In 2010, Remedy Entertainment, best known for creating the gritty action game Max Payne and its sequel, released Alan Wake, a horror-fantasy thriller, exclusively onto Xbox 360 and eventually Windows PC. The game soon became a cult classic, earning critical acclaim and a devoted fan following, but not a large enough player base to make the sequel an easy sell to publishers. Though it may not have been upfront about it, Remedy found another way to keep Alan Wake‘s story going. In 2019, it released Control, a hit game across multiple platforms that referenced Alan Wake and later fully crossed over via DLC. With a brand new crop of fans eager to experience the first installment of Remedy’s emerging shared universe, the time is right for Alan Wake Remastered to bring the game to modern audiences and consoles.
Alan Wake Remastered is emphatically a remaster and not a remake. The game features the kinds of modern graphically upgrades you expect, like a higher resolution, but leaves the original release’s gameplay and story unchanged outside of taking advantage of a few new features in modern controllers, like the PlayStation 5‘s haptic feedback.
The graphical upgrades aren’t going to blow anyone away, even on the newest generation of consoles. The remastered game does not use modern visual technologies like ray tracing, and it occasionally suffers from random bouts of popup and stuttering. Still, it is inarguably a significant improvement over the original release and more palatable to today’s players. And, more importantly, it means the game is now widely available to console players who either never owned or have since dispensed with their Xbox 360.
Alan Wake Remastered puts players in control of the title character, a successful writer of hardboiled crime fiction who is struggling with writer’s block as he attempts to expand his literary horizons. His wife, Alice, has the idea to take a getaway vacation to the Pacific Northwest town of Bright Falls. It turns out not to be the relaxing, rejuvenating trip they expected when someone kidnaps Alice and Alan finds himself living through a nightmare scenario out of a horror film.
From there, the game takes on the structure of a six-episode television thriller, complete with a “previously on” segment and end credits theme for each episode. As Wake, players run through the woods surrounding Bright Falls. The town might as well be Twin Peaks’ sister city. It’s full of quirky characters like the aging ex-members of a Norse mythology-themed heavy metal band and a woman who carries around a lantern in the daylight as she daily checks the light bulbs in the city’s various buildings.
Along the way, players can find pages from a mysterious manuscript that Alan wrote but has no recollection of creating, but that seems to be coming true before his eyes. These pages help unravel the game’s mystery, illuminating events that take place off-screen and foreshadowing things to come.
The Twin Peaks of it all is hardly the only influence on Alan Wake. The game wears those influences on its sleeve, particularly its many Stephen King homages. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft and Alfred Hitchcock will also find familiar nods in the game.
Alan Wake also engages with clichés, but it does so knowingly because this is a game about storytelling and creation. The most apparent trope it plays into is the light versus darkness metaphor, which it makes literal before metaphorizing all over again. A Dark Presence possesses the enemies that come for Wake in the game. The only way Alan can fight back is to first shine a light on them. It turns Alan Wake into an experience where upgrading your flashlight is more advantageous than finding a better gun (unless that gun is a flare gun) and where street lamps serve as safe havens and checkpoints.
As Remedy promised, Alan Wake‘s gameplay remains untouched in the remastered edition, and that’s for the best. It’s a surprisingly simple game, even compared to Control. There are no powers to navigate, no skill trees to level. There’s Alan Wake equipped with a flashlight and a gun, and he must make it from point A to point B with a dark forest full of possessed, ax-wielding killers between here and there. Good luck.
It’s a punk-rockish design philosophy. Rather than complicating things, Alan Wake utilizes a relatively small set of design “chords” and plays them at varying speeds and intensities. This lean design sense adds to the tension the game creates. When the possessed guy with the chainsaw is bearing down on you and you know there’s nothing that can save you but the flashlight in your hand that’s currently drained of battery, you bet players will be cursing under their breath as they try to put enough distance between them and the baddie to survive.
As mentioned, Alan Wake is a game about creation, and its light-dark metaphor extends there as well, the white of the blank page against dripping black ink. It’s about the struggle for creative integrity in a commercial marketplace. Alan Wake himself is a surrogate for Remedy Entertainment. Like Alan, Remedy spent years working on a hardboiled crime series, Max Payne, and, like Alan, it took years for Remedy to produce a follow-up once they decided to move on to new things. Alan Wake is a game about making Alan Wake. It’s a game about Remedy’s transformation from the studio that created Max Payne into the studio that would make Control. Remedy turns that struggle into something compelling and tangible in Alan Wake, with the occasional wink and nod to let players know that yes, they’re aware, and they meant to do that.
But even if you miss all of that beautiful metatext, Alan Wake remains a tense thriller that will keep players on the edge of their seats and is a testament to how sometimes less can be more, even in relatively big-budget game designs. Alan Wake Remastered presents an opportunity for a new generation of players to experience a gem that never got its due, and they’d be foolish not to take advantage. Still, they may want to keep on the lights when they do.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Alan Wake Remastered is set to release on October 5th for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S. The publisher provided a game code for the purposes of this review, and it was reviewed on PlayStation 5.