Alan Wake, 2010’s long in development survival horror experience from Remedy Entertainment, arrived on the Xbox 360 without the epic reception many had hoped it would get. Not to say it was not loved - far from it, as critics raved over both the narrative and the pacing - but it didn’t garner the wide-spread consumer acclaim one would hope that a game that took over five years to make would get. Of course, it didn’t help that it launched right next to Rockstar’s Wild West behemoth, Red Dead Redemption. Nevertheless, there is a solid fan base for the popular novelist and his dark journey (one that includes myself), so Remedy has brought him back for a new adventure, though this time, it bypasses retail shelves, coming by way of Microsoft’s digital platform, Xbox LIVE Arcade.
Mr Wake has returned to once again share some of his splintered psyche with you. Regardless of what you got out of his last battle against the darkness, there’s one thing that’s clear: Delving into the dark recesses of one’s mind can take a toll on you. Whether the events in Bright Falls were indeed real, or just a manifestation of Wake’s troubled subconscious, it did have one positive effect: Preparation. While the big bad from the last game remained as a vague ‘Dark Presence’, here it is filed into a more specific manifestation as Mr. Scratch, a sort of twisted version of Wake himself. Wake’s sling shot into superstardom was difficult for him to adjust to, sending him spiraling into a hard partying parody of who he actually is, simply as a means to cope with the demands fame thrust upon him. Mr. Scratch is “that guy”. Carefree, brutal, and downright mean with an overwhelming desire to see Wake defeated.
Keep in mind that American Nightmare, while it does take place following the events of Bright Falls, is not a direct sequel. Set as a stand-alone adventure, and told as an episode of the Twilight Zone-esque Night Falls television series we saw in the last game, it tells a tale of that may or may not be the residual effect of his previous battle against the Dark, as well as fleshing out his character and history a bit more. As the game unfolds, players have to decide if this is truly the return of the Dark Presence, or just a figment of Wake’s troubled mind. However, since Wake has faced the Darkness before, he’s not the naive lost puppy he was the last go round. He knows how to handle this. And handle it he will, tracking Mr. Scratch across a sparsely populated area of the Arizonan desert, shining his light in every dim corner and crevasse until his ultimate showdown with the evil doppelganger.
"If this is the kind of improvements to the series that we can expect out of Remedy, then you can count me as waiting on baited breath for the next episode."
If you have played Alan Wake, then you’ll feel right at home here. The gameplay is almost identical, enhanced only by some streamlining design choices. The unique narrative method, the manuscripts, et al, are back, although the mission structure is much more straight forward. Go to point A, explore, kill baddies, then move on to the next mission objective. The Taken will meld out from the Darkness that plagues the area, and Alan will once again have to brighten their day before dispatching them. New flavors of Taken have been added, including a duplicitous one...and I mean that quite literally, as it will split into two the moment Wake shines his flashlight on it. New baddies spice up the established formula, but Alan does his part too. He feels a lot more nimble this time around, complimenting the overall quicker pace that Remedy has set here. On top of his improved mobility, he has plenty of weapons to choose from, each offering varying degrees of damage and reload times. Shotguns, rifles, pistols, flares, and even a nail gun, Wake is well prepared to kick some serious Taken fanny. Also in keeping with the higher, more action-focused pace is how health and ammo is handled. Alan still needs to manage it while he’s out and about, but most “safe” areas have a replenishing supply, and heath is an instant refill when stepping into the range of a streetlight. The mini-map makes finding ammo, health, and even important items (such as manuscript pages) much, much easier.
If the game feels very much like its retail cousin in terms of gameplay, it is pushed even further by its its look and sound, with some being even better and other aspects...well, let’s just say it’s a little off. Remedy’s stated B-movie inspiration shines through, with plenty of creepy places to explore. Deserted roads, aloof settlements with nary a live presence to be found, abandoned vehicles, and of course the dark fog that permeates the landscape all add to the disturbing ambiance, yet still maintain a firm sense of realism, making figuring out if this is real or in Alan’s head that much more difficult. The narrative side of the audio work stands out just as strongly, and in a lot of cases outshines its predecessor. The voice work while narrating the manuscript pages comes in just as solid as before, but the interaction between Mr. Scratch and Mr. Wake is nothing short of fantastic. Seeing both personalities of the same character go back and forth, with each being so dramatically different from the other, is one of the most entertaining aspects of the entire package. Unfortunately, some of the other dialog isn’t so hot. A lot of the interaction between different characters came off as if we are the audience walking into the middle of a conversation already in progress, rather than stepping into the role of Wake himself. It was a little weird and disjointed at times. Though that’s just a spec on the nearly immaculate audio landscape that American Nightmare provides.
To extend the lifecycle of American Nightmare, Remedy tossed in an Arcade mode, which amounts to the typical timed survival modes we find in a lot of games these days. It’s actually quite fun and challenging, though it’s unfortunate that it’s a solo affair. The mode could have really been a lot more than it is had some form of co-op been added to the mix. Even still, the Arcade mode does add a little something, especially of you enjoy the combative side of the game.
American Nightmare may not be a true sequel, but it is something that Alan Wake fans shouldn’t miss. The stellar narrative, a more streamlined and action-focused structure, better pacing, and more peeks into Wake’s subconscious make it a fine addition to the franchise. Those who disliked the first game may not find their minds changed much here, but anyone who enjoyed Wake’s struggle with the Dark Presence needs to see how this tale shakes out. If this is the kind of improvements to the series that we can expect out of Remedy, then you can count me as waiting on baited breath for the next episode.
Release date : 2012-02-22
Publisher : Microsoft
Developer : Remedy Entertainment Ltd.
Gameplay : Survival Horror
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