Alan Wake’s American Nightmare Reviewed
This game was reviewed on PC
Originally released in February for Xbox Live Arcade, Remedy Games has brought Alan Wake’s American Nightmare to the PC. Rather than a sequel or another episode of Alan Wake’s first eponymous adventure, American Nightmare is presented as a standalone continuation of the protagonist’s journey through the Dark Place.
Returning players will see familiar sights almost immediately in the first cinematic begins. Barry Wheeler, now manager of the Old Gods of Asgard, sleeps in a motel room “somewhere in Arizona.” Night Springs plays on TV, but instead of being random bits of plot, the Twilight Zone knockoff serves as the setting, complete with its own fake Rod Serling to narrate. Going from CG to live-action, we see Alan Wake himself standing in a swirling mass of shadows, hunting “dangerous quarry” in the form of Mr. Scratch, a hedonistic, evil, and well-dressed version of Alan that has plagued him in the past. After a quick drop, the cinematic ends with Alan waking up in the game’s first level, and we’re returned to rendered animation.
Shadows boil away as Alan Wake regains his senses. The lighting and shadow effects are part of the many appeals to the game. For a smaller, digital-only release, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare’s visuals are rather sharp. The neon signs of the motel and diner stand out in the sparse, faux-Arizonian desert, and the lights of the gas station, as well as the oases of lonely street lights, provide clear-cut contrasts between safety and the dangers of the Dark Place. The Taken, the enemy horde of darkness-possessed humans, are fought with gun and flashlight, and the eruptions of light as the Taken are made vulnerable are gorgeous little flashes of gold and black. The characters are done well enough to look current, but the number of unique enemies is low. I swear I’ve killed the same fireman at least fifty times, and that monstrous-looking hick in the trucker hat a couple dozen on its own. With the exception of an abandoned house in the first level, the buildings themselves are rather plain, and most of the atmosphere is supplied by lighting.
The soundtrack is quiet, helping to frame the feelings of the series. The departure comes in the form of Kasabian’s “Club Foot,” giving a satellite crash an energetic, cinematic edge. Other than that, it manages to stay out of the way, chiming in at dramatic and helpless points that assist to underscore the narrative.
Alan Wake is stuck in the Dark Place, a dimension where abstractions shape reality. His power here stems from his career as a television writer on Night Springs, now giving him the power to alter this alternate world and fight the shadowed beings that inhabit it. Mr. Scratch thinks to trap Alan here, in his own TV show, but Wake’s creative powers allow him the way out.
The game starts in the oil fields of Night Springs and moves through two more levels. It’s not a long game. Mr. Scratch has concocted a maze of sorts to keep Alan contained by changing the story in Night Springs, and we as the player are tasked with rewriting reality to escape. The trick is that Alan Wake has already done it. Part of traveling through the Dark Place has altered his mind, something he’s aware of and has partially pre-empted by writing a manuscript to guide him in case he forgets. The manuscript is story and function in American Nightmare, providing the player with the character’s own knowledge of the plot, and also serves to unlock new weapons in ammo boxes along the way.
TV and radios are integral, if optional, plot points as well. Mr. Scratch taunts Alan through the TV, giving us more live-action bits starring Ilkka Villi. The voice-over work by Matthew Porretta fits flawlessly over the Finnish actor’s motion capture to the point that those who didn’t know Alan Wake was brought to life by separate entities would be surprised to read that fact in the credits. The radio in Night Springs plays Eddie Rodman’s talk show, which introduces us to secondary characters from the first game like Barry Wheeler, the Old Gods of Asgard, and even Alice Wake, who assumes after two years of not seeing her husband, is a widow. The problem is the length of time the player has to be stationary to hear it all. Game length is extended through standing around instead of playing it.
It’s a first person shooter with the added mechanic of the flashlight. The idea of the flashlight is what makes it powerful in the Dark Place; just shine a light, and it burns away the shadow. Alan writes at one point that he can even feel that power when he focuses the beam on the Taken. Aside from the guns, of which you can carry a sidearm and a rifle, and after the flashlight, Alan uses three more weapons, all of which are light-based. The flares keep the Taken at bay, and even burn away their inky black aura if they’re close when you light them up. Flashbang grenades are good in a pinch since they instantly make the Taken vulnerable, allowing the player to go nuts, especially when armed with some automatic weapons. The flare gun is the Golden Gun of Alan Wake’s world, armed with single, devastating shots that burn an enemy from the inside out.
The three levels in the game are somewhat open, and can take a while to traverse, but it’s only the same few places. American Nightmare is short, and has little replay value in its Story mode due to the revisiting of those three levels already in the standard plot. To redeem that, there’s Arcade mode, a 10minute survival in five new maps not found in the Night Springs adventure. It starts off slow, with a Taken or two, and then it escalates. There’s an ammo box available, something that replenishes not only your bullets, but your batteries, and regenerates whenever you’re far enough out of sight. Other than that, there are one-off items scattered around, flashbangs, flares, and flare gun ammo that you can use sparingly to fight the ever-increasing mobs. It’s challenging in a way the story mode wasn’t, even on Normal, and lends itself much more game time than the quick playthrough the Story mode presents.
Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is a shorter game than the previous one and is priced to match. It doesn’t match the depth or the psychological jitters of its progenitor, but it’s a fitting and hopeful continuation in the series. Even still, its repetitive plot in its exceptionally quick play time earns it a 4.25.
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