360 XBLA Review - Alan Wake's American Nightmare

25th February 2012 - In May of 2010, Remedy Entertainment released a game called Alan Wake. It was about a famous writer losing his wife to mysterious forces in a small mountain town and followed him fighting shadowy beings from another dimension with a revolver and a flashlight. Despite being critically well recieved, earning a Game of the Year spot here respectively, it was considered a financial flop due to it being overshadowed by multiple titles coming out around the same time, such as Split/Second Velocity, Super Mario Galaxy 2, and Red Dead Redemption. Then, something interesting happened: the game became a cult hit with thousands of fans. As a result, Remedy began working on a small spin-off game to both bring in new players and keep their fans busy until the sequel gets made, that spin off is Alan Wake's American Nightmare.



The story involves Alan Wake, fighting for his life in the gap in reality known as the Dark Place, until an encounter with an evil doppleganger, known as Mr. Scratch, results in him being swept away to a small town in Arizona. After getting his bearings, Alan discovers that Mr. Scratch has been masquerading as him in the real world, and is planning to destroy everything and everyone he cares about. Armed with a gun, a flashlight, and his wits, Alan must stop Mr. Scratch and his army of shadowclad creatures, known as the Taken.

The first thing to note about American Nightmare is the shift in tone. If Alan Wake was an action-thriller game with heavy influences of Stephen King and David Lynch, American Nightmare is a more straightforward action affair that feels like what would happen if Robert Rodriguez directed an episode of the Twilight Zone, an on the nose comparison since the game is presented in-game as an episode of Night Springs, a show in the Alan Wake world that is like the Twilight Zone, all the way down to the Rod Sterling-esque narrator.


Gameplay is mostly unchanged from the first game. It's third-person, You are equipped with a gun and a flashlight, and gameplay revolves around gunfights and using the environment to your advantage. The Taken are basically fought in the same way, shine your flashlight on them until the darkness surrounding them vanishes, then finish them off with some well placed gunfire, and dodging whenever the enemy gets too close. However, with the game's shift in tone results in changes in gameplay. Some of these changes are minor tweaks, such as Alan being able to run farther and dodge multiple times in a row before tiring out in order to compensate for the heightened number of enemies attacking at once, and hitting a button for Alan to continue his dialogue with the small cast of characters he meets throughout his adventure, but some are a major departure from the set-up of the first game.


The most overt of these changes is the new enemy and weapon designs. The Taken are now more than just mad axemen attacking in various degrees of fast and strong. There are Splitters, which divide in half if exposed to light, Spectres, which are able to turn into a flock of birds for stealth attacks, and Grenadiers which do exactly what the name entails. On the other side of things, Alan also has access to hunting rifles, shotguns, and automatic weapons like SMGs and Assault Rifles. However, the way in which these weapons are introduced is a bit off. Some weapons are concealed inside briefcases which can only be unlocked by collecting Manuscript Pages, which are scattered thoroughly throughout the game. Collecting the pages gives newcomers to the series an idea of what's going on, some pages go so far as mention events in the first Alan Wake, the pages also clue in veterans to events that have happened between the first game and this one, and as a storytelling tool it works but it feels arbitrarily connected to receiving increased firepower.


Another fundamental change to gameplay is one in terms of narrative structure. The original Alan Wake was originally going to be a sandbox game, but was later on made into something more linear. This was done in order to make sure the game's narrative and pacing was delivered in a controlled way, and as such the story of Alan Wake has always been its strength, equal to its gameplay, if not better. American Nightmare disregards a linear progression, but neither does it become a complete sandbox, instead it splits the difference and separates the story progression between three small hub worlds. To its credit, the hub world structure is used in novel ways, but it has left the overall narrative feeling loose, almost anemic compared to Remedy's past titles. Despite this shift, it cannot be understated that the writing is still solid, and the dialogue still manages to sizzle, even if the aforementioned change in narrative structure dilutes it in some areas.

The newest addition to the series is the Fight 'Til Dawn mode, which will be familiar to those who enjoy Hoard Mode in their games. You are given a time limit, a wide open map full of resources, and escalating waves of Taken, with a score multiplier that increases with each consecutive kill and resets after getting hit, all accompanied by Leaderboard support. It's a simple formula, but when it works, it works, and the unlockable Nightmare mode adds a real meaty challenge to those looking for it.



Remedy's self-assembled game engine used for Alan Wake makes a return in American Nightmare, with some noticeable technical improvements. The particle effects are great and the change of the Dark Presence from amorphous wispy smoke to uncanny floating tendrils of smoke makes it appear a lot more hostile. The new looks for the Taken and the new areas of Arizona are both menacing and gorgeous respectively. The uncanny use of live-action cutscenes, used to great effect in the original Alan Wake, make a return in American Nightmare, with Ilkka Villi playing roles of both Alan Wake and Mr. Scratch, all of which add to the game's cheesy exploitation film meets 1950s sci-fi aesthetic.



Petri Alanko returns as music director for American Nightmare, and the score does not disappoint. Although, his work might be overshadowed by the game's skillful use of licensed music, which includes Kasabian's “Club Foot,” and – otherwise it wouldn't be a Remedy game – Poets of the Fall's, “The Happy Song.” Matthew Porretta returns as the voice of Alan Wake, giving it just the right mix of wit and determination, and the supporting cast puts in solid work across the board.



Everything that made Alan Wake stand out is still present in American Nightmare. The metaphysical implications of a creator and his or her work, the clever use of pop-culture references woven into organic dialogue, the hectic gameplay, the strong characterization of Alan, all of it is present in American Nightmare. Yet, despite all of these elements being in place, the whole thing comes into the problem of being a spin-off and not a proper sequel: in terms of narrative it's 90% filler. Regardless, Alan Wake fans will find a lot to love in this installment. The Story Mode should take one roughly five or six hours if you take time to find collectibles, and the Fight 'Til Dawn mode offers a lot of replay value for high score junkies, but if you were expecting Alan Wake 2, lower your expectations. Keeping all of this in mind, American Nightmare is still worth your time and Microsoft Points.


Alan Wake's American Nightmare isn't exactly the sequel fans have been clamoring for since the final key moments of the last game, but it will make waiting for it easier. Some of the changes to the formula might irritate fans, but there is more good than bad.





+ Improved Gameplay

+ Strong central character

+ Visually and Musically Strong



- Weaker Narrative Pacing

- Short Story mode


Reviewed and Written By Tyler Chancey