August 3, 2010

Alan Wake, "The Signal" - Review - This is not just DLC ...

... it's an ingenious twisting of what you're used to.

On July 27th, Remedy released the first of at least two DLC for their very good Alan Wake, a short episode entitled "The Signal."  After finishing the full-game two months ago, I've been dying to travel back to Bright Falls and see where else the story could go.  Thankfully, the wait was (mostly) worth it.


When we left Alan (again, SPOILERS - SPOILERS - SPOILERS), he had written an ending that saved his wife but kept him in the Dark Presence.  We all wondered what would now come of Alan because he didn't die, he just existed somewhere else (and depending on how you interpret the game, if Alan "really" exists at all).  Plus an enigmatic ellipsis before the credits indicates that we haven't turned over the last page.

Wonder no further.  "The Signal" is here to try and point us in the right direction.

What makes "The Signal" so good is how Remedy deftly challenges what we became used to in the full-game.  For starters, we begin in the Oh, Deer! Diner, just like the start of Alan Wake, but immediately the world is off, bathed in darker hues with dark smoke writhing outside the windows.  The townspeople Alan met are now basically memories, translucent shapes repeating their lines but slightly distorted like an old record.  It's clear from the onset that the world Alan is trapped in is being shaped to some degree by his memories, but memories now clouded by the presence of Dark.  The Dark permeates this world, smoldering around Alan, rising out of the ground almost spider-like.  We're not in Washington anymore, Toto.

Only portions of Bright Falls are revisited, and if they are, they aren't the same and are connected outside of normal logic (this is, after all, a kind of dream world).  For instance, you'll pass through the church again, but the basement has become a maze of furnaces instead of just shelves.  Remember Alan's New York apartment?  It's here in this Dark-version Bright Falls, too, but don't expect the bustle of the Big Apple when you look out the windows.  Everything is the same, but different.

In fact, that is the best aspect of "The Signal."  It is the same Alan Wake we played and loved, but different.  Remedy plays around with what we expect to be true and safe and adds another level of fear and hesitation.  This time, light has the potential to harm you.  Now, light itself won't hurt Alan, but it can bring about harm depending on where you shine it.  Upon entering the Darkness near the end of the full-game, words appeared in the air, representations of what could be if Alan shone his light on them long enough.  Several seemed merely aesthetic (telephones, trashcans, etc.), but some were essential to progress (like "bridge," or "cabin").  In "The Signal," you'll encounter close to a hundred of these words, several to help you progress, a few to give you batteries and ammunition, and many to give you reasons to use your batteries and ammunition.  One such area is littered with them; think of the final scene in Hitchcock's The Birds.  Words can definitely hurt you in "The Signal," figuratively by representing enemies, but also literally: touch one and you'll see!

TV's reappear and take the place of manuscript pages (since you've supposedly finished writing Departure, there's no need to continue writing ... or is there?).  And if you thought the pages cleverly foreshadowed future frightening events before, they're nothing compared to the TVs.  One of my least favorite things in the full-game was Alan's reading aloud of the pages.  The fiction was great, but Alan's repetitive, gruff and stoic timbre kinda bugged me in the end (although I know what the game makers were going for).  Well, Remedy must have read my mind because, well ... I won't ruin it for you, but trust me, Alan this time is far from monotone.

The end result of this "1-hour special" is a brilliant twist in mechanics that re-instills the fears we had in our initial playthrough.  The difficulty, at first, is steeper because of the new grounds, the scant amount of ammo and flares you're given (again, at first; ammo management is better in subsequent outings), and sometimes the Taken appear dangerously close behind you, so it is a challenge to your skills and to your nerves to continue following the light once again.  Thematic elements are also very strong.  Our expectations, our choices and our words are discussed not mainly by the script or Alan's inner monologue, but more so by the gameplay, which is quite an impressive feat reminiscent of BioShock.

However, don't expect to be philosophizing here for long or even understand that much more of the Alan Wake saga.

"The Signal" is not quite a novella, but a short-story.  Sure you may take a few hours once you've downloaded it, but recently I blazed through it in approximately 20 minutes.  Granted, it was my third/fourth playthrough and I knew where everything was, but still, it's really not long at all.  The ending is kind of abrupt and, if you have the right tools at hand, a piece of cake.  Sadly, too, I don't feel like anything new was explained for us or Alan at the end.  The story isn't finished yet, but there's no edge-or-your-seat cliffhanger to gear up anticipation for the next DLC, "The Writer."  At least I wasn't dying to download it after finishing "The Signal;" I am dying to play it because it's more Alan Wake, not because of how "The Signal" ended.

The positives vastly outweigh the negatives here, thankfully.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time with "The Signal" and if you loved the full-game you should definitely add this DLC to your shelf.  Even if you bought the game used and didn't get the free token by buying it new, purchase it.  The mechanics are the same, but tweaked and twisted for the story Remedy is telling in this short amount of time.  Thankfully the formula hasn't changed (even Barry is as hilarious as ever); we're just given a new way to look at what we thought was good and what we thought was safe.  And I feel safe with Remedy.

(I obviously didn't do my usual full-length review segments since this is DLC and the content is pretty similar)

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