Supernatural mystery writer Alan Wake returns less than 2 years after he infamously spent more than 5 years getting ready for his and developer Remedy Entertainment’s Xbox 360 debut. Instead of a full-priced retail title like the original, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare comes in the skin of a $15 downloadable title for the Xbox Live Arcade. While the conversion to a “smaller” platform has its warts, overall American Nightmare is a remarkably impressive XBLA title that continues the unique Alan Wake series wonderfully.
One thing that is important to note going in is that American Nightmare‘s plot picks up right where it left off after Alan Wake–including the DLC episodes “The Signal” and “The Writer.” Having only played the former and not the latter, it was very disorienting figuring out exactly what was happening to Alan in the early parts of the game. The creepy narrator notes Alan is a version of an episode he once wrote for the show Night Springs, which I recognized from the first game as being the show on the scattered televisions throughout the game world. It didn’t make sense how he could be inside a TV show, so being familiar with what happened in the DLC would have added a lot of context. New players may have an even harder time figuring out the entire backstory, but Remedy does a decent job of recapping. It’s only decent, though–details are scattered throughout the game’s collectible manuscript pages and sometimes optional lines of dialogue, so there’s a chance that players will miss even what is there. Some “Previously on Alan Wake” snippet may have helped recap veterans and introduce newcomers, but the initially muddled story does gain focus as it progresses.
Though the context and motivations of American Nightmare‘s plot take awhile to shake out, the feel of the game is unmistakably Alan Wake from the minute you pick up the controller–quite the impressive feat for a downloadable Arcade game. The vibe is undeniably creepy and the fluid flashlight-and-gun combat mechanics make a welcome return (burn away “The Darkness” with light, then deal damage with a firearm). Some differences do become apparent that flavor American Nightmare quite differently from its predecessor in both good and bad ways.
For one, American Nightmare is a much more action-oriented affair than the original. This is not necessarily bad given the unique and genuinely engaging combat mechanics, but the game does lose a lot of its scary factor because of this re-balancing. There are some exceptions to this, notably a pitch black cave full of over-sized arachnids, and Nightmare does keep you on the edge of your seat with a thoroughly stressful creepiness, but it is scaled back a bit and lacks a certain mysteriousness. Part of this has do to the way the plot is structured, which explicitly pits Alan against an evil darkness-controlling doppelganger named Mr. Scratch. Instead of a story about a man looking for his wife and trying to figure out what is going on in a strange, demented world, but this game is a story about a man trying to figure out a way to outsmart and defeat a defined adversary. This fundamental difference in the plot is not necessarily better or worse, just different, though I personally found the original’s premise to be far more interesting.
Structure is another aspect that distinguishes American Nightmare from the original game. While Alan Wake was a largely linear trek through sylvan forests, cavernous mountains, and an eerie town in the Pacific Northwest, the XBLA title’s Arizona setting consists of smaller maps that act like a mini, contained open worlds. There is largely a linear structure within these maps, which usually consists of chatting up a character, performing a fetch quest, and shooting up some Taken along the way, but the maps still allow for free exploration within them. Instead of the fun, break-the-pace driving sections of the original to transition between these locales, a simple series of loading screens sums up Alan’s drives. Both these changes I felt sapped some of the more magical nuances of Alan Wake from the experience, but I do understand the revamped approach considering the limitations of the XBLA platform.
(WARNING: minor plot spoiler discussed in the following paragraph.)
Perhaps American Nightmare‘s most definitive plot point is also its most contentious. As the plot materializes, it becomes clear that Alan is trying to change the conditions of this episode of the Night Springs TV show in order to defeat his dark half, Mr. Scratch. To do this, he essentially has to relive the same sequence until he collects enough details to change the episode’s story to his advantage. This means the same three “levels” are recycled over and over again, which is a mechanic I am personally not very fond of (I don’t usually like games with “dark” versions of the same world either). In fairness, this approach likely has at least partially to do with the limitations of the XBLA platform. Additionally, Remedy does a better job of handling this conundrum than expected and provides for new or tweaked goals to accomplish, changes to the character interactions, steadily evolving enemy types, and an accelerated progression pace each time through the cycle. Thus, Remedy has taken an aspect that I consider perhaps the game’s biggest weakness and makes the most of it–a sign of a developer who knows its craft well.
(End of spoilers.)
The graphics are stunning for an Arcade game, even if a little short of Alan Wake. The dark atmosphere masks what would otherwise be bland environments and character models look a little ugly up close, but in general American Nightmare looks great, especially the light effects that are the star of the show. A mostly-stellar script is elevated by a strong voiceover performance by Matthew Porretta as the titular Wake (as well as alter ego Mr. Scratch), though some of the supporting cast leaves a little to be desired. Sound design is also very strong throughout and supplements the action and mood excellently, while the use of Kasabian’s “Club Foot” during a key moment in the story gives the scene a tirelessly awesome jolt of energy. Select turning points in the plot are also punctuated by full-motion live-action cutscenes. Leaving the engine for a cutscene can potentially be disastrous–double-so for live-action video–but American Nightmare‘s FMV cutscenes are of high quality and fit the feel of the game perfectly. After an up-and-down experience both in action and tone, Alan Wake‘s American Nightmare finishes firing on all cylinders, wrapping up the story tightly while still leaving the door open for the next evolution of the series (and the credits confirm that our favorite flashlight-and-gun-toting author will in fact return).
There is one more notable aspect to American Nightmare, and that is the “Fight ‘Til Dawn” Arcade Mode, which is essentially the game’s take on the increasingly ubiquitous Horde mode. The unique, enjoyable combat mechanics shine in this mode and the game’s wide array of weaponry adds another layer of bombastic fun. However, the dark mood, scattered ammo, and the enemies’ penchant for getting behind you make the 10-minute challenges very stressful and don’t benefit from the break in pace provided in the story. The lack of a co-op component that usually complements this type of mode also muffles its allure. The Arcade mode is definitely fun, but at the same time doesn’t really provide much incentive to come back and play repeatedly. It is a notably nice touch that the Arcade maps are specially crafted and not simply carbon copied out of the story, however.
Recommendation: Buy It! Fans of the original Alan Wake should not hesitate: American Nightmare is the continuation of Wake that you crave. It continues the natural evolution of both story and gameplay that was introduced in the original game’s DLC. It starts out muddled and takes a little while to solidify, but even with its differences from the first game remains a decidedly Alan Wake experience that is unlike any other gaming experience out there. For players new to Alan Wake and weary of making the dive into the retail game, American Nightmare will also provide a strong introduction to the game’s signature mechanics as well as the general feel and aesthetic. It’s not a dumb action shooter and it’s not really survival-horror, but it fits somewhere in between as an intelligent, action-heavy psychological thriller. At a wallet-friendly $15, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is definitely recommended for purchase.