Though it has its share of tedium, Alan Wake's newest XBLA story keeps the creepiness and action at a respectable high.
Alan Wake's American Nightmare takes place at an odd point in the game's mythology. Though Alan has survived in the Dark Place and saved his wife, Alice, he's brought to a mysterious dimension replicating the Arizona desert. The dimension is Night Springs, the television show Alan Wake wrote for before hitting it big as a novelist. Essentially an episode brought to life, Night Springs is eerie, haunting, and unsettling. After waking (sorry, couldn't resist), Alan is revisited by the shadow-laden creatures The Taken, who as always, are out to kill him. But Alan's biggest problem is his evil double, Mr. Scratch, a character who made brief appearances in the Alan Wake DLC. It's up to Alan to stop Mr. Scratch from destroying Night Springs and taking everything that Alan holds dear. The entire plot doesn't hesitate to feel like a gaiden, a parallel narrative to Alan's haunted world of Bright Falls. Throughout the game, the story starts to focus more on Alan and his wife as characters, but never truly feels cohesive. With minor hints and references to Alan's story, American Nightmare just brings in more questions than answers. The entire narrative focuses on the dangers of being a creator of worlds, adding in the feeling of deity-like responsibility and its consequences. That being said, American Nightmare doesn't get anywhere near the mastery of dynamic storytelling that the first Alan Wake brought. It's a decently structured narrative, but doesn't live up to its pedigree.
Alan Wake's American Nightmare doesn't stray from the already pulse-pounding combat system that the first game brought. Alan can still focus the light of his flashlight to weaken enemies before filling them with lead. He can still use flares, flashbangs, and firearms to eliminate The Taken. While the combat isn't the smoothest, it still keeps the tension high and offers enough variety to move the firefights away from pure boredom. Still, there are no new combat twists and very few new weapons. The core combat remains what players have grown to know, for better or for worse. The Taken come in some new forms, some with hatchets, some with chainsaws. Some new Taken can split into multiple enemies or even take the form of an angry flock of birds to disorient Alan. The small changes, while inventive, don't divert from the combat much and by the game's conclusion, the repetition will start to rear its ugly head.
In the disturbing world of Night Springs, Alan will normally going from Point A to Point B to find people to talk to, enemies to defeat, and settings to reform. It starts off surprisingly well, following the familiar vibe of the original Alan Wake with shocking enemy appearances and spooky puzzles. Soon enough, though, tedium will set in. This isn't really noticeable in American Nightmare's first couple hours, but the game will literally force you to replay through locations that you've already been to. The small number of locations drags the game down immensely, a stark contrast to the inventive mills and forests of Alan Wake's first game. It just would've better if there were more environments and signature paranormal moments, but American Nightmare just doesn't have many of either.
Backing up the story mode is an arcade mode, where Alan fights Taken for high scores and multipliers. Items and weapons are available for use, along with healing and ammunition stations. While it may seem a bit odd seeing such a narrative-driven game take the Resident Evil: Mercenaries approach, the overall setup is actually pretty good. Narrowly dodging an enemy attack is tense and the rewarding sense of seeing your skills on the leaderboards helps extend the game's longevity considerably. With a campaign of only a few hours, Alan Wake's American Nightmare seems like it needs some more meat on its bones. Fortunately, the campaign's scattered manuscript pages add depth and creative energy to the Alan Wake story. It could've lasted a little longer, but at 1200 Microsoft Points ($15 US), Alan Wake's American Nightmare has a reasonable amount of content for its asking price.
Alan Wake's American Nightmare takes away a large amount of the suspense that the first game possessed in favor of a more pulp film vibe. Though it has its share of creepy atmosphere, the ambiance in the game is limited and won't scare you in the same way that Alan Wake did. That being said, the overall graphic design is still quite good. The shadowy mist of the Dark Presence and the erratic motions of The Taken still retain a creepy charm. The new environments show off a new world, though the character models still feel stiff and puppet-esque. The action can also suffer from some frame rate issues, which intrude right when the battles heighten, while the live-action cutscenes add a bizarre tone to Night Springs, capturing the Twilight Zone vibe perfectly. In fact, the audio manages to amplify that sense of perverse creepiness to a new level. The narrator parallels the great Twilight Zone figure Rod Serling without a hitch and Alan's conversations with Mr. Scratch are deep and rich with psychological boom. Mixing in some growls from enemies and music from rock band Kasabian compliments the audio well. Though it is a very different animal than its predecessor, Alan Wake's American Nightmare is presented in a very clean light.
It's really hard to find a place for Alan Wake's American Nightmare. Though it shares the combat and design of its predecessor, the new story, unique setting, and action-style focus make it feel like something separate from Alan's already interesting journey. The combat is still a tad unrefined and the lack of horror and psychological intrigue is sorely missed. The narrative is far from bad, but it's disorienting and ends on a rather anti-climactic note. Still, the game holds a good amount of content for the price, even if that content isn't something that made the first game so fantastic. American Nightmare does, however, develop a vibe so full of intertextual references to the Twilight Zone and Stephen King novels that it's very hard to not be at least a little enticed with its material. The maniacal laugh of Mr. Scratch will remain in your psyche for a good, long while. If the combat in the Alan Wake series has irked you since its inception, American Nightmare won't change that, but the game still holds a good amount of solidly produced action content for a reasonable price. Though it's nowhere near a proper Alan Wake 2, Alan Wake's American Nightmare is still worth checking out.