Alan Wake’s American Nightmare was released on the Xbox Live Arcade service today. It’s not a direct sequel to 2010’s Alan Wake (which was released as a full retail game), but neither does it qualify as DLC. In terms of size and scope, this stand-alone game fits somewhere in between. One thing is clear though, as of now, Remedy has the best looking title on XBLA, bar none. American Nightmare looks absolutely gorgeous at times and it’s easy to forget you’re ‘just’ playing an arcade game. That’s high praise, but it also means you’re almost inclined to judge it by standards that are usually reserved for more expensive titles (which wouldn’t be fair). So, it’s important to keep in mind that this game goes for just 1200 Microsoft points (about 14 euros).
Remedy already mentioned that American Nightmare was to be a departure from the original game in terms of tone. No longer drawing primarily on Lynch and King, this new game would borrow more from Tarantino and Rodriguez. That makes sense when you consider the arcade action mode, but the story mode actually has a far stronger resemblance to the infamous Twilight Zone television show(s) of the sixties and eighties. The first game already makes cheeky reference to that pop-culture icon through its ‘Night Springs’ show that can be viewed on television screens encountered throughout the game, but American Nightmare goes a step further and makes that particular style the focus of the experience, complete with a great Rod Serling imitation (narrator and sometimes writer on the original show). After having rescued his wife in the first game, and spending two years in ‘the dark place’, Alan Wake now finds himself in the town of Night Springs. Having started out as a writer for the show, Alan probably picked the town as an interesting setting for his next battle with the forces of darkness, this time in the form of an evil alter ego named ‘Mr. Scratch’ (who tends to remind me of Patrick Bateman on occasion). Don’t worry if all that seems a bit complicated, because it’s not entirely clear at what level of reality the game is taking place. Perhaps it stands to reason that Wake is submerged in some kind of reality of his own making. Modeled, in this case, on the town of Night Springs, given his experience as a writer on that show. The game even opens with his best friend (Barry) actually watching the episode of Night Springs that you’ll be playing. Though such mise-en-abyme is fairly typical of many a Twilight Zone episode, it’s part of the charm.
Charm is much of what I like about American Nightmare. Some people expressed discontent at the game’s new Arizona setting, stating that the Pacific Northwest locale was what made Alan Wake special. Personally, I quite like this direction, since the new setting ensures a fresh look that sits well with the style Remedy’s going for. The game’s menu screen actually deserves special mention in that respect. Upon start-up, you’re faced with an infinite Arizona highway under a brooding sky and it’s instantly evocative of all the grimy desert-set movies you’ve ever cared to remember. I love it. The game itself looks equally splendid, with a color palette consisting of striking shades of purple and red. Of course, the game cuts some corners here and there, most notably in the interior of one of the game’s buildings (an observatory), but on the whole it looks impressive. The game’s perpetual sense of twilight (combined with all the pop culture references) creates a mood that rivals even the atmosphere of the first game.
Actually playing American Nightmare is an equally pleasurable experience. It’s been a little while, but I seem to recall that the combat in the original game was merely tolerable. Here, it is much improved, even though only small changes have been made. Like in the original Alan Wake, you fight so called ‘Taken’. Former humans shrouded in darkness. You ‘blast away’ this darkness with a flashlight before you proceed to finish them with a conventional firearm. The flashlight now has a much faster recharge rate and the enemies don’t take quite as long before their ‘shield’ is removed. The result is that American Nightmare is a little easier than the previous game, but it’s also a lot more fun somehow. I think the small changes result in a kind of rhythm that used to be missing from the combat. Key in maintaining this rhythm is the ‘dodge’ feature. Whenever one of the taken gets close enough to take a swing at you, a well timed press of the shoulder button slows down time and sees Alan gracefully dancing away from the blow. It also gives you ample opportunity to unload both flashlight and Mac-10 in the assailant’s face. And that did not get boring in the six hours it took me to finish the story mode.
Of course, you don’t get to six hours worth of story (on a budget) without some artificial lengthening. American Nightmare has you effectively running through the same levels multiple times. This is integrated in the fiction fairly well, and as I’ve said, the Twilight Zone type story lends itself well to that sort of thing, but I can imagine that some players may find it cheap or annoying. Still, there is enough to experience in terms of dialogue and if you’re at all into the Twilight Zone, you’ll probably like what Remedy has done here. I certainly did. To add further value to the package, a survival mode is included. The mode places you in an arena (disguised as ghost towns or oil fields), where you can try your hand at surviving against enemy waves that increase in number and difficulty. Since the combat is actually pretty good this time round, it’s fun to mess around with this mode, but I don’t understand why Remedy did not include a cooperative mode. Seems like a missed opportunity. Nevertheless, the game’s unique look and middle-of-nowhere Arizona setting are enough of a reason to give American Nightmare a shot.