Alan Wake's American Nightmare
In the first installment of the Alan Wake series, developer Remedy Entertainment invited gamers to experience a mystery with no end. After leaving Alan in a precarious position at Cauldron Lake, gamers flocked to message boards to provide clarity to this game’s story. Was Alan an asylum escapee conjuring demons in his mind? Was he a writer whose typed words magically altered the world? Or was he fast asleep and trapped in a nightmare? Any one of these theories – not to mention a handful of others I’ve discussed with fellow Alan Wake fans – could be the answer guiding this tormented protagonist into the heart of hell.
After I completed American Nightmare, the first sequel in this series, my coworker Joe Juba didn’t ask me the usual, “How was it?” He instead led with, “Does it explain anything?” Not since the TV show Lost have I seen people more concerned about plot revelations than the quality of the product.
American Nightmare expands upon the mystery and fuels the fire behind almost every theory out there, but ends up coming across as the second chapter of a lengthy book. If the first game in the series can be viewed as the introduction to the mystery, this sequel shows us just how crazy, deep, and confusing it can be. Story content surrounding the mysteries is deep and layered, allowing new theories to be generated and old ones to still exist, but don’t expect to walk away from this game with any sort of understanding as to what is happening to Alan.
Remedy is taking us deeper into the rabbit hole, with Alan trapped in a time loop and forced to relive the same moments of his life over and over again. In an interesting twist, Alan isn’t the only one person experiencing déjà vu. All of the inhabitants of small Arizona town Night Springs are cognizant of the time paradox and most are willing to lend a hand to Alan to figure out how to stop it. At the heart of the problem is Alan’s evil doppelganger, Mr. Scratch, a villain who mostly appears on screen as a real human being played by Finnish actor Iikka Villi. He delivers a strong performance and makes for a great antagonist.
The story that Remedy spins is both engaging and exciting, but is too quickly paced and doesn’t take the time to flesh out the secondary characters or establish Night Springs as an attention-grabbing location. Those great slow moments in the first game (Alan first arriving in Bright Falls, the cabin, the asylum) are nowhere to be found in this sequel, though cutting the long, eventless stretches of highway driving is welcome. Conversations with Night Springs residents are mostly focused on the events at hand, and there isn’t much in terms of exploration or wandering. The most memorable story moments came from hidden documents that Alan had written (which are much easier to find this time thanks to them being highlighted on the mini-map).
The speed with which Alan can move from one story sequence to the next also has a negative effect on Remedy’s decision to repeat entire gameplay sequences. I know that the feeling of repetition is intentional, but when the environments and people I interacted with along the way were uninteresting the first time, my disenchantment with them only grew on the second and third visits. Remedy does a great job of conveying Alan’s growing knowledge of the events at hand for each subsequent visit, but the moments were pedestrian to begin with and the variations made to them are minor.
Alan’s exploration of his surroundings is a more concentrated experience, which works in favor of the gameplay but against getting immersed into the world. The three areas he visits (and visits again and again) are smaller in size, more guided in the direction he must go, and loaded with excellently crafted combat encounters.
Alan’s most powerful weapon is still his flashlight, the only tool in the world that can burn away the evil presence affecting Night Springs’ townsfolk, but he also wields a more robust selection of firearms. Chewing up adversaries with a machine gun or carbine rifle feels fantastic and is a testament to Remedy’s excellent gunplay design.
The selection of enemies is much better this time around as well. Yes, enemies are repeated often and I ended up killing more firefighters than New York City probably employs, but Remedy does a nice job of changing up the adversary formations and scaling the difficulty tied to each. The combat system shines the most in the game’s new Arcade Action mode, which pits Alan against increasingly difficult waves of enemies over a set amount of time. The player’s goal in this mode is to chain together kills to raise a scoring multiplier. Arcade Action is surprisingly deep, consisting of 10 nicely designed maps.
I didn’t feel as connected to Alan’s world or story, which were the main draws for me in the first game, but the gameplay is streamlined and improved in this sequel. American Nightmare is not quite as gripping of an experience, but I certainly got my mystery-laden, flashlight-burning fun out of it.