A fun aside for the hero of light
Alan Wake’s American Nightmare started off development as an action-focused aside for the Alan Wake series. While its wave-based survival mode is still a part of the package, Remedy fortunately came to their senses and realised fans were clamouring for more story, character and atmosphere for the darkness-battling writer. It might not be a full-on sequel but American Nightmare weaves an interesting tale, shedding some light on the ambiguity of Alan Wake’s finale while still keeping its aberrant mysteries intact.
One of the best aspects of the original Alan Wake was its Twilight Zone inspired TV show, Night Springs. American Nightmare immediately sets off on the right foot by bringing it back in full force, thrusting our titular hero into the show itself – trapped between some sort of reality and fiction in the sparse, expansive deserts of Arizona. Wake is tasked as the “hero of light”, forced to do battle against his twisted doppelganger, the nefarious Mr. Scratch; the interplay between the two being one of American Nightmare’s shining beacons. A lot of their interactions take place via suitably fantastic FMV sequences, and when you factor in the fake Rod Serling, there’s a lot of fun, corny writing here that sets a refreshingly self-referential tone.
Some of the dialogue between minor characters is rather stilted and drab, butAmerican Nightmare tells an enjoyable, but brief story within the confines of the format. This isn’t Alan Wake 2, and as such it doesn’t factor into the overarching narrative. It acts as more of a companion piece, delving into how the malevolent darkness can exist away from the idyllic town of Bright Falls while also providing some unique back-story relating to the events of the first game, and how reality is carrying on, away from Wake.
You’ll find out most of this information by collecting the returning manuscript pages. Once again scattered throughout the environment, their collection is now void of frustration by their blatancy. Each one shines brightly in the distance with a giant question mark blinking on your mini-map to provide further attention. It’s remarkably easy to find all 53 without breaking a sweat, their contents once again offering insight into events to come, while also exploring Wake’s theatrical psyche. The character development they bestow is fantastic and, along with the radio shows and TV sets, they establish the atmosphere and explore events happening back in reality – if that’s even the case.
The manuscripts also play a much larger role in Wake’s fight against Mr. Scratch, tying into the narrative in a more natural and intuitive fashion. However, it’s your arsenal of weaponry that will administer the most striking resistance.
One of the prevalent issues people had with Alan Wake was the repetitive nature of its combat. Too few weapons, enemy designs and mechanics were the cause of its tedium, and American Nightmare goes some way in rectifying these irritants – even if it doesn’t always succeed. For one, Wake’s arsenal has expanded, introducing more idiosyncratic tools of violence like a nail gun and crossbow. Most of the firearms, however, adhere to the archetypal pistol, shotgun and rifle formula; though it’s hard to argue with the selection when you’re blowing away one of The Taken with a Combat Shotgun.
Combat is still frenetic and intense as you’re attacked by the malignant Taken from all angles. You need to shine your torch on their obscure figures to drain the darkness from them before firing off a few shots to finish the job. Flares provide a downtime in the action to recover your bearings and reload, while flare guns act as the rocket launcher of Wake’s world and flash bang grenades clear the crowds. It’s still an enjoyable formula; the shooting is precise and Wake’s movement has a satisfying weight to it.
Enemy designs have also amplified, adding some variation to proceedings. One larger enemy will split into weaker versions of itself when hit by light, increasing the numbers, while another is able to shape shift into a flock of birds to avoid fire and sneak up behind you. There are also prodigious, chainsaw wielding bullet sponges that require immediate attention; each adding a deft amount of diversity, but never enough to significantly change the balance of combat. Even ammo has become a non-issue – ammo dumps being so prominent - negating any of Alan Wake’s previous survivalist aspects.
There’s also a lack of exploration unless you’re hunting manuscript pages, a prominent marker on your mini-map always guiding you to your next objective. The three environments are fairly large and inquisitively detailed but they tread a linear path with fetch quests occupying most of your time. The atmosphere is still phenomenal, however, even after the shift in location. The orange desert hues and neon lights of the shady motel and diner conjure up a refreshing change in direction for the series while maintaining its eerie ambience; the lack of a brooding, opaque setting making little difference to its consistently foreboding tone. It’s spooky and feels like an authentic place, even within this mystic dreamscape.
You will grow weary of its three locations, though, with the game’s limited production scope forcing you through every one three times each to extend the longevity. It actually works well within the conceit of the narrative, implementing a nice twist for its reasoning in line with the esoteric world the series has established. But the pay off isn’t as satisfying as the idea. Not enough substantially changes to really differentiate each subsequent visit, and the game actually spawns you closer and closer to the objective each time so you don’t have to trudge through the entirety of the map over and over again. The design of each area is superb, from the motel right through to the observatory and drive-in theatre, but they overstay their welcome, even if the four-hour playtime is appreciated.
Of course, once you’re done with the story you can always move onto the arcade action. Fight Till Dawn is the name, its horde mode formula instantly familiar to anyone who’s played a shooter in the past few years – albeit, one for a single player only. More Alan Wake combat isn’t something people are necessarily after, and while it works well it’s difficult to see many playing it to completion. There are four areas to fight through ranging from a cemetery and ghost town to caves and a trailer park, with harder versions of each ready to be unlocked. On each level you’re given a time limit and must survive increasingly difficult waves of enemies until the sun comes up, earning a high score to compete on the leaderboards. How high you place will be governed by how big a multiplier you can reach, building it up by dispatching enemies and losing it whenever you’re hit. It’s here where the combat is at its most frenzied as you’re constantly surrounded and searching for ammo. But without a narrative propelling you forward it’s all too easy to ignore.
And that’s the main reason for playing Alan Wake’s American Nightmare: its narrative. If you’ve never played its predecessor then you’ll be lost coming in. This is a game for the fans, featuring an appreciative amount of exposition even if it’s fairly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. As a side story between bigger titles it works well, filling in some blanks while telling an enjoyable tale all its own. You could easily envision more content like this with Wake moving from town to town, solving new mysteries within the Night Springs concept – its goofy self-referential tone a pre-requisite. It’s just a shame its locations are recycled so often with similarly repetitive combat. At 1200 Microsoft Points its recommend for fans, just not unabashedly so.