Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Alan Wake’s American Nightmare for XBLA and PC

Alan Wake was a classic example of a diamond in the rough, something which entirely exceeded the sum of its parts. The actual combat didn’t really do anything special, but the atmosphere was truly sinister, creating a creepiness which didn’t simply rely on jump scares. Suffice it to say that Alan Wake 2 would be very welcome in my eyes. Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, a spin-off of sorts released on XBLA a couple of years after the first game was released, is not Alan Wake 2.

At the beginning of American Nightmare, our author hero Alan Wake is still stuck in the predicament he was left in at the conclusion of the last game, trapped within the strange, dark dimension beneath Cauldron Lake and thought dead by his family, friends and fans. The appearance in the real world of Mr. Scratch, a doppelganger of Alan and an avatar of pure evil and chaos, necessitates  Alan to force his way into our world. Since the world of darkness is influenced by creativity, in Alan’s case writing, he uses a script he once wrote for the Twilight Zone parody ‘Night Springs’ to enter into an Arizona town of the same name to take down Mr. Scratch.

As with almost everything in this DLC, the ‘Night Springs’ setting feels half baked and never succeeds in living up to its potential. Where the original game did a great job of evoking a strong Twin Peaks/Stephen King vibe, the Twilight Zone pastiche never really picks up. Sure, the odd bit of Twilight Zone style narration is fun, but the environs of American Nightmare never really impress. Part of what made Alan Wake work was that we started out in the day; seeing these pristine and picturesque environments transformed into chilling and oppressive hells was why they worked. American Nightmare skips all that, refusing to take it’s time or pace itself, which cheapens the atmosphere. Possibly the single most egregious element of this game was the repetition of environments. Now, I really hate when games do this, and this is possibly the most obnoxious example that I’ve seen, pathetically justified by the plot. At least in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, a game let down by repetition of environments, a concerted effort was often made to make these environment feel new, such as the flooding of the forest area. This isn’t the case in American Nightmare. There is a motel, an observatory and a drive-in movie theatre. You will fight your way though each three times before this product limps to a close. This is unacceptable, and clearly signals a sharp cut off early in development before this could be properly fleshed out. I honestly think Remedy are better than this.

Alas, the plot of American Nightmare never really comes together either. Mr. Scratch is a great villain; I always enjoy campy villains who know they’re evil, and love it, and Mr. Scratch is certainly one of those. Mr. Scratch and Alan could have made for some interesting duality, but it never really manifests. Alan is basically the same, which is odd considering that he spent the last two years trapped in an unimaginable alien hellhole. American Nightmare employs a time loop structure to justify its repeating use of locations; I love this idea in theory, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is one of my favourite games ever and absolutely mastered the ‘Groundhog Day’ structure, but American Nightmare squanders the potentially interesting idea, just as it squanders almost every bit of potential it has. I did enjoy the return of the manuscript pages, but where in Alan Wake these were used intelligently, sometimes illuminating the past and sometimes giving the player terrifying glimpses into the future, here they seem pretty random, giving us the odd little detail which, whilst usually interesting, never really coheres.

American Nightmare, lacking the atmosphere of the original game, has to fall back on the somewhat suspect mechanics of the old ‘flashlight then shoot’ technique. This actually works really well in small groups of enemies, but with large groups it just doesn’t work. You won’t be doing much else apart from shooting your way through enemies, with little room given for exploring or straying from the track. Don’t get me wrong, the mechanics of Alan Wake’s American Nightmare are functional and solid, but uninspired, and difficult to get excited about.

The voice acting, a high point of the last game, is pretty weak here. It’s a bit difficult to tell whether it’s the writing holding the actors back though, as these characters are written truly awfully. The game actually looks very nice for an XBLA title, with the lighting effects of the torch as impressive as ever, and there are some stunning pre-rendered cut scenes bookending major events in the game. A major step back can be seen in the character animations, which are as stiff and awkward as one would expect in a PS2 game, making potentially tense scenes feel somewhat ridiculous. Now, one element which does live up to the original is the soundtrack. Much as Stephen King packs his novels with references to bands which he loves, Alan Wake was filled with musical cues from figures as diverse as Roy Orbison, David Bowie and Depeche Mode. American Nightmare isn’t long enough to do this, but it’s licensed music still packs a punch, with ‘Club Foot’ by Kasabian used to great effect. Best of all is the return of Poets of the Fall performing as ‘The Old Gods of Asgard’. The Old Gods, aging prog rockers who once fought the darkness with their music as Alan fights it with writing, were probably my favourite element of Alan Wake’s plot, so the return of their music was entirely welcome and works incredibly well. I truly hope that Remedy manage to keep Poets of the Fall on board if they ever make a proper Alan Wake 2.

This review probably reads more negatively than Alan Wake’s American Nightmare warrants. There’s a lot done well here, and at times American Nightmare evokes what made Alan Wake great, but it falls very short of the mark. There’s a laziness to this release which infuriated me, and the plot, so strong in the original, doesn’t really work here. Now, I bought this for half price, and, if you liked Alan Wake, it’s probably worth the money at that cost. At full price? Don’t even think about it. AlanWakesAmericanNightmare

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