate both characters pictured here.

It's not necessarily irritation because of the clunky controls, or because the 'burn away their shield with your torch light before shooting them' means that you essentially have to kill every monster in the game twice, or because our protagonist Alan has the charisma and charm of an angry brick - Although those are certainly all issues, to say the least.

No, the big problem is that the game has about three tricks that it uses for creating suspense, and it's determined to use them as much as possible its twelve hour run. 

The first is the 'everything seems normal, but then suddenly it's night and there's darkness and everything is terrible' trick, which is more or less fine: The game uses it once an episode or so, and it's a pretty standard horror game trope, but the sections where you're 'safe' are chronically underutilised: There's no attempt to build tension, there's very little attempt to establish plot. It's just clumsily inserted sections of wandering around small, well-lit areas, as some kind of distant facsimile of the plot sections of the dramas the game is aping. Contrast with American McGee's Alice, for example, which did something similar, but in a far more interesting way, using it to establish setting and character information and to provide a 'real life' basis for the wacky Wonderland sequences we would be seeing. 

What a pretty landscape.

The second is mean-spiritedness, with very little idea of when to stop. If there's ever a short or direct route to somewhere, you can bet it'll be blocked and you'll have to go around the long way. If you ever think you've cleared an area out quickly, there'll be more monsters on the way. That's a feature of most games, but Alan Wake takes it to absurd levels, with you being shown short routes then barred from them three or more times an episode, sometimes. It makes it very difficult to be afraid, because the emotion you're primarily feeling is frustration at the busywork you are being forced to do. 

The third is dramatic set pieces. Gosh, does this game love its dramatic set pieces. Some of them work really well: A section where you defend a heavy metal band's stage from hordes of monsters is great fun, even if it's not especially suspenseful. Most of them really don't: There are only so many awkward turret sections you can have with floodlights before you start wondering what awful person put so many floodlights in so many weird places. 

Well, this is trippy.

The overall effect is a game that's just - not good. Fission Mailure's resident survival horror player actually could not get past the prologue because it was just such an annoyingly awkward game to play, and when I played, it was just clunky, irritating, and extremely frustrating. I don't remember a single point where I was actually afraid, because no matter how much suspense they tried to pump into it, I was just vexed.

Also, your final boss battle is a tornado. I'm pretty sure the only other game to ever do that was Superman Returns. 

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