Alan Wake’s American Nightmare

By Seán O'Sullivan - February 27th, 2012


Psychological? No. Thriller? Occasionally.

It’s important to address at the outset that Alan Wake’s American Nightmare has not been designed to give fans of the original title more of the same. One needs only a cursory glance at the box art motifs to see the changes in tone: the original portrays the protagonist standing in a dark and foggy forest, his flashlight cutting a cold beam through the oppressive blackness. Stamped above the title, the words: ‘A Psychological Action Thriller’. In comparison, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare could be about a rural handyman who hasn’t got around to reading the instruction manual on his nail-gun yet.

Despite the franchise attached, this is a straightforward action game (albeit one with an idiosyncratic presentation – but more on that later). The core combat mechanics return from Alan’s retail outing – players must navigate dark environments while being swarmed by enemies, training a flashlight on them long enough to make them vulnerable to gunfire. Combat is generally exciting because there are often multiple enemies attacking from all angles; the varying types often require different approaches, meaning that this is a shooter that generally requires more careful consideration than its peers. That said, the combat often gets up to a pace that requires quick thinking, so stylized moments of slow-motion are a welcome opportunity for the player to plan a few more moves ahead.

The story mode is about four hours long, telling a simple tale of a battle between light and dark represented by Alan and his evil doppelganger; but the game is paced for action, so there is little time spent setting the scene. Even the talky-bits with NPCs can be cut short if the player’s trigger finger gets itchy – which is always appreciated.

Alan stole Jamie’s magic torch. Now he’s waiting for Jamie to come after him.

What’s terribly disappointing about the campaign is the amount of repetition involved. The narrative device that causes Alan to visit and revisit the same environments feels contrived, and the frustration of the game’s characters as they repeat the same processes is bound to be reflected in most gamers. Developers Remedy have ameliorated this somewhat by increasing the velocity with which Alan traverses these self-contained sections; but not enough was done to prevent the environments feeling stale – plenty of opportunities exist to subvert expectations, but they are rarely capitalized on.

A stronger story might have made the repetition more palatable, but the whole thing is askew just slightly enough to make it difficult to tell how tongue-in-cheek the story is supposed to be. Furthermore, the individual facets of the style are puzzling. The only characters Alan interacts with are three females: one blonde, one brunette, one redhead. They are all easy on the eyes (in this reviewer’s opinion) and seem to be doing things not normally associated with ladyhood (a mechanic, a scientist… a filmmaker), and indulge Alan’s peculiar admissions of schizophrenia in good humour with stilted dialogue.

The whole production feels like an unofficial straight-to-DVD sequel by a company like The Asylum (the people who brought you Titanic II and Transmorphers). It is just too po-faced and earnest to elicit humour. I was distracted during conversations with the scientist – the actress sounds like she’s reading the hammy script for the first time while struggling to maintain a crummy Judi Dench impersonation – was this the direction she was given, or is this all they could afford on a shoestring budget?

“Oh hey look! A Hotel in the middle of nowhere. Nothing can go wrong here!

Curious presentation issues aside, the ending does all it can to undermine the past few hours of your life. The closing narration basically asks where it fits into Alan Wake canon and ultimately arrives at a shrug. Not the most satisfying reward for a short campaign that manages to overstay its welcome, plot-device or not.

Much like its seemingly schizophrenic protagonist, the game struggles with its identity. In one of the collectible manuscript pages, Alan discusses the crudely-sketched character archetypes he now squares off against – noting the clichéd inclusion of a large lumbering redneck with a power-tool. At moments like this, it is as if the title’s writers are apologizing for the game’s combat having a richer texture now that it is less concerned with a cohesive narrative style. Remedy are no strangers to breaking the fourth wall, but these kind of incongruities jarred me out of the experience.

Despite my complaints about the story mode’s recycling of assets, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is worth the $15, mostly thanks to the Arcade Action survival mode. It’s a basic timed score attack mode, but the six environments are detailed and appropriately moody. The ten-minute bursts of intense action suit the style of the game, particularly on the increased difficulty mode that prompts constant motion and an unnerving paucity of ammo that will prompt regular frantic dashes through herds of enemies to get supplies.

If you’ve been eagerly awaiting the next installment in the story of Alan Wake, you’re likely to be disappointed. If you’re looking for a solid action game with high-production values that’s been keenly designed with its medium in mind, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is well worth your time.

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