I’m not sure there’s an agreed upon word for what Alan Wake: American Nightmare is. It is definitely not a sequel to Alan Wake, one of my favorite games of 2010. It’s also not DLC for the moody original game. American Nightmare is, most simply, a standalone pulp fiction game available now for download exclusively through the Xbox Live Arcade.
For fans of the original sleeper hit, this is both good and bad.
Alan Wake isn’t a typical action hero. When we first met him, he was a popular thriller author wrestling with some serious writer’s block. While on a retreat in the foggy Pacific Northwest town of Bright Falls, his wife disappeared and Alan had to fight his way through townies possessed by the malevolent Dark Presence featured in Wake’s own manuscript. (Hey, I never said Wake was a particularly original writer, just a bestselling one.)
While Remedy was very clear that American Nightmare isn’t a sequel to Alan Wake, I was still a bit disappointed with the change of direction. One of my favorite things about Alan Wake as a game was the atmospheric Twin Peaks vibe it gave off. There were even homages to the Lynch series’ diner and Log Lady. Not to mention a ridiculously cool soundtrack with creepy dirges from Nick Cave and Poe. But why return to the same well?
Set in the Southwest, X-Files weirdness gets swapped out for Robert Rodriquez camp. Here, Alan is trapped in an episode of the Twilight Zone-esque TV series Night Springs. That he wrote the screenplay for. (Again, popular fiction author.) Wake’s main nemesis is his evil doppelgänger, Mr. Scratch, who is pretty much the embodiment of every negative thing any friend or book critic ever said about Alan. With a homicidal streak and the ability to loop the narrative of the game in on itself.
It gets pretty meta.
What I love about Alan Wake is it’s story. It’s a definite headscratcher as far as logic goes and there’s still no clear resolution to the cliffhanger ending of the first game here but the creative ideas behind the combat system are fun. Sometimes the Rod Serling-style narration can be a little overwrought, but Alan Wake and his dark half constantly warn players that as writers, they love the sound of their own voice. And it’s unusual to see a writer cast in the central role of such an action-packed game.
There’s also an Arcade mode, though literary-minded types might get bored simply trying to defend themselves from hordes of demons. The combat itself is simple and smooth: use a flashlight (or some other light source) to burn the Dark Presence away before blasting your opponent with a revolver or a shotgun. The system in this episode is virtually identical to the first installment, only utilized a lot more in American Nightmare.
Alan even gets an SMG.
This is definitely an action game.
About a writer.
While there were definitely a few “Oh shit!” moments as axe-weilding maniacs burst through trailer doors and into your path, the creep factor is low. Mr. Scratch is mostly shown on in-game TVs in live-action form, and the actor clearly enjoys haming it up for the camera, like a young Michael Madsen circa-Resevoir Dogs. Just because there are more enemies than before, and new classes of enemies, doesn’t mean the game is scarier. Or even tougher. Ammo drops are pretty regular.
The look of the game is top-notch. The grays, blues, and greens of the Pacific Northwest have been replaced with a warm palatte of oranges, pinks, and dusty browns befitting the Arizona desert setting. The most tense moments for me are the ones spent wandering off the beaten path in search of collectible manuscript pages. American Nightmare is more open to exploration than the original game. The soundtrack buzzes and groans as you near shadows and in a world where inanimate objects can try to kill you, those lonely moments seem ripe with horrible possibilites.
Like Alan Wake himself learns, imagination has a power of its own.
American Nightmare is a relatively low-cost introduction to Alan Wake, more for fans of the original game than a newcomer looking for a scary shooter. If you missed Alan Wake the first time around, now is a great chance to pick up a discounted copy. (Alan Wake was just released for PC this week, looking better than ever.)
While American Nightmare doesn’t recapture everything that was great about the original, it demonstrates that Alan Wake himself has an irresistable charm that can carry the franchise through different incarnations.
Visit the official Alan Wake site for more information, videos, and developer diaries.