Alan Wake’s American Nightmare: review

Alan Wake was a well received critical success by many people’s standards (including ours) though its sales were somewhat lacklustre in comparison. Rather than work on a proper sequel to the horror story staring the troubled writer, Remedy chose instead to release the direct follow up – American Nightmare – as an Xbox Live Arcade game.

When we last saw Wake he was still stranded in the Dark Place held prisoner by an evil entity referred to as the Dark Presence. In American Nightmare Alan is trying to escape by twisting reality just enough to bring a cheesy Twilight Zone style TV show he wrote for to life in Arizona, but finds himself stuck in a perpetually repeating trap created by his evil doppelgänger Mr Scratch.

Much like the first game, Wake’s main tool against the Taken (former people or creatures coated in darkness) is his flash light, which burns away the shadows protecting enemies allowing conventional firearms to then hurt them. There is a variety of weapons available from pistols and revolvers to larger things like combat shotguns, but really it’s the flash light, flares and flash bangs which are the most important.

Of the few new enemy types only one requires a significant change to the standard tactics as using your light on them causes them to split apart into a maximum of six doubles, but they have no shadow protecting them to offset this.

Certain heavy weapons are within locked chests which can only be opened after finding a certain amount of manuscript pages strewn around the game which also give insights into what is happening or details on characters and unseen events.

American Nightmare is split across three areas: an arid motel, an observatory, and a run down drive-in cinema, each roughly the same moderate size. However, due to the nature of the story each time Wake makes it to his showdown with Mr Scratch he is thrust back to the start and must go through each area again. Things change slightly on each pass but still you must play through the same three areas three times as Wake slowly alters events each time in the hopes that eventually he can end the cycle.

Describing American Nightmare as Groundhog Day without Bill Murray is a fitting simile. There are even what feels like direct parody events such as Wake attempting to save the life of someone destined to die each cycle. Within the context of the story this repeating plot works and is justifiable, but it just can’t help coming across as lazy.

At only up to four or five hours long, the story doesn’t just feel like you’re playing the same hour or so over and over again – because you really are. Yes, the radios you can listen to change each cycle and yes, the Quentin Tarantino style videos left for you by Mr Scratch may change along with enemy placement and some short cuts too – but it’s still near enough the same.

Our biggest problem with American Nightmare is in direct contrast to our biggest love of the original game and that was the authentic horror atmosphere and setting. The Taken aren’t scary here and nor are the locations. You won’t be alone in a forest counting your ammo and batteries suddenly realizing someone is coming at you with a knife from both sides. No – you’ll be seeing five Taken coming at you as you calmly aim your torch at each and let loose with your nail gun. Running out of bullets (or nails)? Visit a re-spawning ammo compartment marked on your new HUD map. Received damage? Just run to a re-spawning health point (formally called lamppost).

It feels like there has been a shift from classic methods of horror telling that we loved so much in the original game to something more like From Dusk Till Dawn. It isn’t necessarily worse just different and not what we expected. The additional Arcade Mode strengthens these feelings.

Across five different arcade mode maps you are tasked with surviving until dawn (10 minutes) and racking up points against increasingly tough waves of enemies with only a few seconds of rest between each. Weapons, weapon boxes (also locked until you find certain numbers of manuscript pages in the main story), ammo and items are strewn around the place as well as lights to heal in. There are also ‘nightmare’ variants of each map in which item placement is mixed up, the place is darker, and there are no waves just constant spawns of enemies.

This mode offers a brief distraction but lacks any real long term appeal despite offering leader boards to try to climb. What really would have helped this mode would have been co-operative play, but sadly it remains a solo experience.

At 1200 MS points (roughly £10) it’s a tough thing to recommend American Nightmare to even the biggest fans of Alan Wake. The arcade mode is a passing fancy and the story mode is let down by (albeit deliberate) repetition which leaves the whole thing feeling more like rushed DLC than a title able to stand on it’s own. That said, players may still appreciate a strong narrative, interesting characters, exciting (rather than scary) gameplay and decent audio, but it might be worth waiting for the price to come down a little before giving this a look.

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Written by Ian D

Misanthropic git. Dislikes: Most things. Likes: Obscure references.

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