A 6-year wait and some furious backpedalling on developer promises couldnâ€™t stop Alan Wake from becoming a cult favourite. The knife-edge combat and otherworldly narrative â€“ cheesy dialogue and all â€“ provided an expertly-paced, captivating piece of escapism. Now, one game and two chapters later, the Alan Wake series has an unlikely spin-off in American Nightmare, a bizarre detour from the series’ main story to satisfy the cravings between proper sequels.
Set in the unlikely universe of Night Springs â€“ the Twilight Zone-esque TV series referenced in previous games â€“ American Nightmare sees Remedy realise the diversity of the Alan Wake universe; given that most anything the titular novelist writes can alter reality, the series is now more uncertain than ever, potentially throwing Wake into any work of fiction he has created.
For series newcomers, however, none of this will acceptably explain how Alan is able to summon a meteor storm by playing a Kasabian CD. American Nightmare presumes that the player is sufficiently versed in the Alan Wake universe, which in itself is a daunting, frequently confusing one to leap into. Given that Night Springs is a much different type of fiction than the thriller novels that inspired the original game, itâ€™s equally possible that long-time fans will find the change of tone jarring. American Nightmare is to be commended for expanding the Alan Wake fiction, but delivering itself with such blunt force leaves little time to endear.
The storylineâ€™s lack of direction, however, is alleviated by the presence of the omnipotent Mr. Scratch. Making a fleeting appearance at the end of the first game, Alanâ€™s evil doppelganger features here with a far greater prominence than ever. Based on fictitious rumours about Wake himself, heâ€™s a sleazy, violent psychopath who taunts Alan through the gameâ€™s various TV screens – a home video in which he critiques his own choice of murder weapons being a particular highlight. Yet Mr. Scratch is a far more significant character than his perverse nature would suggest; by allowing Alan Wakeâ€™s actor to adopt a more rabid, vicious persona, the series sees Alan become more than the dull everyman he was dangerously close to becoming. By literally personifying the darker side of Alan Wake, Remedy have injected their protagonist with some much-needed depth and versatility.
The transition to digital format carries its own limitations, however, and American Nightmareâ€™s concessions are far too blatant. The gameâ€™s Groundhog Day-style narrative sees Alan revisiting the storylineâ€™s only three locales three times in turn, no doubt a means of saving resources and keeping the download at a manageable file size. Yet stretching the levels out longer â€“ theyâ€™re spacious enough â€“ would actually have made the game feel like much less of a slog. By looping them throughout the gameâ€™s duration, the story stages barely achieve their potential before suffering from a repetition that could easily have been avoided. As such, this is the weakest of the Alan Wake stories, devoid of the pacing and unpredictability of previous instalments. For many long-time fans, this alone will diminish a great deal of the franchiseâ€™s charms.
What charm remains lies in the combat system which, thankfully, is as sublime as ever. Wake himself feels human, appropriately sluggish yet perfectly responsive at the same time. Having his torchlight beam replace an on-screen reticule lends a much more involved feel to aiming, and a subtle bridge between player and character that other third person games canâ€™t quite boast. The successful dodging of attacks, complete with slow motion camera panning to demonstrate just how far from Alanâ€™s face that flailing axe was, get the blood pumping each and every time. Considering how basic the core mechanics are, Alan Wakeâ€™s combat never fails to excite.
Where story mode fails, then, Arcade Mode picks up the slack. While itâ€™s obviously intended as an extra (with most of its weapons requiring you â€˜unlockâ€™ them in story mode), itâ€™s actually the more refined attraction to the American Nightmare package. Here, the seriesâ€™ combat takes centre stage and thrusts all it has into making the most tense, panic-inducing ten minutes it can fit into one of its five maps. Reminiscent of Resident Evilâ€™s Mercenaries mode, it pits the player in a timed fight to the death, tasking them with surviving endless waves of enemies until time runs out.
Itâ€™s an absolutely fantastic addition, suitable for both quick blasts and extended score-chasing, and sees the tense ambushes of the seriesâ€™ story mode expanded into full-on, ceaseless onslaughts. Reach the five-minute mark, and the game borders on cruelty; the desperate struggle for ammo becomes a constant concern, whilst panicked dashes for safe zones or weapon stashes are broken up only by panicked over-the-shoulder glances â€“ by which point an entire army of axe-wielding psychopaths is already homing in. Alan Wake was never a particularly scary game, but Arcade Mode sees its horror influences at their most effective, instilling fear to much better effect than even the most recent survival horror games.
It makes up for a slightly lop-sided download, one that sacrifices storyline for character development, level design for technical restrictions, and cohesion for expansion. As a package, American Nightmare is only half-baked, but that baked side is done to an irresistible crisp.