Alan Wake’s American Nightmare
Remedy Entertainment/Microsoft Studios
Genre: Action Horror
Back in 2010, Remedy Entertainment created some buzz by creating an atmospheric little horror title called Alan Wake. As an XBox 360 exclusive, the game gathered enough of a following to bring it from “popular” to “cult” status over the course of a few years. It seemed absolutely certain that with how strong the lore was behind the game and the amount of horror and action fans it appealed to that the company would put out a sequel to capitalize on its reception and expand on the questions left in the air from the ending.
What we ended up receiving was Alan Wake’s American Nightmare. To say it wasn’t what the public expected would be an understatement, though it was still well regarded. Released in a pretty unceremonious fashion, American Nightmare found itself as an XBox Arcade exclusive. Not only was the general populace not expecting it due to a lack of advertising, but there was no physical edition to speak of, making the game fly under the radar for a lot of folks.
Given the sudden resurgence in enthusiasm for the series from the release of Remedy’s latest project, Control, I felt like it would be a good time to jump back into American Nightmare with some fresh eyes (and also having finished up my own Alan Wake review recently) to see how the game would sit with me. While I’m not a huge fan when atmospheric titles flip the switch to become pulp action-oriented, I truly enjoyed the setup that Alan Wake created for the possibility of a franchise or other games set in the same environment and with some of the same characters. Just how far did American Nightmare stray from the path it had beaten for its journey, though, and did the franchise suffer as a whole due to the way it was handled?
Night Springs, Arizona. A small town nestled in the American southwest where things are starting to become a bit- dark. Mysterious figures move in the shadows, just outside of signs of civilization, threatening to close in and consume anyone foolish or unfortunate enough to wander into the wrong place at the right time.
Enter Alan Wake, champion of light and pursuer of justice. Once a well-established author and up-and-coming celebrity, he has now found himself just outside of the small town, knowing that his search for his nemesis- the sadistic Mr. Scratch- has brought him here somehow after the events that unfolded in Bright Falls, Washington. How long has it been? How did he get here? Every question answered brings another two questions to the surface.
What Alan knows for sure, though, is that Mr. Scratch has left his mark on this small town and without his help, the people there are in danger. Not only the people of Night Springs, though. If not kept in check, the forces from the darkness will slowly spread, threatening to cause chaos and destruction- unless the elements that have fallen into alignment can be disrupted by a champion; a champion of light who fate- or some other design- has deigned to bring to this little town to set things right.
Welcome to Night Springs.
American Nightmare doesn’t deviate from its predecessor much, if at all. As players take on the role of a much more “action hero” version of Alan Wake (think Ash Williams between Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2), they will navigate the terrain in third-person by running, jumping, climbing, and generally maneuvering around the landscape both for exploration and for combat. Alan does have the ability to sprint for a short amount of time to speed things along or to get out of a tight spot, and by pressing the correct button, Alan will cinematically dodge out of the way of incoming attacks. This doesn’t appear to serve many purposes aside from adding a second to breathe during heavy combat and confirming that Alan did indeed avoid taking damage, but it feels welcome, all the same. The same rules apply here for general combat, as well, focusing on Alan and his flashlight to illuminate an enemy until they are vulnerable than taking them down with weaponry.
As Alan progresses through his struggle, he will come across a variety of weapons to use in his fight, giving a mild sense of customization to his arsenal. While he can only carry two guns and two particular types of consumable weapons (flashbang grenades, etc.), exploration will find the player is given the choice to switch out gun types regularly as they come across more firearms. Rather than the hidden caches that the original game had, Alan can also access special weapon cases by exploring and finding pages to another of his scattered manuscripts, rewarding the player for looking around and keeping their eyes sharp.
Aside from the main campaign, the unique piece of American Nightmare’s mechanics lies in its extra “Arcade” mode. In it, players are placed in an environment with ammunition and weapons strewn around for them to pick up as time ticks onward. As a score attack mode of sorts, this playstyle pits Alan against a number of the Taken (the minions of darkness from the original and the campaign mode) and keeps them coming as the player tries to survive the time limit which the game frames as “until the sun rises”, effectively killing the enemies and ending the match. There is a mechanics that makes more powerful weapons appear as Alan finds manuscript pages in the main story, though, enforcing that it may be prudent for players who want to thrive in the Arcade mode to play through the story first.
The Good, The Bad, And…
The original Alan Wake had a penchant toward self-awareness that American Nightmare continues. Throughout Alan’s time in Night Springs, there are still radio shows to tune into that include throwbacks to certain people and occurrences in the first game (including “house band”, Old Gods of Asgard) and there are still TVs to click on for a quick deviation from the action. Rather than showing full episodes of Night Springs like the original, though, the televisions give us glimpses at Mr. Scratch and his just over-the-top enough antics from before and happening alongside Alan’s arrival. While it may not seem like much, these little touches in a game that appears to focus more on action show that Remedy wanted to stay true to form enough by adding to the atmosphere and lore of the universe. I found myself watching through and trying to listen to everything completely before moving on to destroy more Taken.
While the combat mechanics are fun and easy enough to grasp, though, American Nightmare feels like it took a turn toward the action-horror genre hard a la the Resident Evil series in its later entries. Fans of the original and its balance of spookiness, world-building, and tense skirmishes with the creatures in the dark will find that this game leans mostly on the skirmishes. This is pretty well reinforced by the fact that there is an Arcade more, challenging the player to defeat waves of Taken over a certain amount of time for points. For better or worse, American Nightmare is more like an action game spinoff with Alan Wake flavoring mixed in rather than a new chapter continuing the tone and depth of the original.
None of that is necessarily “bad” on its own. If there was one thing to point out that might fall into the negative part of the spectrum, it would be that the game becomes repetitive. For reasons that are important to the game but I’ll discuss in the Plot Discussion section, the game becomes very repetitive. While the designers take steps to mitigate this by switching up pieces of the formula each time you go back to an area, you’re still only going to see the same three parts of Night Springs and the same few NPCs over and over again. It may seem that since the game only clocks in at about five hours or so, this might not be a big deal. Upon returning to the same areas a number of times with objectives that feel very similar, it feels like more could have been done or explored with a little more time.
American Nightmare doesn’t feel like an exact copy and paste of assets from the original game which is refreshing given some of the repetitive nature of the title. New characters, a new design for Alan, and a new locale are all nicely rendered and make the game feel familiar but unique. The uses of bright light and atmospheric darkness are still well implemented but with the more “pulp” feeling of this entry, it feels like there’s more of a contrast between the two, making the scenery more striking when there is a point of light to be admired. It actually makes for a solid visual effect, given the nature of the game.
As with Alan Wake, the music for the game is solid. It stays appropriate to the action going on on-screen, and I’d even say that it surpasses Alan Wake’s score in certain cases, possibly because of the truncated nature of the game making some of the music more memorable. Once again, the licensed music stuck out to me more than anything. In particular, 90’s alt-rock feeling Kasabian’s “Club Foot” and the original tune, “The Happy Song”, bringing some feelings reminiscent to the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” and really driving home the surreal and deadly moments with Mr. Scratch. If there is one area that this game might excel over the original, it’s in the music.
American Nightmare feels like an arcade version of Alan Wake, which makes sense, given there is a game mode with that exact name. It’s not bad, but if it didn’t feel like there was so much heart and clear desire from the team at Remedy to expand on the universe from the original game, you would swear this was a classic cash grab tactic. The gameplay feels recycled, the characters are thinly developed but interesting- but it’s the touches and the way the game is framed that make it feel like something more meaningful than it appears at first glance. The interactions between Alan and Mr. Scratch are worth the price of admission alone if I’m being honest.
If you’re looking to dip your toe back into the Alan Wake universe, American Nightmare doesn’t stick around for too long and if you bear in mind that it’s not a direct continuation of the original game, it can be a worthwhile- if not repetitive- experience. You won’t find the same atmosphere and tension as the original game, but you’ll find a solid action experience with some entertaining story points. If the idea intrigues you, though, feel free to track it down on Steam or any of the number of PC gaming platforms available, as that’s the only way to grab it currently.
Plot Discussion, and Therefore Spoilers
While there isn’t a lot to discuss on it, there is one reason that American Nightmare feels a little “off” and that comes in the form of the big plot piece that arrives about a third of the way into the game. After Alan rearranges some objects to make the stars align correctly so that the denizens of darkness will fail at their objective, he finds that he doesn’t have enough information to recreate the scene he needs to exactly. As a result, he winds up back at the beginning of the events as the only person who seems to remember everything that happened.
This both helps and hurts the game as a whole. On the one hand, it gives the game a unique perspective. Not only does Alan have to convince the few NPCs in town about what is going to happen (though little by little, they start to remember the events from the previous loop) but it gives the game the opportunity to use different pieces from the same environment to create a different experience the second time through. There are some fun interactions between Alan and the others as things play out, particularly with Rachel Meadows, a doctor who works at the observatory near Night Springs and theorizes about the designs of the universe as she and Alan piece together their predicament. Finding alternative routes to achieve Alan’s goals on his second go around is also entertaining as things play out a little differently after his first attempt to save the town.
There is, however, a third run through. This is when things start to feel a little tired. Bits and pieces of the third time through the loop feel novel, but it’s hard not to feel like the game padded things, even completely cutting out the necessity for one of the NPCs to truncate the story and wrap it up. While everything wraps up nicely, American Nightmare feels like the party guest who sticks around as the last invitee, talking up a storm right up until the end time on their invite then says their goodbyes abruptly before grabbing their coat and heading out the door. If it had stayed any longer, the game would not have felt as satisfying. That doesn’t change that it feels like the game has some extraneous methods to draw out its playtime. This factor is probably going to be the most divisive to people checking out the game- the universe expansion is fun, but the game has little to do with the original’s cliffhanger plot and sticks around for a while, ending up with variable results.