Learning from their announcement mistake with the original Alan Wake, Remedy Entertainment unveiled “Alan Wake’s American Nightmare” only a couple of months before its XBLA release. With this surprise of a sooner-than-expected release date also came the revelation that this title would be a spin-off and have a shift from the Hitchcock/Stephen King direction to something more along lines of Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez. With this change in price range and atmospheric tone, one can’t help but wonder if this non-essential entry can prove its worth.
The game starts out in an occupied motel room and then slowly draws towards a Twilight Zone-themed TV program: Night Springs-the show that vitalized Alan Wake’s novelist career. After hearing the Rod Serling impersonator explain how Alan, “The Champion of Light,” is attempting to chase down “The Herald of Darkness” known as Mr. Scratch (whenever the term “scratch” is mentioned in Wake’s notes it actually sounds like the scratching of a vinyl record), the player becomes immediately acquainted with the instructions for fighting these hordes of dark entities known only as the Taken, who are at Scratch's demands. Since Wake now has the ability to write himself out of any situation, he must venture into this new dimension of sight, sound, and mind to save everyone that he loves.
Despite the interesting setup that sounds like an actual Twilight Zone episode, the moody story with interesting themes and motifs from the original game take a backseat to a more pulpy tone as you meander around different areas in Night Springs, Arizona. While the game lends itself to the idea of being in Wake’s subconscious, time is actually transfixed on reality; two years have gone by and rumors continue to bruit over Wake's disappearance. As he furthers his investigation in Night Springs, Wake stumbles upon strangers that help him combat his nemesis. While the task of combating the very fabric of time whilst caught in a constant loop does delve into the strange many have come to know and love with the series, the idea of investigating the same areas thrice will cause some to admonish this sense of redundancy.
Even though the plot has a habit of feeling like a broken record, the minutiae in this universe is still very interesting. While these details are hidden away in radios, TV sets, and Wake’s own notes scattered throughout each location, they pump up this thin narrative enough to give fans and newcomers the same semblance of the original’s excellent storytelling mechanics. Since weapon unlocks are tied into how many pages are acquired, newcomers to the series are impelled to understand enough of the backstory to not feel fettered with wondering what happened in the original (strangely enough, there’s no “Previously on Alan Wake” introduction); and since many of those specifics are given early on, that unwelcome feeling for those unfamiliar with the series dissipates soon into the journey. Long-time fans will also be treated with interesting monologues from Wake as he comes to greater understanding of the power he holds; these thoughts range from existentialist ideals to even contemplating the canon for his flashlight intensifying whenever he aims it at his dark foes.
Overall, it’s rather disheartening to say American Nightmare’s main plot-ironically-doesn’t do enough to feel like anything more than a suspenseful TV episode. The deep storytelling elements do a better job of pulling the player into this universe, but there’s only so much one can do with those templates. Mr. Scratch’s loquacious moments on TV sets and Wake's monologue when discovering his discarded papers can’t recreate its precursor's pacing in this new open-world environment.
Having the fortunate arrangement of being the successor to the original Alan Wake has its perks; one of which is the simple compression of an excellent big-budget engine to fit as an arcade release. One of the most impressive feats to be found is the fluid transition between actual filmed footage, in-game cut scenes, and gameplay, with few visual hiccups in between. Like the mood itself, players can expect a few changes to come with the new setting: oil derricks, tumbleweeds, and barren plateaus take the place of mountain ranges, while Alan’s new attire is now more fitting for Casual Friday. This change from suffocation by pine trees to nothing viewable for miles may have some fans worried about the art design, but this heavier campy, pulpy nature is adequately rendered.
Although its focus has varied the least in comparison, the sound design has shifted emphasis from its predecessor, for better and worse. American’s Nightmare’s multifarious soundtrack, in regards to implementing original and licensed music, has received a heavier focus on using certain band tracks over Petri Alanko’s nuanced score. The artists’ list is scant, but fitting under the circumstances. Fans will enjoy the simple touches of the progressive rock track ‘Club Foot’ and-more especially-Remedy’s continual predilection with the band “Poets of the Fall” (one of their songs is found under the title band “Old Gods of Asgard”). Like the soundtrack, the list of voice actors has dwindled in this non-sequel. Pulling double duty as both Alan Wake and Mr. Scratch (in both voice and live-action cutscenes), Ikka Villi’s sadistic portrayal of Wake’s archenemy steals the show in a performance that can vary from disturbing to humorous -- sometimes running concurrently. Unfortunately, his enjoyable performance increases the annoyance found in the stolid new female characters you meet throughout the rest of the journey.
American Nightmare contains some of the best production values to be found in the arcade market. While certain facets like a “cheating” camera direction hinting at inconsistent lip-syncing and certain female supporting voice actors erroneously delivering their lines can mar the campaign experience, every other aspect feels impeccable for an arcade title. As of right now, this game is the current stepping stone of arcade titles looking and sounding more like retail games.
The principle light/dark combative gameplay of the series receives a few interesting twists: regenerative health has three blocks instead of being completely renewing, a wider-ranging arsenal-from nail guns to assault rifles, and a few different enemies have been implemented. Despite these and other nuances being present, the core mechanics to fighting have remained relatively the same. Alan is tasked with fighting these dark forces through the use of his flashlight to dispel the dark aura surrounding his enemies in order to obliterate them with his firearms. The only defenses this writer-turned-exorcist has against these shadowy cohorts are a cinematic dodge (engaged when hitting the Left Bumper Button as one is lunging towards you) and rudimentary flares and flashbangs. Overall, the additional nuances make this fluid cinematic combat system feel just as refreshing as when Alan Wake first released.
What’s more interesting, to those unfamiliar with the series’ history, is that American Nightmare more closely resembles the developer’s original design for the series; with this in mind, players can also see some of the reasons why the open-world design may have been scrapped in the first place. With more freedom given to the player, the power of pacing presents a double-edged sword: while you’re free to soak in more of the context of this universe at your own pace, the pre-determined enemy placements begin to lose their suspense until a new enemy type or confining scenario is introduced. The freedom given outside of those few restricted spaces in each level also drastically harms the campaign difficulty. Since your means of regenerative health are streetlights, it’s not hard for players to come up with a conning system that laughs at the very idea of dying. This partial open-world design does tread new ground, but it does so at a small cost.
A brand new mode for the series, dubbed “Arcade Action,” is essentially there to fill the Horde Mode void we’ve seen developers constantly supply; however, keeping the action focused to one player makes it feel downright addicting. The goal in each of the five maps, inspired by the campaign (each with ‘Normal’ and ‘Nightmare’ assortments), retain the same objective: survive the next ten minutes until dawn arrives. Advancement in the online leaderboards is mostly subject to speed in handling each wave and dodging enemies in order to prevent your attack multiplier from resetting. Although Remedy is better known for their story-driven games, the distinct establishment of this enjoyable, albeit derivative, “Horde Mode” actually shows some meticulous touches throughout each map. While difficulty suffers in the campaign, Arcade Action’s offerings between both difficulties feel immediately oppressive once more varied waves of enemies begin to appear.
Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is a package that bolsters my enthusiasm of what to expect in upcoming bigger-budgeted arcade titles. The simple pulpy additions in regards to gameplay and general tone feel like a nice break before Alan (hopefully) plunges back into the darker recesses of his twisted mind. The fact that this four-hour experience with a solid arcade mode only costs one-fourth of the original’s release price simply can’t be ignored either. While the campaign doesn’t have the same luster as past Remedy titles, newcomers and long-time fans alike shouldn’t be surprised to notice the new additions could keep them playing from dusk ‘til dawn.
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