Not that long ago I had a look back at the original Alan wake (check the Review here) but when I polled on Twitter which game to do next, American Nightmare came out on top. This tells me the game still has a bit of a following so I’d be interested to see if it still holds up today.
The game starts after the events of the main game and according to Alan, he’s been in “the Dark Place” for about 2 years. Unable to get out and only catching glimpses of what’s happening in the real world. A dark/Evil version of himself, referred to as Mr. Scratch, is keeping him stuck in what can best be described as an episode of the Twilight Zone (only here it’s called “Night Springs”). Luckily, just like in the original game, he’s managed to leave himself some manuscript pages that give him info on his nemesis and tells him what to do.
Unfortunately, the information Alan needs isn’t immediately available to him, so he has to try again and again until he gets everything right (think of it as a mini Groundhog Day or Source Code) It’s an interesting idea that often used in videogames (the ending of Bravely Default on the 3Ds comes to mind) but this is also the type of medium where it often falls flat. You can’t shake the feeling that this was done as a means of re-using the existing characters, enemies and environments to shave some money of the production costs. The main story only has three zones and you’ll have to play through each one three times.
As for characters, there aren’t many to speak of. You have Alan himself, his body-double and three women who are all way too much into the both of you.
One gimmick that was pretty neat though, was that they remember what happened the previous time and when the world is “reset” they’ve already helped you along so you only have to do part of the tasks.
Visually the game is very similar to the original game. The character models still hover in the uncanny valley, but other than this the game looks all right. The main graphical draw is still the play between the themes of light & dark and I still enjoy seeing how the enemies disintegrate when you shoot them. There are also some visually interesting sequences like triggering a satellite to fall down and hit the oil-drill from which darkness was spilling.
When it comes to the audio, American Nightmare performs adequately as well. The above scene is accompanied by a nice piece of music that really had me going. But besides these few moments, the game is mostly devoid of background music. To fill the quiet void, you’ll often have a narrator explain what is happening or going to happen much like how Alan narrated his own adventure in the first game but a little less frequent. The voice acting itself is decent, but the story didn’t really give the actors the opportunity to really put some feeling into it. The only stand-out exception to this is Mr. Scratch as he gets to play a sadistic evil maniac, with a little more artistic liberty.
The main meat of the gameplay is still the same one-two as in the original game: enemies (called Taken) are protected by a cloak of darkness and can only be harmed after shedding some light on them. The same button (LT) that aims your gun and flashlight can be pressed harder to focus your beam on the bad guys. This burns through the batteries quickly, but if you don’t completely empty one, it will just restore automatically.
While this is one of the more interesting gameplay mechanics in recent years (well no so recent anymore) it wore off quite fast in the Alan Wake as the game really only had four enemies: Taken, slightly larger Taken, a flock of birds and poltergeist controlled flying debris. If there’s one thing American Nightmare does better it’s enemy variety. The aforementioned ones are still present but they also introduced Splitters (enemies that split in two when you shine light on them, but they also get weaker), Grenadiers (who toss grenades, surprise, surprise), enemies that turn into birds so they can spawn behind you, Giants wielding circular saws (which take a LOT of light and bullets to kill) and last but not least: spiders.
Other than increasing the number of various things to shoot AT, they also had a brief *lightbulb* moment and figured they could increase the number of things to shoot WITH. While Alan Wake mainly had to fend of the Taken with a handgun and a shotgun (+ sources of light like his flashlight, flares and my favourite: the flare gun) in American Nightmare he now has an entire arsenal of possible weapons to pick from (although he can carry only two).
Some of these change the manner of gameplay a bit, like the Crossbow, which can pierce through the enemies’ darkness without having to remove their protection, but it does shoot in an arc and has a slow reload time. My favourite was the magnum: it had excellent reach, great stopping power and could even hit the enemies behind the first one.
You can unlock the new weapons only by collecting Manuscript pages in the story mode. 53 of them are spread across the levels (and they aren’t that hard to find) but you’ll only need 40 to unlock all weaponry. For the story you won’t even truly need them as your starting weapons will serve you just fine.
The Arcade mode however, is a different beast entirely: You get to play 8 different levels (well 4 but repeated, again!) where you have to survive multiple waves of Taken for 10 minutes until dawn comes up. This was pretty brutal as gameplay requires you to zoom In an focus your light on the enemies in front of you, but it just gives them more opportunities to sneak up behind you. The story mode had more linear level design so it wasn’t really an issue there. Alan can also only sustain about three hits before dying and the Taken hit hard and fast so it’s important to keep your distance or dodge their attacks in time. Knowing where enemies could be coming from is key to your survival.
I liked that they didn’t just rehash the levels from the story mode, but there are really only 4 different environments here and you quickly learn where each pick-up is located. There is no option to have a co-op round of Arcade (even though the game-mode would lend itself perfectly to it) and the only reason to have more than one go at them is to beat your own or the online high-score.
While it’s being sold as a stand-alone game, you can’t help but feel like you’re playing some form of DLC. While Alan Wake had an interesting story but slightly repetitive combat, American Nightmare switches that around. The gameplay takes longer to feel stale but having to run through the same three levels in story mode and even having the arcade mode’s levels repeated feels lazy.
If you paid full price for this at launch, you might have felt a bit cheated. Luckily it dropped to a more acceptable $9.99 (and if you’re following me on Twitter you can win a copy )
All in all it’s still a fun game but one that you won’t feel like revisiting after your first run-through.