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More Like A Bad Dream

Alan Wake was a divisive new IP by Remedy, creators of the highly acclaimed Max Payne series. It had its detractors who argued it was less of a game and more of an interactive TV show on rails, while others (myself included) found it a compelling little experiment. Until Remedy makes enough money though, this is the closest we get to a sequel. Is it worth the fifteen dollar asking price?

This review is for the PC version of the game.


Hi kids, discount Rod Sterling here to narrate because everyone was tired of Alan self-narrating!

For those who don't know the story of Alan Wake, the best limited-spoiler (and it will be spoiled if you play through this game as Alan loves to explain it to every person he meets) is that Alan Wake, a writer, has been drawn into a battle with dark forces of some sort. His wife was taken from him and while he defeated the evil force, he was pulled away with it in order to free his wife, at the cost of trapping himself potentially forever. The advantage is that his profession enables him to have some control over his situation .Before he ever "lands" in an area to battle the darkness, he can already have a scenario planned out, although he forgets what it is beyond vague points and has to recollect his manuscript pages each time in order to know what's coming. This particular spin-off though is done in the style of the TV show where Alan got his first gig, a Twilight Zone-ish show known as Night Springs.

If this all sounds really cool, then you may be a bit disappointed with what the main story of American Nightmare. Alan has improved as a character (i.e. you don't want to see him jump off a cliff now), and his opponent, a devilish twin known as Mr. Scratch, who enters the real world and the dark world Alan is trapped in at will, is a surprisingly interesting villain despite barely being present outside of pre-recorded messages on abandoned TV sets. However the remaining cast are bland, boring, and feel like cardboard cutouts in contrast to the original game's cast of characters.

They are all women in need of "brave Alan" to save and/or help them, and you get this weird feeling like you're a horror movie protagonist accidentally walking onto the set of an adult film. Let's see, we've got a skimpily dressed, fake accent carrying “scientist” who never really contributes beyond sending you on fetch quests. Then there's girl who gets flirtatious and sounds more drunk and slightly pervy than "crazy" as Alan describes her. Let's not forget drunk girl looks maybe eighteen years old at best. The mechanic however takes the cake as our "damsel in distress!" as that's all you do. There's a threat, you try to save her. You do fail to save her TWO times while running back to try and save her, but this only serves to make her slightly more self-aware as things press on, unlike the other two characters.

"How is this possible? How can she die twice and still be alive?" you ask. Well, due to limited budget, time, and assets, American Nightmare uses the TV-worn trope of "you're stuck in a time loop!" What this means is you go through the same three sandbox areas over the course of a single playthrough. There are hints that originally it might have been an open world title (the control descriptions for driving a car like in the original Alan Wake are still there but you never drive a vehicle), which would have made a lot more sense, and would have spared us having to do the same objectives, slightly changed, several times over in the same areas.


This woman... she's surrounded by cliffs outside, yet never happens to slip off one. Why? WHY?

They'll sometimes change what weapons and order you need to do things in, but the annoying thing is that different manuscript pages are only there for certain times through the loop. Each time through gets you closer to the end, and it's not like Remedy doesn't play with the idea somewhat, but it drains the budget title of any replay value. Some new enemy types are present to try to freshen things up, but the only really significant one is presented late in the game and is an obvious remodel of the Chainsaw Guy from Resident Evil 4, right down to carrying a huge blade and being weakest to shotguns.

Side note: Speaking of shotguns, why are so many of the unlockable weapons military grade? Why can't we have Alan be more creative with unconventional weapons?

The spider enemies aren't even worth noting (they don't even appear in the secondary challenge mode), and the new physical form for the birds just means the flare gun is purely crowd control now. The duplicating enemies who double and shrink in size/power as you put your flashlight on them are an interesting concept... but that's about all they are, an interesting concept, not a compelling new enemy. They really just serve as a second bullet sponge, like the chainsaw guy but more passive aggressive about killing you.

In spite of the lacking new enemies, the combat does feel more fluid, although far less survival horror-y. Gone are moments like in the first game with the kidnapper making you desperately use torches as a means of defense while he pops shots. No longer do you have to hunt for ammo -- there are full refill stations in every level that are brightly lit. Despite that shift, the combat and style of play still works surprisingly well. Alan's been fighting for what apparently may even be years now in the dark void he's trapped in so he aught to have picked up a thing or two. When he unlocks his first new weapon he even comments "yeah, it's about time I went full-auto." The combat actually wins out as the best feature in this game, which for Wake fans may be a disconcerting note.

The game lets you keep weapons consistently, unlike the original, which is a nice feature if you've got a thing for a particular weapon, but this only is in effect if you haven't just started a chapter spontaneously. Start off an Act 3 chapter and you'll spawn with nothing but your pistol and 40 rounds. The least Remedy could do would be allow you to pick what weapons you start out with using some sort of loadout selection. This would give me a lot more incentive to try another playthrough on Nightmare difficulty.

To be clear, American Nightmare is not the worst spin-off we could have gotten. This is still a better follow-up than the awful The Signal DLC expansion for the original game that we got, which The Writer DLC seemed to merely attempt to make seem worth suffering through. Outside of a few nods and references (Tom the Diver makes an interesting and telling cameo), the most compelling moment for hardcore fans will be the post-finale scene involving Barry.

There's a great framework set up for a sandbox game, but its clear Remedy had neither the time nor the money to make it a reality. Unlockable weapons if you find enough manuscript pages, diverse locations that stand out but still manage to all fit the same area, enough variety in enemies to allow for distinct encounters, the already finished driving controls, and Mr. Scratch as an in your face antagonist all would work great in that sort of setting. As they are, it feels more like a really well done Alan Wake fan mod, not a real sequel. Maybe it's best that Remedy has said this episode in Alan Wake's trials may not even be canon, similar to inFamous: Festival of the Blood.

I'd be amiss to ignore the game's Until Dawn challenge mode. Across six maps, both in normal and nightmare variants, you are presented with the test of surviving in constant darkness for ten minutes until dawn arrives. These maps are interesting, but weapons are oddly limited and some items are so hard to find that they're barely worth searching for. There's a scoring system so if you enjoy beating your own high scores you'll have fun, but most people will be done after beating each level once, if not after just giving it a try.

As a sequel to Alan Wake, American Nightmare isn't much to speak of. It gives a few nods and winks to fans, and explores a few neat ideas, but barely spends enough time to really examine them while also reusing the same three environments so much that you get tired of going through the motions. Hardcore fans of Alan Wake may not care, and have probably already bought the game, but as an introduction to the series, you'd be better off getting a copy of the original, preferably on PC with all its downloadable content included free of charge. This is however a great little game if you want something to play offline during a long airplane flight. It's all about knowing what you want, because while it's not a bad game, this one really isn't a must buy for everyone.

Almost as flawed as its precursor, but in different ways, American Nightmare struggles to find a focus beyond combat and half-baked ideas about dimension shifting and time loops. While it is clear Remedy wants to address all the problems it had before while flexing the series' strengths, they might be wise to keep their safeties on before trying another round at giving us a follow up. It's an admirable effort, but its clear the solid foundation is what keeps this structure standing. American Nightmare gets a 7.75/10.

Cheers,
Paradigm the Fallen

Wake up, Alan. Wake up.

Trivia: Alan Wake is one of the few games that includes live action cutscenes starring the same actors who voice and did the mocap for their characters in-game.  It's also on record as the first horror game series to actually get me unsettled and anywhere near scared. That's something FEAR, Dead Space, and Penumbra all failed to do.

Alan Wake: American Nightmare is available on Xbox Live Arcade and Steam for $14.99 dollars.



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