Remedy’s 2010 psychological thriller Alan Wake introduced us to a troubled writer battling dark forces seeking to break into the real world; the vehicle for this interdimensional travel being a freshly-written manuscript that the darkness forced him to write. Alan managed to stop the darkness at the cost of remaining in its depths, risking insanity as he searched for an escape. DLC chapters led Alan out of the chaos and towards limited control over his power to create. He also learned of other areas where the darkness could once again attempt to break free. One such location is the setting for his next adventure, the Xbox Live Arcade title Alan Wake’s American Nightmare.
American Nightmare finds the titular author traversing the desert landscapes of Arizona and fighting the Taken who populate its darkness within an episode of the original game’s fictional TV show, Night Springs. He is tracking down his doppelganger, Mr. Scratch, a charismatic and sadistic serial killer who plans to assume Alan’s identity in the real world and wreak havoc upon the people dear to him. Alan must attempt to rewrite and correct the story in which he is trapped (along with some damsels in distress) to stop Mr. Scratch for good.
The plot is somewhat complex, but it is also a lot of fun to watch unfold. There are twists and surprises that will keep gamers guessing, and its pulpy style will keep them engaged even when in the midst of great confusion. Most of this confusion can be dispelled if the player takes the time to explore and seek out the collectibles that litter the landscape. These manuscript pages, TVs, and radio broadcasts shed light on the events and characters of the game, as well as providing backstory for those who did not play the first one. If there is a complaint to be had, it’s with the conclusion of the game; not so much in the plot, but in how the final battle is handled. Like in the previous title, there is no great boss battle; just a standard combat scenario made a little more complex than what we’ve seen before. There is a nice emotional resolution, though, that keeps the ending from being a total downer.
Alan has matured significantly as a character since the events of the first game. His approach to the current scenario and the people he encounters is a welcome change, especially in his more sarcastic moments. His arch-nemesis, Mr. Scratch, is a devilishly clever creation. He brings a lively, exuberant energy to the game, and makes for a very memorable villain. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the other three characters who inhabit the story, all of them women who have encountered Mr. Scratch and miraculously survived. Their voice acting is dull at best and horrible at worst, and their models are stiff and wooden. It’s difficult to be concerned for their safety when they barely come across as characters at all.
The production value of the game is mostly top-notch, considering it’s a downloadable title. The environments are well-realized and oozing with atmosphere and the lighting effects are just as amazing as they were in the first game. The sound effects and audio in general are suitable, with only the aforementioned voice acting of the ladies being a negative attribute. The ambient music is nice, though not as memorable as the soundtrack that accompanied the first game. There are a few songs, however, that are standouts and will hopefully be available to purchase soon. The only other downside is the inclusion of puzzle-solving. Instead of engaging players’ brains, puzzles are a simple “go here and hit the B button” affair. A more thoughtful approach would have been appreciated.
The combat in this new installment is largely unchanged. Alan is armed with his trusty flashlight and a weapon of the player’s choosing. You must first use your flashlight to burn away the darkness that enshrouds the Taken, keeping them safe. Once their barrier is gone, you use your weapon to blast away until they shatter into light and debris. The mechanics are simple yet effective, making for intense and action-packed gameplay. The weapons are numerous, and most of them are enormously satisfying to use. The higher-powered weapons are hidden in locked attaché cases that can only be opened with a preset number of manuscript pages, giving the player extra incentive to explore locations and seek them out. You will also have access of flares, flashbang grenades, and a flare gun. Tactical usage of these will help Alan when his back is against the wall, or ammo is low.
Along with his arsenal, the variety of Taken Alan must contend with have also increased. There are Splitters, who split in two anytime they are hit with light. There are hulking Giants with buzzsaws that, due to their almost lethal blows, become a priority when joining the fray. Another new enemy has the ability to disperse into a flock of birds, allowing them to escape and regroup behind the player for a sneak attack. The AI for the Taken is very smart. They will use the open expanse of the desert to try and flank Alan, or overpower him with numbers. Players must be quick and resourceful, knowing when to use the flashlight, when to use a flare or grenade, or when to run and fall back to safety.
The story mode alone would be worth the price of admission, but Remedy has seen fit to include an arcade mode known as “Fight Till Dawn.” There are five different maps in which you can battle hordes of Taken over the course of ten minutes. Once the ten minutes are up, dawn comes and wipes away any remaining enemies. You get points for each kill, and there’s a point multiplier for successive kills without taking damage. The multiplier will also increase with successful dodges of enemy attacks, giving the player an incentive for putting themselves into harm’s way. The mode is fast-paced, intense, and loads of fun. The absence of co-op play is odd, but it’s not sorely missed. The idea is survival, and one man alone against the Taken is sufficient to hammer that point home.
So, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is not without fault. Some questionable voice acting, some simple-minded puzzle-solving, and a lackluster finalé keep it from attaining perfection. However, a dizzying and satisfying plot with a great hero and villain, terrific combat, and an addictive arcade mode make this game a must-have for Alan Wake fans, and action fans in general.