Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Genre: Psychological Action Thriller
Reviewer: George Damidas
Overall: 8 = Excellent
Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is the third downloadable release in the Alan Wake series, following The Signal and The Writer. While both of the initial post-launch episodes expanded on Wake’s time in Bright Falls, American Nightmare is a separate adventure, based on the fictional television series Night Springs. Befitting the show’s Twilight Zone inspiration, the latest journey is chock full of surreal elements that find a warm home in Wake’s unending battle with the dark, from a sadistic doppelganger to temporal distortions to signals from outer space. Embracing the series’ campy side as much as its psychological thriller underpinnings, American Nightmare makes for a welcomed addition to the canon.
Despite being a standalone entry, American Nightmare is most suited for gamers who have already embraced Remedy’s narrative-focused design. Those who have yet to take on the dark will undoubtedly find themselves at a bit of a loss as just what to make of Alan Wake. Even though the series has the trappings of a survival horror title, with its focus on light and dark, possession, and insanity, it is more in line with the studio’s official tag of ‘psychological action thriller.’ The tag is actually a forewarning, sending a clear signal that the game can and will mix genres at whim, taking and using whatever elements the situation calls for, whether it’s an extended combat sequence or something more macabre. The downside to not adhering to a set standard was that, for some people, the original was too much of one or the other; those wanting something akin to Silent Hill were put off by the faster-paced action, while those wanting blazing gunfights found themselves too confined by a limited arsenal of a flashlight and firearm. The subsequent downloadable episodes emphasized each element in turn in an attempt to satisfy both parties, with The Writer being more psychological than its action-heavy predecessor, The Signal.
Both episodes sat well with me because I am one of those who appreciated the original’s approach, even with its shortcomings; to me, combat was simply a part of Wake’s journey, rather than its centerpiece. That said, I can certainly understand why Remedy’s approach didn’t click with everyone, as they forced the combat to take a backseat to narrative, which is rare, using the encounters to punctuate the narrative rather than dictate it. This created a curious result of a mechanically tight and thoroughly satisfying combat system, marred by limited enemy and weapon types, in a design that shoehorned it into a repetitive structure. For those who enjoyed being lost in the mind of a writer in a fight for his sanity and his life, the tradeoff was worth it. And that’s largely true of American Nightmare, which is structured more in line with the original.
Beginning with longtime friend and literary agent Barry nodding off in a hotel room to an episode of Night Springs, players are introduced to Wake’s newest enemy, his homicidal doppelganger, Mr. Scratch. After an ignominious brushing aside, Wake awakes to find himself near a small roadside town. Well outside of Bright Falls, the town is actually Night Springs, situated in a remote tract of Arizona. The only thing it has to show for itself is a railroad crossing, shuttered gas station, rundown hotel, and a diner that’s seen better days. From here, Wake will meet (and re-meet) the only inhabitant who doesn’t want to kill him, and then make his way to a nearby observatory and rundown drive-in. All the while, Wake has to face off against the physical manifestations of the dark, those local inhabitants who are now wielding their axes, dark grenades, and scythes in the service of unknown masters. He will also meet new forms to test his mettle, including one that can break into a flock of birds to escape, a giant that wields a metal grinder, and another that splits into pairs when hit.
Fortunately, the arsenal has been expanded to take care of the new threats. Wake can now get his hands on an assault rifle, automatic nailgun, combat shotgun, magnum, and uzi. Save for the nailgun, the other weapons must be unlocked by finding the pages of a manuscript that are scattered throughout each location; these are actually very helpful, for newcomers and returning fans, as they cover everything from the events in the original game to details about the new locations. The revolver, flare gun, hunting rifle, and shotguns return, as do the flares and flashbangs; there has been some streamlining, though, as there is now a single flashlight. Combat works as it did before, with Wake having to shine a focused beam of light on enemies in order to drive away the shadows that protect them so that he can take them down with the equipped firearm. By tying the new weapons to the areas’ manuscripts, they serve a double function by adding spice to combat while also encouraging players to learn more of the lore.
As with the original, the world is expanded through several interactive televisions and radios. Instead of playing snippets of Night Springs, the televisions now air messages from Mr. Scratch, who taunts Wake with footage of him torturing people and threats to fully take over his life in the real world. The radio interviews with Alice, Wake’s wife, flesh out what’s been going on in the two years since he went missing, while others with old friends (the Old Gods of Asgard) serve as a nod to fans.
But it’s really the fans who will get the most out of American Nightmare. The game is a respectable length, clocking in at several hours, but those who found the formula lacking the first time around won’t be swayed here. Those just jumping into the series will definitely find a self-contained adventure, but the game indulges its kooky side so much so that it won’t be quite representative of how the story started off. That’s true in more ways in one, though, as I found American Nightmare to less polished than the original. Slowdown wasn’t uncommon, and there were a few oddities, including a character handing over nothing, Wake being knocked behind a fence and stuck until a restart, and an instance when a character stopped speaking as the subtitle remained on-screen. The writing is also not quite as sharp, with some nonsensical responses and at times clunky delivery. Wake himself is well represented, though, with actor Ilkka Villi and voice actor Matthew Porretta reprising their roles as the man himself. So while American Nightmare does have a lot to offer, it definitely helps to have jumped into the Alan Wake pool with the original, because this is definitely the deep end.
A surprising new addition is Fight Till Dawn, a Horde-style arcade mode that pits Wake against increasingly difficult waves of enemies. Each kill adds to a combo modifier that gradually depletes between kills and resets if he’s hurt, with the count going towards an overall score. The overall score is based on a three-star system, with new maps unlocking as a total star count is reached, for a total of ten maps. Scores are also uploaded to leaderboards, with the higher scorers undoubtedly being those who unlocked all of the weapons during their run through the story. The goal isn’t simply to survive until sunrise, but to maximize the combo modifier by taking note of the ammo stashes and lamps to rearm and heal as needed, while taking down as many enemies as possible, as fast as possible. While Fight Till Dawn won’t sell anyone that isn’t interested in playing through the story, it is a great treat for fans.
As a standalone release, one would think that Alan Wake’s American Nightmare would showcase the very best of the original Alan Wake—an experience that is the product of refinement born from years of reflection and developing post-launch downloadable episodes. Instead, Remedy went the opposite route and indulged themselves with a side quest that is even more bizarre and unorthodox. The result is that those who weren’t fond of the original can safely skip American Nightmare, while newcomers might also want to consider putting off until first having played the original. Fans, however, should definitely give it a look. While not as polished as prior efforts, the charmingly desolate world, sci-fi-inspired storyline, and Fight Till Dawn mode mesh nicely with the Night Springs motif to see Wake through another satisfying adventure.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)