The pitch black darkness that spreads through the nightmarish dreamscapes in Alan Wake feels familiar at first. It is often both the source and symptom of evil, a foul miasma that can only be dispersed by the healing purity of light. Even in its amorphous form, this darkness has somehow given shape to the sheer force of malevolence, draping the world of Alan Wake in a morbid lightlessness, possessing innocents and turning them into soulless husks menacing the titular hero. To fend them off means having to wield light itself, be it through the piercing beam of a flashlight or the explosive flare of a flash grenade. It all seems to impart a classic tale on morality: that if the darkness is dangerous, then the light will bring salvation.
But this dichotomy of dark versus light, black versus white, good versus evil isn’t always so pronounced in Alan Wake. For one thing, the hero himself, who’s a bit of a prick, can be pretty hard to root for. Alan Wake is a writer—a crime novelist, if you must—who has suffered from writer’s block for about two years. In a rare vacation with his wife to an island called Bright Falls, a fan excitedly greets him when he enters a small diner, much to his chagrin; he dismisses her as a bumbling airhead in a later episode. He then gets into an argument with his wife and leaves her in the confines of a dark cabin, despite knowing that she suffers from a debilitating fear of the dark. When she inevitably goes missing, he narrates his search for her with the self-importance and dramatics of a leading man, his furrowed brows and brooding visage the very image of a white, male action hero. He even references The Shining at one point while being chased by an axe-wielding enemy, which seems like an extremely normal thing to do.
All these demonstrate that Wake is, to a degree, aware that he’s the protagonist of his own straight-to-home movie release, or at least is prone to regaling his audience (himself) with his experiences as if he is in one. Aside from just being a pompous jerk, this is pretty much in line with the releases that Remedy Entertainment are known for: games that are big on cinematic sheen and clear homages to the developer’s film influences, with most of their titles making for pretty entertaining, if not mindless, television. In the same vein, Alan Wake isn’t so much about the parallels between goodness and evil, or even Wake’s personal struggles against his own demons, as much as it wholly embodies a pulpy action thriller. It’s just honest-to-goodness camp—much like the dour theatrics of Remedy’s other popular franchise Max Payne, featuring a morose white leading man who has lost everything, and still finds more bits of his soul to lose.
I never played the original Alan Wake (2010), but rather than feel dated, this remaster seems like it’s mostly aimed at reintroducing new players like myself to the game, rather than servicing an existing fanbase. And as an interactive action thriller, Alan Wake manages to evoke the thrills and plot twists of television largely without feeling stale.
Mirroring the journey of an archetypal action hero, Wake must fight off the aforementioned shadowy husks that pursue him, who were once folks who lived on the island, as well as acquaintances he has met previously, but have been transformed into perverse shells of their former selves. Protected by a persistent shroud of the darkness, mere bullets won’t take them down. Instead, you’ll need to dissipate said darkness by pointing your flashlight at them, and then shoot at the beings once their earthly, mortal flesh is exposed. And as a bigger hoard of them rushes at you in subsequent chapters, you can also coolly dispense of them in a variety of ways: with flare guns, flash grenades, hunting rifles, shotguns and more. Eventually, even inanimate objects will get possessed by this macabre darkness, as it tosses industrial-sized objects at your head to inhibit your progress.
Even as these sequences get increasingly tense, this is a routine that you’ll have to get used to. That said, combat suffers slightly due to the age-old tendency of games that bloat itself with unnecessary layers, featuring cycles of repetitive and predictable encounters. The game’s ghastly phantoms will only materialize at nighttime, almost always emerging within the thick of the woods, and right behind your shoulder where you can’t spot them. At the same time, encounters are usually imbued with a cinematic flourish, which may buy you some time to plan your next move. Successful dodges performed by Wake play out in tantalizing slow-motion, and encroaching enemies are captured on camera from a distant lens, replicating the classic action hero’s unnatural imperviousness. These are also interspersed between scenes of blazing a passage of light on paths across the murkiness, trudging towards safe points illuminated by beacons of light, as well as meeting a doomed but distinctive supporting cast in Wake’s journey: the greedy literary agent Barry, the trigger-happy cop named Robert Nightingale, the upright Sheriff Breaker, and a sympathetic radio host called Pat Maine.
One thing that was sorely missed from the 2010’s version of Alan Wake, however, is the covert product placements. The Energizers batteries that are used to power your flashlight, as well as the well-placed Verizon ads and billboards of Ford cars? They have all been scrubbed clean, which would have added to the game’s almost farcical television mini-series shtick. And just like good television, Alan Wake’s episodic format neatly encapsulates the game’s action thriller spirit, with every episode concluding with a cliff-hanger or a twist ending that introduces new revelations to the tale. Hampering Alan Wake’s otherwise even pace, however, is the tedious pixel hunt for Alan Wake’s collectibles of choice—coffee thermos and manuscripts—that are littered across the levels, an unnecessary means to pad out the game’s content.
Alan Wake’s plot is at times convoluted, and Wake’s self-absorbed antics and monologues occasionally off-putting. Yet the game unabashedly embraces its camp, and its earnestness to pay homage to its biggest influences can also be endearing. In-game episodes of television shows—like the paranormal series Night Springs—is a nod to the developer’s love for cinema, and the camcorder recordings of Wake’s inane mutterings appear to dig deeper into what appears to be his fracturing psyche.
At the same time, you’re meant to feel like a broody anti-hero, as you struggle and overcome seemingly impossible odds thrown towards you. Upping the ante is how Wake’s perspectives appear to verge on delusional. This is compounded by your own growing suspicion in light of Wake’s tendency to assign blame on every other implausible reason on his plight—that the cops are against him, that the doctors are working against him, and that the events in a story he couldn’t remember writing was being brought to life to torment him—rather than the most obvious reality: that all these are simply a nightmare fueled by his own grandiosity. Aside from a few hiccups—which are mostly attempts to justify the title’s medium as a videogame—these elements reinvigorate the action thriller formula that Alan Wake so clearly aspires towards, ratcheting up the tension till it's taut with suspense.
Plenty of remasters of cult classics usually point to their graphical overhauls and upgraded performance, smoothing out their rougher edges for a new generation of players and consoles. But this remaster to Alan Wake delivers more than just that: that even after a decade, the game itself is still poised to be a timeless classic. Much like the horror movies, the Stephen King novels and the unsettling Lynchian works the game is inspired by, Alan Wake is a gripping piece of action thriller that will keep its new audience tuning in.