Alan Wake’s American Nightmare

The latest title from Finnish developer Remedy Entertainment, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is the highly anticipated follow-up to their 2010 hit Alan Wake.  Currently it is an Xbox 360 exclusive, and was released on the Xbox Live Marketplace during the 2012 House Party promotion.  When Remedy announced last year that the next Alan Wake title would be digitally distributed instead of getting a full retail release, fan speculation ran the gamut from DLC expansions to the original, to a full retail-sized game released in several small “episodes”.  Although Remedy stated during this period of speculation that this second installment would not be a direct sequel, in-game dialogue says otherwise.  American Nightmare would seem to fit most definitions of “direct sequel”, in that it clearly follows the story of the original and even explicitly states several times that two years have passed since those events.   This concept of a small “placeholder” title to tide fans over and help secure funds for a hypothetical full sequel is pretty unique, but does it work?

When it comes to fiction, I am a connoisseur of the horrific.  In print, on film, or in video games, when it’s done well a good horror story is absolutely one of my favorite things on earth.  That being said, I rarely find video games scary in the traditional sense, and I’ve long been weary of the Stephen King “Small Town With A Dark Secret” brand story.  Keep that in mind when I say that Alan Wake-a video game with a “Small Town, Dark Secret” story-was one of the more unsettling bits of fiction I’ve consumed in quite some time, in any format.  I was so invested in keeping Wake alive I was often legitimately hesitant to venture out of the relative safety of the street lights.  From beginning to end, I just wanted things to be okay for him again.  And not just Wake himself, but the whole cast…from his Joe Pesci wannabe agent Barry Wheeler, to the aging and possibly senile members of the town’s local rock band, “Old Gods of Asgard”.  And not only were the story and characters great, the gameplay defied usual survival-horror conventions in that it was actually intuitive and fun.  This was a game that didn’t need wonky controls to keep you terrified.

Free cable AND continental breakfast? I hope this vacation never ends!

American Nightmare at the very least retains the smooth gameplay from the original.  If anything it’s even more forgiving: the variety of weapons is oddly huge (for reasons we’ll get to later), self-renewing boxes that replenish your entire ammo and battery supply are plentiful, and the smallish levels mean the safety of a street light is never too far away.  Part of me is still too intimidated on some deep level to tackle the first Alan Wake on its hardest setting, but I often found myself wishing I could crank up the difficulty on American Nightmare.  I had to limit myself to the weaker weapons to keep from being an unstoppable murder factory-carry that crossbow around for a while and you’ll see what I mean.

This decrease in difficulty is unfortunate, because it gives the player a lot more time to realize how much less scary the story is this time around as well.  It sounds promising enough, on paper.  Two years after the first game ended Alan Wake is still trapped in the Dark Place, which has now taken the form of fictional TV town Night Springs, and he’s still trying to get back to his wife Alice.  His books are still selling, and his agent Barry has moved on to managing the comeback of elderly rock legends Old Gods of Asgard.  Meanwhile his nemesis Mr. Scratch, spawned by the Dark Place in Wake’s own image, is threatening to cross over and take his place in the real world.  All this information trickles into Night Springs via a radio talk show and videos recorded for you by Mr. Scratch himself.

Mr. Scratch: In ur TV, stalkin' ur wife.

Nothing about the story or presentation is bad in and of itself, but nothing about it carries the same weight as the original.  Alan Wake has been in this Dark Place for two years now.  He’s getting used to it, and it shows.  In Alan Wake, scattered manuscript pages lent some insight into what was happening, but they were always written in a way that heightened the tension and moved the story along without falling off into straight up exposition.  By the time American Nightmare rolls around, the pages fall more into the vein of “If Dark Place does A, then do B” or “There’s some spiders in this parking lot up here for sure”.

Oh god it's just like my manuscriiiiipt!

Remedy makes the most of the smaller development cycle, space, and budget of a downloadable title, finding a pretty organic way to use the game’s three levels each three times over.  Mr. Scratch has Alan Wake trapped in a time loop, Wake has figured out how to disrupt it, and with the help of a different lady friend trapped in each stage with him, he gets closer and closer each time through.  Surprisingly this format never got boring, and that’s a tremendous credit on Remedy’s part.  But it does leave you feeling, like Alan Wake himself, that you’ve been there, done that, and can handle anything the darkness might throw at you.

Alan Wake's Incremental Difficulty Increase Machine Gun Extravaganza. Spooky!

In addition to the five hour or so story, American Nightmare also features the increasingly ubiquitous horde mode, perhaps never more out of place than it is here.  Remember when I mentioned there was probably a hidden reason behind the sudden surplus of weapons in the main game?  Well horde mode would have been totally boring with nothing but a pistol and hunting rifle, right?  Gotta get those full-autos in there somehow.  Regardless of my usual opinions of horde modes, I wanted to like this one a lot, because I do love the characters and settings of Alan Wake.  I enjoy the combat, it’s got a tenseness to it.  Wake moves like a regular guy, without being clunky.  That’s hard for a lot of developers to get down.  Who would have thought though, that running in circles through a cemetery with an automatic rifle, mowing down bad guys until the sun comes up, might kill the mood of the series a little bit?  What’s that you say?  Anybody who thought about it for a few minutes?  Yeah, I totally agree.  High five!

If I sound disappointed by American Nightmare, it’s only because Remedy set the standards so unattainably high on their first attempt.  By Xbox Live Arcade standards, this game is pretty amazing.  It’s well above where most developers stand with their download-only offerings, especially when trying to tie something into a full retail game.  By Alan Wake standards though, this one just doesn’t quite deliver.  If you loved the first game and absolutely need some more right now, it wouldn’t hurt to give this one a shot, as long as you know what you’re getting into ahead of time.  In fact, this feels so much like a kickstarter offering to get a “real” sequel off the ground that it’s hard to suggest that people shouldn’t buy it.  It’s a noble effort, and there’s a lot here to prove that this type of incremental installment can work.  Just don’t expect the same experience you got the first time around.

Availability: Xbox Live Arcade

Price: 1200 Moon Points ($15)

What you get: Single player campaign and horde mode    

Good Memoirs: Good…not great.


About Ryan Searles

I like watching movies, and then talking about those movies. Sometimes I write things about them, which you should read. Other interests include boxed wine, video games, the works of Harlan Ellison and HG Wells, and being a general curmudgeon.

Posted on March 29, 2012, in Reviews, Video Games and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Remedy approached this with the horde mode in mind first and foremost. It actually wasn’t even going to have a story mode, but they worked one in as the project grew in scope.

    They mentioned these things on some developer vids pre-release, so I suppose I had tempered my expectations based on that. But as much as it fails to be horror (or action pulp, or whatever they claimed they were trying for) it succeeds in playability. The controls are actually much smoother and allow for more reliable “bullet time” dodging…all in service to horde mode, mind you. Which hooked me pretty hard for about a week.

    All worth it for the announcer who exclaimed (after a particularly high score) I. AM. SPEAKING. LIKE. THIS. BECAUSE. YOU. DID. SO. WELL.

    The ending was…somewhat thought provoking as well. Not as much as the ending to the first, but worthy of mention, I think.

    • Really, I didn’t know that. Man, I’m gonna need to bring you on as a consultant.

      And yeah, it might play well, but the idea of designing an Alan Wake game around horde mode combat seems fundamentally wrong to me. I stand by my assessment. 🙂

      It wasn’t terrible by any means, and I don’t regret buying it. I got one entertaining playthrough out of it and as long as Remedy makes with a proper Alan Wake 2 (presumably next gen?), I’ll consider it money well invested.

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