Poor Alan Wake just can’t catch a break. What was once planned to be a refreshing and rejuvenating trip to Brights Falls has turned into a two year-long nightmare. In fact, he’s been gone for so long that the only person who doesn’t think he’s deceased is Barry, a champion of a best friend. The truth is that the popular crime author has been stuck in a dark place, the result of slipping into a weird loophole in reality. This dangerous yet rather interesting dimension allows creators like Wake himself, to rewrite events using the written word. However, it’s not nearly as easy as it sounds, requiring the discovery of previously-written manuscripts. That, plus a great survival instinct, powerful guns and lots of flashlight batteries.
Two years after it released the writer’s titular horror story onto the Xbox 360, Remedy Entertainment has continued his plight against darkness with an Xbox LIVE Arcade exclusive release entitled, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare. Don’t think of it as a direct sequel, because that really isn’t the case. In fact, what we’ve received for a fifteen dollar price tag is a several hour-long episode, which happens to be a tad on the campy side. You see; the Champion of Light (as Mr. Wake is affectionately called by the series’ narrator) has awoken inside of a television show. More specifically, he’s found himself living a story arc from the Night Springs television show, which he previously wrote in real life. The popular fictional viewing experience is essentially The Twilight Zone, with hour long tales of the surreal. This particular story happens to be about a man who must face his crazed doppelganger.
With the desert ghost town known as Night Springs, Arizona used as a back-drop, players must search for clues to put an end to a devious plan. That aforementioned doppelganger happens to be the psychotic Mr. Scratch, a supernatural being who visually resembles our flashlight-bearing avatar. Though, a resemblance is the only thing that the two share. Scratch is a psychopath, who thrives on torture and murder. He’s the latest to threaten Alan’s unlucky wife, Alice, adding fuel to the hero’s fire. Having supernatural powers makes the jovial nutcase a challenge to confine and conquer, but there may be a way to open him up to attack.
From start to finish, this episodic narrative will last approximately five hours. Within its confines, players must battle against the familiar darkness, which has once again created warriors out of former humans. The Taken, as they’re referred to, can only be defeated by a combination of light and bullets. As a result of those specific requirements, the available arsenal features a combination of powerful firepower, alongside light-bearing aids like flares and flashbangs. Of course, the most important thing which never leaves the player’s side is a trusty flashlight.
Battling groups of Taken is an important part of the gameplay experience found within this downloadable gem, but it’s a secondary goal when compared to the main objective: altering time itself in an attempt to thwart the plan that Mr. Scratch has set into motion. To complete this goal, three separate locations must be explored, in order to set off a chain of events that will challenge the fabric of time and space itself. The list of areas includes the tiny desert town hub and its oilfield, alongside both the local observatory and close-by drive-in theatre. Each of those areas will be seen three times during the campaign, tying into a narrative which sees Alan Wake piecing his manuscript together slowly as he goes on. Every time you repeat the cycle, something new is discovered.
The most common complaint regarding Alan Wake’s American Nightmare will surely be its heavy amount of backtracking. Since you are going back through a limited amount of environments three times in total, this can become a bit annoying. Though, the narrative is quite strong and this design ties into it, things don’t change enough after your first trip to each area. A couple of different routes may unlock and Taken battles will become more challenging, but the same set of steps must be repeated over the course of the game. New things are slowly added into what eventually becomes a previously-written recipe, adding new requirements as you go along. I wish there was more variety, and that new buildings within those parts would have become unlocked for exploration. However, that didn’t happen. Unfortunately, this repetition is both an asset and a hindrance to this experience. Thankfully, a solid narrative is the reason for this design, as opposed to anything else.
It would be a misstep if I didn’t mention that a couple sequences within this campaign had me feeling like I was just going through the paces. However, the mechanics at its core were strong, well-designed and entertaining, making the repetition much easier to overlook. There’s no combat system like the one this franchise employs, using both light and lead in for great-looking combo attacks. Not only that; the action is fast and fluid, unlike other survival horror romps which tend to take a more slow-paced approach. It’s this combat design which takes centre stage, creating tension and enjoyment at the same time. Enemies can come at you from anywhere, with some having the ability to materialize out of thin air. That definitely ups the old heart rate.
The star of the show is a new mode known as Fight ‘Till Dawn. The title pretty much sums its design up. You battle against wave upon wave of increasingly difficult baddies in one of five unique environments (a graveyard, an oil field or a ghost town, for example). Surviving is the goal, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be running away from battle for the entire ten minute session. Not if you want to go for a high score, at least. The main point is to string together quick kills and slow-motion attack evasions, in order to keep a high multiplier going. Sure, that does mean avoiding attacks, but you have to battle back in order to get anywhere on the leaderboards. The faster enemies are dispatched, the better the multiplier will become. Just one hit can bring it crashing downward. In order to unlock the nightmare versions of each map, it’s important to avoid just about every attack. Getting a high enough score can is incredibly challenging.
Different types of weapons and ammunition are scatted around the map, allowing players to adapt their own unique play style into the score-based outing. This includes all of the aforementioned weaponry that dots the campaign, with a lot of the artillery locked in cases in both modes. The only way to get them out is to find enough collectible manuscripts inside of the core experience. Comprised of Alan Wake’s typewritten words, each of those pages helps to expand the story in interesting ways. There are close to sixty of them hidden throughout the campaign, and finding them can assist you in your attempts to get a high score in this secondary game mode. Of course, the most important thing is having enough bullets. That can be tough if you don’t know the locations of ammo drops or inventory filling boxes. Usually, they’re not too far from light sources which are used to heal Alan.
Like its predecessor, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is a visual knockout with presentation that is noteworthy in regards to its quality. The game is beautiful, to say the least, using great light and atmosphere-based effects. Its characters are all well-designed and detailed, with fluid and nightmarish animations. However, the environments could be the knockout punch here, as they’re intricately designed with a surreal quality. There were a couple of noted moments of screen tearing, as well as a lock-up glitch that forced me to reboot the game once. Though, other than those minor faults, it ran like a dream.
Parts of the story are told through live action sequences, where Mr. Scratch taunts the player by showing his murderous ways, detailing his arsenal or joking around about being a psycho. Most of those are found on television screens scattered throughout the game world, with hidden radio shows also available for discovery. Some major campaign story moments are also told through this high-definition form of filmed reality (or surreality if you will). The video quality is quite sharp and the acting is solid. The same actors portray the characters during gameplay scenes, and do so quite well. The supporting cast isn’t as strong, but that’s not a major detraction. It’s all complemented by polished atmospheric noises and sound effects, which aid the actors’ performances.
One of the most interesting types of horror fiction features troubled writers who enter into surreal versions of simulated reality while on vacation. It’s been done before, but the team at Remedy Entertainment has managed to make it their own with the two Alan Wake games. This specific downloadable episode is another prime example of a development team that is on top of its game, with the ability to innovate by adding in an arcade mode that actually fits the series’ previously-designed mechanics very well. Although there could have been more exploration added to break up its noted repetition, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is very strong game that should definitely be experienced by lovers of well-written fiction.
This review is based on a copy of the game that we received for review purposes.