The original Alan Wake wowed audiences with a twisted and unique story that saw an unlikely protagonist rise to the unreal situation he found himself in. And when last we saw Alan, he had sacrificed himself to the Dark Dimension in order to save his beloved wife Alice, taking her place as its hostage.
Flash-forward now two years later. Alan has basically had to scrape together an existence, fighting for his life on a near daily basis in the Dark Dimension, his love for his wife the only thing that keeps him going as he continues to look for a way out. The Dark Dimension satiates itself by feasting on Alan’s creative writing talents, but in the process of being touched by this ethereal power, Alan has acquired some unique abilities all his own, including using his writing to help change the reality of the given situations he finds himself in to better suit his needs. And in this new adventure, where the Dark Dimension has inserted Alan into one of his early writing experiences, a script for the cult-TV show “Night Springs”, Alan must take on his dark side given physical form in the nefarious Mr. Scratch, who taunts Alan by being able to cross between dimensions freely where the barriers are at the weakest, like Cauldron Lake or in this case, the Arizona desert, and threaten everything that Alan has ever loved.
A major goal in developing this game for the guys at Remedy was to try to make American Nightmare accessible to both new and old audiences to the franchise. And I think that by trying to play both sides of the fence, they may have missed their mark a little on each side. Easier to find manuscript pages help fill in the back story to newcomers, while some also flesh out this newest adventure for the series loyalists, but unless you actually experience the first game, a small narrative piece, that many people may not even find all the parts for, doesn’t do the first game’s tremendously original story and adventure justice and newcomers may feel like they’re missing out on something.
Meanwhile, the game does have a lot more of a “pick-up and play” feel to it as the action comes hot and heavy from right after the opening cut scene. This is all well and good as newcomers and veterans alike will enjoy the smooth controls, still awesome “light washing away the dark” dynamic, and the satisfying feeling that comes from dispelling the huge variety of new Taken like the Giant or the Grenadier. The problem that hardcore fans will find though is that after the survival horror aspects of the first game had you hording your strongest light producing materials for more diffcult moments in the game and scrounging for ammo, batteries, and flares, the abundance of self-replenishing ammo boxes in American Nightmare will ruin any chance of building suspense as you never actually feel in danger anymore. Flares, flashbangs, and some new and more powerful weapons not in the first game at all make themselves very readily available right from the get-go (SMG for the win). The challenge that I loved from the first game is completely gone.
Even with these flaws though, there are enough aspects that fans on both sides of the fence will also tremendously enjoy that makes the game a worthwhile purchase considering its 1200 MSP ($15) price tag. Again, the action is very well done and the controls are still tight and responsive enough that each kill or nimble dodge of an axe swipe by Alan feels very satisfying. The new Arcade challenge mode, complete with 10 maps, adds to some of the replay-ability found in the collectible hunting of the main story as you try to work your way up the leaderboard and earn the high score as you refine your Taken bashing skills.
Another brilliant aspect of the game is the TV sets scattered about Night Springs, Arizona. The dynamic of a live-action Mr. Scratch, using the TVs that established “Night Springs” in the first game, to taunt Alan in that classic villain fashion, is almost comical as Scratch is that rare charismatic bad guy who a part of you deep down roots for. There is one where he talks about his “tools of the trade” that was absolutely spectacular. And the use of licensed music in proper moments, especially as a backdrop to these “episodes” is definitely another strong point for the game. And at the end of the day, it is all part of what is really a very solid story, especially if you look at this as a day in the life of Alan now since he has become trapped in the Dark Dimension.
Although it doesn’t do much in terms of forwarding the overall plot of the franchise and how Alan will hopefully one day escape or destroy the Dark Dimension and its denizens, it gives us a peek into what Alan must endure to hopefully set himself up for the end game and makes us care about the characters even more so than before and gives the series a weird sense of realism considering how far out there it is concept-wise. But one thing that American Nightmare does do in terms of forwarding the franchise’s story is it helps give us the sense that the Dark Dimension is not just some primal entity, but it is conscious of what it does in many ways and is truly alive, giving us a sense of some epic struggle worthy of a Greek mythos as Alan must endure trials and tribulations thrown in his path by some dark and unyielding god before he can finally return home.
There are also some minor nuances I believe that will also be universally panned by both sides of the fence with this game. The voice acting and dialogue outside of the “Night Springs” narrator or the Mr. Scratch TV episodes is bad. Like Japanese-import bad. And there are moments where Alan is surrounded by light, but still has to take on Taken. There is one scene where you are surrounded by a burning oilrig. Last I checked, fire gave off a good amount of light. And there was a lot of fire, and a lot of Taken. Small little gaps in the continuity of the universe like that had me scratching my head some.
All in all though, I think that as a stand alone adventure and a spot check on seeing how Alan was doing, this game did a good job of giving us an idea of the struggles the character is going through and hopefully will serve as the launching point for a bigger and even better story down the road.
SUMMARY: In trying to please everyone, American Nightmare takes a small step back from what made the original Alan Wake an original and enthralling experience, but is still well worth the price of admission for old and new fans alike.
- THE GOOD: Fluid action and smooth controls
- THE BAD: Dumbed down, broader appeal approach will turn off hardcore fans
- THE UGLY: Dialogue worthy of a Japanese import
Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is an XBLA (Xbox 360) exclusive.