Print Is Dead
How do you create the follow-up to one of 2010’s most atmospheric horror titles without breaking a winning formula or re-inventing the wheel? Based on Remedy’s new addition to the Alan Wake universe, you take familiar gameplay, combine it with new, less exciting locales, and set it against a superb musical soundscape that’s crippled by some spotty supporting voicework, then attempt to tie everything together with a plot that stems from a good idea, but ultimately comes off as forced and uninteresting.
Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is not an official sequel in the franchise per se, but rather expands the existing universe by delving into a particular facet of the overarching story. Alan, still trapped within the depths of Cauldron Lake, is busy writing the story that’s going to set him free and allow him to escape his prison and reunite with his wife, Alice. That story, The Return, is this game. Of course, the Taken are back once again, led by the maniacal-yet-suave Mr. Scratch, a reflection of all of Alan’s own worst, selfish and sadistic qualities.
A Case of Writer’s Block
The gameplay revolves around Alan having to find and piece together clues that will ultimately tell him how to survive the darkness and return to the light. These clues take the form of pages of a manuscript that he must find – once again, it’s one of his own – as well as a mysterious signal of some sort from space. With the help of these clues, Alan is able to change details in certain locations, effectively recreating scenes from the manuscript, which then set further events in motion that ultimately could lead to his return to the real world.
Alan will visit three locales along his trip, all set in the fictional town of Night Springs (yes, you’ll finally get to travel there, in Alan’s imagination), which, for the purposes of this story, is set somewhere in America’s Southwest. Fittingly, the locations in the game sport a suitably deserted and desolate feel: a highway-side rest stop, complete with run-down motel, diner, small truck stop and nearby creaking and groaning oil derricks; an almost-abandoned hilltop observatory; and a derelict drive-in movie theater, repurposed as a film exhibition.
An initial playthrough will have many wondering at how utterly quickly Alan reaches the climactic finale at the last location, the drive-in. But fear not, for even though it at first appears that the game may be nearing its end, there’s still lots more content ahead…sort of. The game’s hook consists of the fact that you’re simply not able to gather as many clues as you need the first time through each location; the result is that an underpowered and unprepared Alan Wake is ultimately sent back to the very beginning by a gleeful Mr. Scratch, only to be doomed to have to repeat everything you’ve done once again. This Groundhog Day-inspired mechanic, which essentially forces players to play through the game three times to prevail, is an odd amalgamation of some cool ideas meshing with thinly veiled attempts to squeeze every last drop of gameplay from the title without really adding anything new each time. Characters you’ve met will have some memory of your prior meetings, and they’ll even learn to expect your arrival, leading to a few welcome moments when a supporting character has already completed a tedious fetch chore for you, knowing you were on your way.
Ultimately, though, having to replay the same three stages over and over feels a bit cheap, as the environments are fairly bland and you’ll likely have seen everything there is to see the first time through. Gone are the expansive treks through forests and up mountain paths from the original game; whereas the dark and menacing setting of a Northwest logging town added a lot of suspenseful flavor before, the dry and rocky roads in Nightmare lend next to no character to this title. In fact, the only fear-inducing aspect of this title are the ghostly forces trying to stop you in your tracks at every step: the Taken.
War and Peace
Combat is perhaps the best-implemented aspect of the game; not surprisingly, this is likely due to the fact that it hasn’t been changed in any way. Although the Taken sport some new recruits among their ranks, like the devilish Splitter (who reacts to direct light being focused on him by doing some sort of DNA-molecular split down the middle, making two foes out of one, until eventually there’s eight of him running around), the grotesque darkness-infused Spider, the Birdman (who turns into a flock of birds and back again to avoid damage), the Grenadier, and the Giant. Combat still requires a combination of your flashlight (or another light source) used in conjunction with a firearm of some sort – your arsenal is now expanded to include the crossbow with its one-shot kill capability and the combat shotgun, which spews explosive death from its mouth, ripping apart enemies with impressive speed.
Alan Wake’s best defense is still a dodge move, which, when initiated at the correct moment, will have him twist and turn his way under and around an opponent’s assault in a graceful slow-motion arc, giving combat a smooth flow highlighted with cinematic Matrix-like maneuvers. While toying with two or three opponents is generally enjoyable and easy enough to pull off to make one feel like a bad-ass, the balance of power can quickly slip out of your grip with just one careless button-push, and during times when Alan is surrounded by multiple foes, things can quickly turn sour as you watch your three health bars being quickly sliced to ribbons.
For those brave and (fool)hardy enough to want “all the combat, none of the plot”, Remedy has included an arena-like survival mode known as “Fight ‘Till Dawn”, in which you’re tasked to – as the name implies – fight off Taken in relentless waves, surviving until dawn’s life-saving light appears.
The Sound and the Fury
Graphically, Nightmare has the potential to be as good-looking as its predecessor, but fails to capture the beauty of the original game due to its dust-choked settings; even when the visibility is good, there’s just nothing notable to look at. Character models, on the other hand, look good, and plenty of live-action has been infused into the graphic style with Alan and Alice being portrayed by actual actors, and through Mr. Scratch’s TV segments. Although Alan Wake’s alter ego is pointedly meant to be as loathsome and detestable as possible, some of his appearances tipped the scales toward snuff films just a bit too close for comfort, literally gloating about murdering an unsuspecting victim, baiting the player by saying, “Watch this!”
Apart from Matthew Porretta’s voicing of Alan and Mr. Scratch, the remainder of the game’s voice actors are rather mediocre and forgettable. Both Brett Madden and Fred Berman are back as Alice and Barry, but appear to such a limited extent as to not make much of an impact; the remainder of the supporting cast fails to deliver any especially outstanding performances. The musical score and sound effects are, however, a different story. Of special note are the licensed songs, like Kasabian’s “Club Foot” and the return of Poets of the Fall to the Alan Wake franchise, contributing Mr. Scratch’s hilarious theme “The Happy Song” (which has made an instant fan out of me!), as well as the big-hair-and-manly-mascara “Balance Slays the Demon” (as the fictional band Old Gods of Asgard).
The Final Verdict
Fans have been waiting for another entry in the Alan Wake franchise. American Nightmare, while including the same tense combat as the original and experimenting with some interesting ideas for its plot, fails to offer an experience that remains worthwhile throughout, its cyclical story-telling resulting in a dull, forced plot progression. A strong performance by its main star and well-implemented licensed music tracks are bright streaks, but without a strong connection to the characters and their plight, it’s hard to experience any of the intended terror this series held before.