|Ilkka Villi as Alan Wake.|
If you're from Finland, it doesn't matter whether you loved or hated Remedy Entertainment's Alan Wake. It was one of the most internationally anticipated games of the last decade, and the best-promoted Finnish video game in history. Although the game didn't quite cash in on the huge expectations that were piled up during its whopping seven-year developmental period, this psychological action thriller inspired by the cinematic works of David Lynch and the literature of Stephen King has retained the status of a cultural phenomenon in my home country.
Those of you who haven't read my review of Alan Wake from July 2011, or have been living under a rock for the past few years, let me recap the plot for you in the most mean, spoiler-rich way I can possibly muster up in just a couple of paragraphs - you see, you have no sense of reading this guide if you don't know the plot thus far. So, if you haven't seen Alan Wake through, and are planning to (it's coming to the PC next month), I strongly advise you to just check the conclusive ratings and let the content be.
Alan Wake is a best-selling author, who's been suffering from a writer's block for a few years. He also has some problems with anger management and has a history of substance abuse. His loving wife Alice takes Alan to a vacation to the small town of Bright Falls, located somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, supposedly to somewhat repair their marriage. In reality, Alice smuggles a typewriter along, imagining Bright Falls as the perfect setting to get Alan's creative juices flowing again. Alan doesn't like being tricked and runs out on his wife, who then mysteriously disappears, apparently drowning in Cauldron Lake, which surrounds the Wakes' cabin on Divers' Isle. Alan dives into the dark waters to rescue his wife. A week later, Alan comes to in a crashed car with a bandage on his head, with no recollection of the last seven days. The already strange town of Bright Falls is turning into hell on Earth before Alan's eyes, exactly like a nightmarish horror story he's been playing around with since his last book. In the dark, anything is possible. Alan desperately searches for Alice while on the run from the law... and worse.
Although the mystery that carried Alan Wake well over a half of the game was revealed within the confines of the game, the story hit what Alan himself would call a sudden stop, with good Alan being trapped and bad Alan making his way into the real world to steal his identity. The game ended just like the show Twin Peaks, in which the real Dale Cooper was trapped inside the Black Lodge, and his identity was stolen in the real world by the evil spirit known as Bob. Unlike David Lynch, Remedy refused to end the story in such a depressing (yet awesome) cliffhanger.
The story of Alan Wake was continued with two downloadable episodes retaining the game's TV mystery-like nature; the first one continued straight where the game left off, and the second was a "sequel" to the first; the whole bundle's kind of like a double episode. So, basically, you can't have one without the other, they're two halves of the same apple. So, are they any good? How much does this downloadable content pack in terms of storytelling? The short answer is that if you're a serious fan of Alan Wake, you can't live without 'em. Too vague? Well, here's the long story.
COST: 560 Microsoft Points
Alan finds himself caught in the events that took place right when he and Alice first came to Bright Falls, only everything's distorted. The world around Alan seems to change all the time, as if someone's observing and perhaps even dictating his every move with the desperate intent of getting him killed. Somehow Alan manages to contact Thomas Zane, who gives him a GPS signal to follow, attempting to pull him out of the surreal nightmare which Alan cannot possibly control.
First, I replayed Alan Wake, which I recently bought, just to bring myself up to speed with what's been going on. Since I didn't have Achievements for the game synced up, and there was the choice of going at the game on a harder difficulty level, the replay started out very nicely, but nearing the end of the game, I was begging for it to end. Alan Wake is seriously a game to experience, but like I said way back when I wrote the review, the game really isn't from the most replayable end. Even the Achievements or a more formidable challenge didn't help, I was extremely bored of the game when I finally bested that tornado and sunk to the bottom of Cauldron Lake. It wasn't the most graceful way to head into the DLC, but I guess I was pretty stoked. I was angry at the game and its mechanics, but I couldn't wait what fate had in store for Alan Wake. How would the story continue? Would we break out of the Dark Place and go after Mr. Scratch? Would Alan finally reunite with Alice? Would we finally see Zane out of that stupid, oversized diver suit? No, no and no. Neither one of the episodes really carries the story forward - what Remedy did here was that they took threads that were already laid out in the open, and gave us two episodes to demonstrate how Alan's doing in the aftermath of the game's ending. Both episodes are part of the same ongoing subplot. If you want any form of closure to the story of the creepy Mr. Scratch, you'll have to wait for American Nightmare. If you simply want to entertain yourself with two hours of the most surreal adventuring in Alan Wake's loafers you've seen, you might want to check out both The Signal and The Writer.
In this case, being the first one sucks. The Signal has a few climaxes of its own, including one hell of a unique boss fight in the end, but it's much more of a brainless tube run than The Writer. You know, just run forward, don't care about the world that changes shape around you all of the time - just "follow the signal", shoot a lot of dudes, and type a lot of words to help you through it all. Yeah, that's right, they incorporated the system from the end of Alan Wake to this whole package; you have to light up different simple commands or substantives with your flashlight to "type" them, and they become reality. For example, "pump" results in the spawning of a pump-action shotgun, and "Boom!" results in a devastating, spontaneous explosion. I think they went a bit too far with this - it was a great idea to be included as a surreal sequence in the game, not the basis of gameplay in the DLC in my opinion. The actual flaws in gameplay are explained by what's been obvious since the game was released: trick jumping and dodges with perfect precision do not go hand in hand with Alan Wake. I think this one proves a point, and The Writer went on to prove it further - yet, The Writer is the more interesting episode to play from every aspect.
The thing that clearly separates the two episodes is the difference in collectable items. TV sets that constantly stream Alan's descent into madness and some manuscript pages are still in, but only as plot items. There are alarm clocks and cardboard cutouts of Alan's friends and family hidden all over the terrain in The Signal, but honestly, it takes a lot of patience to really explore, there are Taken on your ass everywhere. There's a total of eight Achievements for you to bust an artery with. You can't choose a difficulty level, and I must say The Signal is quite hard compared to the only moderately challenging content on the game disc, even if you choose not to explore for collectables.
In a nutshell, The Signal is essential because you wouldn't get a minute of the better episode to come if it weren't for it. It's a bit boring, but it does belong. I'm giving it a little extra for the song choice - "No, I Don't Remember" by Anna Ternheim - which fits the atmosphere like a glove.
RATING : 7.9
COST: 560 Microsoft Points
Alan figures out the truth behind his desperate fight for survival; "he" is actually a half of his true personality, the one who wants to return to the real world and see Alice again, while his other, self-destructive half is constantly imagining a story in which Alan would surely die. With Thomas' help, Alan makes his way through the nightmare of his own imagination to where it all started, the cabin on Cauldron Lake, and attempts to become whole again.
The Writer pulls some serious Silent Hill 2 moves on us grateful players. If you thought The Signal was weird, The Writer will take you on a cerebral rollercoaster ride. At times, it feels like Remedy's grip on the story is slipping, and they're being weird for the sake of being weird, but those feelings will come to pass, eventually. The Writer is near excellent in its twists and turns, and it has better climaxes than the last 20 minutes of the game itself. The "typing" system and the usual core problems of Alan Wake rear head a few times in quite ugly occurrences, but the plot has power. Again, it doesn't really lead us anywhere when it comes to the unsolved mysteries of the universe or Alan's personal redemption, but it serves as a quite good ending to the game, and gives us one serious cliffhanger to chew on until the next installment, which is now obviously on the way.
Since I explained the most important stuff already in The Signal's case and the gameplay hasn't really changed here, I'll wrap this up quick. Copies of "Night Springs - The Video Game" for the Xbox 360 are up for grabs - can't even imagine what that would be all about in real life - and they're the only collectables within this episode, perfectly enough. However, there are more Achievements to be had here, and they're just as frustrating as in the game itself and The Signal; how about getting through the final boss fight without dropping to critical health? ...How about shoving a whole pineapple up your ass? They're not impossible, not even difficult, but very, very frustrating to get. They seriously entice you to replay the episode at a better date, which is still not a very fun task. That much still hasn't changed. Here's to hoping Remedy will pay a little more attention to replay value with future Alan Wake titles.
Nevertheless, The Writer is just as much of an experience (one-time or not) as any episode in the game Alan Wake, and it needs The Signal for a counterpart - it made The Signal worthy, if you will. The song choice here's not quite as good, though; I love Depeche Mode, but this song "Darkest Star" isn't one of their best tunes.
RATING : 8.4