The original Alan Wake was not without its flaws, but it was a game that managed to deliver a compelling story and did what it did with a great deal of creativity. Throwing aside the normal conventions of mainstream game narratives, Alan Wake put you in the shoes of a renowned horror writer, struggling against real-world manifestations of his work, and attempting to rescue himself and his wife from the dark forces that threatened them. This wonderful story was unfortunately never given a proper ending though. The original game was left on a cliffhanger, and both pieces of subsequent DLC only proved to raise more questions, instead of answering the ones already posed.
If you’re looking for something that will live up to the quality of the original Alan Wake or act as a true conclusion to its story, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is not it, but it is an other chance to be part of the continuing story of the titular novelist, and providing you’ve played the original, there are some genuinely worthwhile experiences to be had here. Just to reiterate; playing the first game is basically compulsory for this one. The events of American Nightmare hold little significance if you haven’t done so, and if you’ve not had the pleasure of playing Alan Wake, it’s something you should probably check out.
This instalment of the series takes place inside an episode of the fictional television show Night Springs that Wake has written into reality. Here he attempts to use his authorial powers to escape "the dark place”, and wrest control of his life from his twisted doppelganger Mr. Scratch, who has stolen his identity and is using it to run amok in the outside world. The way the game tells this story can sometimes have its shortcomings; Mr. Scratch and a few of the other characters sometimes feel a little over-the-top, the game’s periodic use of a Rod Sterling-style narrator feels somewhat out of place, the characters seem to buy Wake’s crazy stories surprisingly fast, and the ending feels lacking in its execution, but these annoyances aside, American Nightmare does some genuinely engaging things with the tale it spins.
The concepts of Wake’s evil duplicate going for a joyride in his life and an author having the ability to rewrite reality remain fascinating, and are implemented with a fair degree of finesse. Of particular note are the entertaining live-action broadcasts Mr. Scratch makes to Wake that can be found throughout the world, and the collectible manuscript pages that continue to compliment the main story by expanding on the events Wake is experiencing and providing a window into his thoughts. Given that this story remains such a strength of the games, it’s a little surprising that gameplay plays as big a role as it does in American Nightmare.
A lot of your reaction to this game is going to be dependent on how eager you are to experience more of the first game’s combat. It was a feature that felt rather worn out and tired by the end of the original, but it having been a while since I played it, I found it a mostly pleasant undertaking to return to the inventive light/dark mechanics that define the game’s fights. It still felt like it began to drag a little by the end though, and as American Nightmare doesn’t do much to build on the original combat mechanics outside of adding a few new weapons and enemies, I wouldn’t recommend playing this on the back of the first game. One thing that has been clearly altered for the better however, is the graphics. Interactions between characters can appear stilted, and giving the enemies a more human look has robbed them of some of their other-worldly quality, but textures are more detailed, lighting is just as good if not better than in the first game, and the black and blue forests of Bright Falls have been switched out for the earthen-coloured expanses of Arizona.
Combat aside you might think that American Nightmare is a game with few to no major flaws, but unfortunately it does have one unusual and particularly affecting issue lingering below the surface. The game insists on reusing all its environments and huge chunks of the gameplay scenarios that take place in them, having you replay different versions of the same parts of the game over and over. The narrative device which the game uses to do this is rather clever and it is to somewhat exciting to see the way it shapes the story, but after a point it becomes impossible to shake the sense that you’re just redoing what you’ve already done, and that the game ran out of content a while ago, but kept going regardless. It's disappointing to experience.
Outside of the main story, the game includes a wave-based survival mode it calls Arcade Mode. Given the limited longevity of the game’s combat, you may be thinking that this doesn’t seem like the most necessary or appealing feature, and it’s not, but there are aspects of it that work better than you think they might. The five maps on which you can play are designed in such a way that there’s no entirely safe spot, which keeps you constantly watching your back, and the need to restore your health under street lamps, collect more weaponry, and find more ammunition means that you really have to move around the maps to play effectively.
When you step back and look at it, you get the sense that the developers of American Nightmare are talented people with some inspired ideas, who just weren’t given the time or resources to properly make the follow-up the first game deserves, and who still haven’t really managed to fix the problems of the original. However, for those willing to brave recycled content and combat that may be less than ideal, there are some genuinely engrossing elements at play in the world and story of American Nightmare.