I cannot think of a good way to start this review. I wanted to be clever and put down something witty or thought-provoking but it just doesn’t seem to fit. For as much as writing can be a powerful force it can also be incredibly simple and the words you don’t put down are as important as the ones you do. That’s what Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is all about, the power of the written word and it’s consequences both intentional and unintentional, as someone who spends the majority of his life staring at a word processor that sort of message can make you think. Not to make a mountain out of the molehill of my career or anything like that, this game hits all my favorite buttons and I’ve been dying to talk about it. So let’s jump in and explore why this world of darkness shines so damn bright in my mind.
Normally I start with gameplay but nuts to that because I want to talk about the writing here first. The first Alan Wake was obviously deeply influenced by Stephen King and Twin Peaks and while some of that flavour certainly remains the big inspiration here is the Twilight Zone. You may remember the Night Springs shorts in Alan Wake, which were in and of themselves a parody of the Twilight Zone, and in this game it’s revealed that Alan wrote for the series at the beginning of his career. It’s been two years since the events in Bright Falls and Alan has escaped from the darkness into the sleepy little Arizona town of Night Springs. This town has a little something strange about it which the darkness and its new personification, Wake’s double Mr. Scratch, can manipulate to bring about the horrors Wake is too used to facing. Thankfully Wake has some tricks of his own and the writer quickly realizes that reality is what you make of it and he can make more of it than most. You see Alan can change reality according to the manuscript pages he finds by changing the little details of a scene until eventually his preferred reality comes to pass. The story explores themes of time loops, perceived reality, the power of symbolism, and of course the duality of a person’s soul in terms of Light and Darkness.
It’s really tricky to talk about writing in this game without ruining the story because it takes some great turns and does so much with its narrative that I want to talk about it all. I mentioned time loops earlier and while I won’t ruin the how or why of the situation, let me say that the characters’ response to it is one of the smartest I’ve ever seen as they quickly learn to cut to the chase and roll with the punches. Everything about the writing here speaks to my personal sensibilities, they take the time to explain things that while mundane do make me curious and give new meaning and importance to these seemingly small facets. A good example of this is why Alan is now wearing flannel instead of his old hoodie/sports jacket combo. You see the clothes he’s wearing, are for him, more an armor than anything; a manuscript page explains that he was wearing these clothes during a very happy moment of his life and those good memories protect him from the Darkness. Some games would not say boo about a costume change like this but to have it contextualized in such a meaningful way to the character shows true care and love for the universe that has been created here. My favorite part of the writing though is the fact that the whole game is couched in Twilight Zone style narration. Some guy doing a really-good-but-slightly-bad-in-an-entertaining-way Rod Serling impression narrates as punctuation to the majority of scenes in this game. His over the top descriptions and very elaborate patterns of speech perfectly evoke the classic show and really help give the game a fun yet thoughtful vibe. It makes this feel almost like a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode with how self-contained and charmingly cheesy it can be compared to the first game. There are still serious philosophical themes taking place here but there’s also some well needed levity and while this entry in the series feels like it will have little bearing on the overall mythos, the way it fleshes out the character of Alan Wake is indispensable.
This great writing is really helped out by some truly superior presentation both in terms of visuals and audio. The graphics look fantastic for game of this small a size (it’s a measly 2 gigs) and they’ve gone ahead and added all the tweaks and improvements they put into the PC version of Alan Wake. The new environment of the Arizona desert works really well with the limited capacities of a downloadable release. It’s a warmer kind of darkness but emptier and the vast wastes help the relatively small areas the game takes place in feel endless and frightening in their own way. The game also does a very good of reusing its own assets, as far as I can tell almost everything in the game newly built and they find ways to put it all good use (remember the time loops thing). All of the actual areas you visit feel very lived in and well realized with lots of great posters and references lying around. The world despite being a little empty (there’s like 3 characters aside from Wake and Scratch) feels real in some very interesting ways and yet unreal in some equally interesting ones. Of course there is also the FMV which is awesome both in that it’s jarringly different from the look of the gameplay and in that it’s cheesy good fun. The actor playing Wake/Scratch is really enjoying himself up there and he goes to lengths to show it. He’s kind of hammy and he chews up the scenery but that works so well for the character of Mr. Scratch acting as an opposite number to Alan Wake himself.
Of course this is helped by the great voice acting which it turns out is actually done by a different actor from the FMV actor, at least that’s what I inferred from the credits. Alan is appropriately ponderous, Scratch is as smarmy and sleazy as possible, and the narrator is surly yet calm in a way that would make Rod Serling himself proud. The great audio continues with a fantastic score featuring a bit of licensed music and a bunch of new stuff from Petri Alanko, the Poets of the Fall, and even the Old Gods of Asgard. Scenes sync with songs in some powerful ways and it results in some of the game’s best moments. Overall the sound design is pretty much perfect and if you enjoyed it in the first game you will enjoy it here.
Let’s finish off with the gameplay, though there isn’t really a ton to talk about there. For the most part things remain unchanged on the gameplay side from Alan Wake. You’ll chase after objectives on a mini-map while encountering a small town’s worth of Taken, all of whom you’ll burn the darkness off of and then shoot with good old guns. That said they’ve made quite an effort to vary up what you’ll be facing and what you’ll be using to take them down. In the first game the Taken pretty much came in two flavours, regular jackoff and speedy bastard; in this game they’ve added a few new classes of enemies most of which require tactics other than the standard “flashlight then two shots” combo. To complement this they give Alan some better hardware such as an SMG, Nailgun, and even a Combat Shotgun. The best part is Alan himself is slightly improved over his earlier incarnation. All this dealing with the Darkness has him handling his weapons better and reloading faster, it’s also obvious this has been keeping him fit as he can now run for more than 5 seconds before needing to stop to grab his knees and breath. Really the only thing missing from this game is the insane amount of collectibles the first game had and honestly that might be for the best. There are of course still the manuscript pages which provide back story and are the measure for weapon unlocks, the radio shows are still around providing a window into the goings-on of the first game’s supporting cast, and TVs exist as well which show FMV cutscenes of Mr. Scratch taunting Wake. What’s missing is the bevy of thermoses, standees, can pyramids, rusty bottles caps, loose gum, pocket lint, and Jiggies from the first game. In all seriousness though for as much as I love collectibles having it constrained to stuff that is purely useful or insightful does help things out quite a bit.
I absolutely loved the first Alan Wake as it was smart, creative, incredibly fun, and very atmospheric; I had high hopes this game would live up to that experience and thankfully it did. While the story mode is a hair short at only 4 hours or so it’s a damn good 4 hours and once you’re done there’s a wave based survival mode to play with that while not super original is fun to screw around in. This is a must buy for any fan of the first game because while this game doesn’t seems to effect the greater Alan Wake universe it does deepen Alan Wake as a character and helps flesh out the rules of his universe. It may just be because I love the Twilight Zone or it may be because I love games set in the American Southwest but this game struck a chord with me and I’m happy to give Alan Wake’s America Nightmare a 5 out 5 stars.