Over a decade after the original release, former Xbox exclusive psychological thriller Alan Wake is finally making its way to PlayStation consoles as Alan Wake Remastered. For existing fans, this is an opportunity to soak in the nostalgia and revisit a beloved title from yesteryear, now looking better than ever. But PlayStation owners used to best-in-class third person narrative adventures experiencing Alan Wake for the first time in 2021 might be left scratching their heads and wondering just what all the fuss is about.
The game begins with a dream sequence — an opportunity to teach you how combat works without being quite as crass as to just overtly tell you it's a tutorial. Once it's out of the way, the story begins proper: Alan Wake is an author of thrillers suffering from writer's block who travels to a log cabin in Bright Falls, Washington with his wife. She hopes the picturesque surrounding will get his creative juices flowing, and maybe it will, but not in the way she thinks.
Quickly, things turn sour, as Alan needlessly berates his spouse for buying him a typewriter to spur him on, and then, no sooner than you can say, "Hey Alan, calm down, it's only a typewriter," his wife is taken by mysterious forces. Our protagonist then wakes up behind the wheel of a car after an apparent accident. Was it all a hallucination? Was his wife really taken? Is she still alive? Why are people in Bright Falls so odd?
All these questions and more become the driving force of the game, and its strongest card to play. It's got a Twin Peaks vibe, with creepy characters who rub you the wrong way despite ostensible friendliness, and a secluded woodland setting that feels far enough away from a major population centre to worry that all kinds of terror could unfold before help would arrive. The game is even broken up into distinct chapters like a television show, complete with an unnecessary "Previously on..." at the beginning, a title screen, and music at the end.
In terms of atmosphere, Alan Wake truly excels for the most part. Unfortunately, actually playing Alan Wake is a miserable, tedious slog, and so most of the bits between the set pieces will likely leave many players frustrated. Combat is dreadful to the point that it would actually be better if most of it wasn't included. As you wander from one cookie-cutter location to the next, you'll face waves of copy-paste baddies that require near identical tactics to defeat, repeatedly, forever.
Your main enemies are The Taken — people who have succumbed to an evil force called The Dark Presence and are now out for blood. In order to defeat The Taken, you must shine your torch on them to rid them of the protection the darkness provides, and then they're vulnerable to gunfire. So you torch and shoot, basically, then torch and shoot again. If this were a five minute diversion in a more narrative-focused game it would work fine as a change of pace, but as the main crux of the experience, it's dull and repetitive beyond measure.
Worse, with the combat so monotonous, you'll end up dreading battles not because they're tense or frightening, but because you're so sick of them and just want to get to the next story beat. Alan Wake's six chapters (and two bonus ones included in this Remaster) all last around 2-3 hours, but could be half as long and twice as good. The fighting never gets any more interesting than it is in the tutorial, and it's rubbish then.
The monotony isn't helped at all by a lack of variety in the enemies or the locations you'll visit, or the tasks you're asked to perform. You know that bit in games where you get to the door and you can't open it because there's no power, so you go off searching for the generator to start it up, and then you have to go all the way back? It's a trick as old as the hills — it gives you something to do to pad out the playing time. You do that kind of thing over and over here, in the same lifeless woodland settings, fighting the same enemies, and it sucks.
The repetition in Alan Wake borders on self-parody at times. Practically every chapter begins with you somehow getting separated from everybody, losing all of your equipment, and finding yourself lost in the woods. It just keeps happening. It gets to the point where, when a chapter begins with you riding in a car to your next destination, you're probably wondering how long it will be before the car is run off the road and you're lost in the woods again, and you'll be right.
So, it's safe to say that we don't like Alan Wake very much, then. But all negativity regarding the gameplay aside, if you're the sort of person that plays games for their stories and their atmosphere, there's a lot to like about the game. If you bang the difficulty down to easy and just try to get through the shootouts with as little fuss as possible, you'll probably have a better time than we did, but as a total package or for action fans it's tough to recommend.
Remedy has done a fine job remastering the adventure for modern consoles, but the changes are mostly cosmetic, as opposed to the gameplay overhaul Mass Effect Legendary Edition recently provided. Character models are improved over those featured in the original game and the sleazy product placement is gone. For PS5 players, load times are lightning fast which makes game overs less frustrating than they otherwise would be, and there's a new audio commentary included for the super-fans.
While we're trying to end on a more positive note, it should be mentioned that the soundtrack to Alan Wake is absolutely stellar. The original score does a fine job complementing the action and the spooky situations you'll find yourself in, and there's also some excellent licensed songs used sparingly throughout, from artists such as Nick Cave, Roy Orbison, and David Bowie. So listen to the soundtrack on Spotify, at least.
For existing fans, this no-frills remaster is the best way to experience the 2010 game on modern consoles, but in 2021, much of the title simply doesn't hold up. Without the benefit of nostalgia, Alan Wake doesn't work as horror because it's not scary, as a thriller because long stretches of the game are fantastically boring, or as an action game because the combat is uninspired and repetitive. There's an interesting central mystery here, but like Alan Wake himself, you'll have to go through hell to find it.