A Paladin’s Review: Alan Wake’s American Nightmare. Budgeted Mediocre Action Schlock Which Is Missing That Extra Something.

The Semi-Sequel to the original.

The Semi-Sequel gets its review.

Can I say that this was a nightmare to review? Eh, not really.

The proper review of American Nightmare in all of its glory. By the way, I really like saying schlock. So, I may or may not have used that word more than I should have in this review. Ah well, a reviewer has to have his fun. Mwhahaha. I hope you guys enjoyed this double review weekend because it probably won’t happen again. (I say before I go and do it anyway). It was fun to come back and do this series over. I’m really happy with how it turned out.

A Paladin’s Review: Alan Wake’s American Nightmare. Budgeted Mediocre Action Schlock Which Is Missing That Extra Something.

  • Genre: Third Person Psychological Horror Thriller Shooter.
  • Developed and Published by: Remedy Entertainment (on PC).
  • Platforms: Windows, Xbox 360.
  • Business Model: Base Game
  • Copy purchased by myself in a Humble Bundle

Read and rate the review on Steam.

Read my review of Alan Wake.

Some rather interesting references there....

Some rather interesting references there….

Preamble
I had originally played American Nightmare after having finished Alan Wake in May of 2013. However, I was getting pretty tired of the combat system and seeing it repeated without a lot of variety didn’t do much for me at the time. The story’s changed tone didn’t help either. Back then, all I had finished was the first cycle of levels and decided to quit it early. I did review both Alan Wake and American Nightmare then too, where I slamming AN for being a subpar experience. It’s a mistake I’m not proud of but I’m glad to correct it now. So, I’ve completed this nightmare and have my complete thoughts on it. Admittedly, the same issues I had with it back then haven’t changed much. Except for the combat I suppose. This is another review where you have to ignore the Steam rating and read the words to find out my overall feelings for it.

Overall Gameplay Thoughts

Alan Wake: American Nightmare is the semi-sequel standalone that Remedy published several years after the release of the original Alan Wake. Released after they stopped working on Alan Wake 2, AN was meant to take the ideas and setting that they had crafted for a demo of AW2 and publish something out of it. When it had become clear to Remedy that the time wasn’t right for a sequel, American Nightmare was created instead while the studio went to its other announced projects. Is this the last word for the Alan Wake series? That seems to be the indication so far but it’s entirely possible that Remedy could return to the series. I hope they do because this nightmare ends the series on a rather sour note.

American Nightmare plays out like a schlocky episode of the Twilight Zone. Alan Wake is fighting against a new threat from the darkness, Mr. Scratch who looks and sounds like him. Alan finds himself in Spring Falls (AZ) where things don’t seem quite right, he’s being unusually stalwart and the Scratch is over-the-top silly. There’s also this constant narration from a guy that sounds like the narrator from the Twilight Zone who uses the pronoun game way too much. Alan has to figure out what’s going on in order to defeat the trap set by Mr. Scratch.

Pretty sure this isn't how electricity works.

Pretty sure this isn’t how electricity works.

Combat Mechanics and the Psychological Tension

American Nightmare lacks a lot of what made the game so tense and didn’t replace it with anything outside of a wider variety of weapons and enemies. Gone are the claustrophobic battles and limited ammunition. Ammo can be found all over these new wide-open spaces. Alan has clearly embraced his role as a warrior of light and I’m ok with that. However, the side effect of this embracing is that the tension of the previous game has been largely muted and it plays out like a fairly standard third person shooter. The major change to combat is the new weapons you can use. Assault rifles, combat shotguns, SMGs and hunting bows just to name a few. They work and sound reasonably good, if a little uninspired. They don’t really add anything to change the combat which is a little disappointing. I mean, we’re talking about a battle between light and darkness. I would have loved to see weapons that could use light or change the battlefield in some way. Instead, light weapons are still the flares, flaregun and flashbang grenades as before. The same tactic of shining a light on the taken till the darkness is gone and opening fire remains. A slightly strange change to the mechanics is that simply shining an unfocused flashlight on taken doesn’t peel away the darkness like it did before. You have to focus the flashlight on each and every one of them. This doesn’t really change the tempo of combat all that much but I felt it was worth noting.

I'm pretty sure the flares are much more blinding in this game.

I’m pretty sure the flares are much more blinding in this game.

There are some new types of Taken in American Nightmare. Flock of birds no longer directly attack you but instead transform in and out of humanoid shape to attack you, requiring you to quickly gun them down when they’re humanoid. I’m not really convinced that was a change for the better. One new type called the splitter will split apart into two enemies (up to six if I recall correctly) when the light is focused on them directly. It’s an interesting idea but the immediate counter is to simply open fire without focusing the flashlight when you see one of them and they die pretty quickly. Then there’s the giant lumbering taken that wield a chainsaw, who would be far more intimidating a creature to face if the battles didn’t take place in big open arenas. As it is, they’re mostly just annoying bullet sponges. The final new type of taken are grenadiers who throw little spheres of darkness at Alan that do explosive damage. They’re easy to dodge as the grenades make a lot of noise and taking one is far from fatal. Their aim isn’t too bad either but they’re easy to gun down when you have an assault rifle equipped. At the end of the day, the new taken are certainly fresh to fight the first couple of times but are far too easy to counter. I also can’t help but think that the AI isn’t as good as the previous entry’s AI. Their sense of preservation seems to be less than before and the ability to easily spot them on these open arenas makes them easy targets.

Repeating Thyself Three Times Over

To say nothing about the game repeating itself three times. There are three areas that Alan Wake has to traverse in order to complete his objectives. A truck stop, an observatory on a mountain and a drive-in movie theater. After you complete the drive-in movie theater, the game goes back to the beginning of the truck stop level and has you do it all over again. I don’t think I need to explain why that doesn’t work in a narrative title like Alan Wake. The explanation of this being a time trap is a poor excuse for its current implementation. Playing through the same cutscenes, the nearly same conversations with bland characters and fighting the same enemies over and over doesn’t work. This sort of thing does happen in time-travel stories but it’s usually smartly implemented. Here, it smells of laziness and of cutting corners. This is perhaps the biggest failing of American Nightmare and is one of the main reasons it got a lot of criticism. I would definitely recommend to future developers to avoid this type of implementation in the future unless you plan to put a lot of thought into it.

The only memorable traits about here (and memorable is a giant stretch) is her accent and cleavage.

The only memorable traits about her (and memorable is a giant stretch) is her accent.

The Schlocky Story

The story plays out after the events of Alan Wake. Alan finds himself in the town of Bright Falls, AZ, in a world where his writing has power. He finds himself fighting against his evil counterpart: Mr Scratch. Who looks and sounds exactly like him except that he’s evil. Mr Scratch has trapped Alan in a time loop with the intent of wearing him down and eventually defeating him. Thereby allowing Mr Scratch to take over his life in the real world. Worse, Alan lost some of his memories and the key to defeating Mr Scratch once and for all. Alan must survive in the trap long enough to piece together a message he sent to himself that will allow him to set a deadly trap for Mr Scratch instead. Which the trap is killing him at a movie theater when the right conditions are met. Once that’s done, Alan apparently is reunited with his wife, Alice Wake. Where the two share a hug and kiss and the story ends. It’s actually kind of anticlimactic.

If only the writing wasn’t so corny. A lot of the writing and acting just sounds so corny or half-hearted. Like the actors couldn’t be bothered to really try. All you ever get is interactions between Alan Wake and three women on three different levels who we come across and are supposed to care about. I think. One’s a mechanic, another a scientist and the third is an event organizer. That’s really all the character insight you’ll get into them and that’s all the writing seems to care about. Alan himself is more mystifying. In the previous game, Alan had a lot of personal agency and stake in the events going on around him. Here, it feels like the complete opposite. He’ll occasionally talk, mostly with the women he meets. But when it comes to Mr. Scratch or the weirdness going on around him, he’s as flat as a stone. While he does talk about his wife in this game, mostly through narrating over his written notes, if you hadn’t played the original Wake you wouldn’t realize just how important Alice is to Alan. That final epic conclusion falls flat. Which then leads to my bigger problem with the narrative.  

Mr. Scratch is a complete waste of potential. The interactions between him and Wake are one-way. Scratch talks to Wake via cutscenes played through television sets where he prances about and talks about how evil/psychotic he is. But you don’t see it playing out in the game world. Everything is conducted in silly, over-the-top cutscenes where you’re more likely to laugh at his antics than feel terror or disgust. After all, him killing some random stranger(s) is not likely to gain a reaction from the player when all they are is pixels. For such an “evil” guy, his actions and purpose are often confusing. He’ll kill the first woman you meet but only after she’s helped you out and is only planning on leaving the town. The second one is left alive and is actually the person he should have killed because she’ll eventually lead to his downfall. Instead, he has the perfect chance to kill her and nothing happens. By the time he gets around to it, Wake is already there. The third one is left alive but is controlled by the darkness. However, all she seems to do is try and seduce Alan Wake. Who has no interest in her whatsoever. It’s an utterly confusing set of ideas that make no narrative sense. It just makes Mr. Scratch seem like more of a silly moron than a threat worth being concerned about. Especially when all he does is go on and on about how “miserable” he is and how he wishes Wake would just fall over and die. Wake on the other hand does nothing but watch silently, unemotionally. As if Scratch couldn’t matter in the least.

Speaking of which, Alan Wake acts passively most of the time. Things just happen to him and he doesn’t seem to react. He only really converses with the player, and blandly talks to the women in the game. He never really gets emotionally invested and I don’t think that’s intentional, I think that’s lazy writing. He’s so zen it’s almost inhuman. Even when his wife is threatened by Mr. Scratch he doesn’t react. Which was, as I understood things, one of the main reasons he’s doing any of what he’s doing right now instead of giving up. It’s so very odd to see Alan like this after the original title.
Really, It’s a complete mishandling of both characters and a loss of potential for what could have been a very interesting conflict between the two. I think if this game had been given the full treatment, Mr. Scratch would have been a lot more intriguing a bad guy to fight against. Instead, this semi-sequel squanders that chance and we’re given very little to work with.

I'm sure the actor was having fun being this "evil" but for the rest of us, it was a bore.

I’m sure the actor was having fun being this “evil” but for the rest of us, it was a bore.

Arcade Action Mode
Almost as a side note, AN includes an action arcade mode that you can play. The gist is simple: survive waves of enemies for 10 minutes while racking up as high a score as possible. It’s one of the most boring modes I’ve had the displeasure of playing too. How bad is it? Everyone on my Steam friend list that played the first level didn’t play any of the subsequent levels. Heck, I barely wanted to play any more of it after the first level. I think the main reason it fails to impress is that there isn’t anything to differentiate it from the story campaign. It plays a lot like being in the story but without the benefits of meaningful progress or plot. There isn’t any side-objectives or different enemy types either. It’s all about surviving wave after boring wave of enemies that ramp up like they did in the story. I’m not even sure why it was made other than it could be. You can definitely skip this by.

PC Settings
American Nightmare’s PC settings menu is the exact same in breadth of options and setup as Alan Wake. The only difference I could find is that you can turn blur on/off. So, I’m just going to quote myself from my Alan Wake review. AN is very well optimized and comes with a plethora of PC options that belies its console origins. It comes with all expected resolution options, fullscreen on/off, Vsync on/off and HUD enabled/disabled. Advanced graphics options include: antialiasing up to 8x (which seems to be MSAA) and FXAA off/low/high quality. That seems a little bit odd that FXAA and MSAA could be mixed but they can be. Anisotropic filtering goes to 16x, shadow quality low/med/high, SSAO quality low/high, godray quality off/high, volumetric light quality low/high and finally backdrop quality low/medium/high. You can also adjust the level of detail, draw and grass distance with sliders that don’t quantify what you’re adjusting but at least you have them. There is a field of view slider (in the controls section of the settings menu oddly enough) but it also doesn’t quantify what you’re adjusting. According to PCGamingWiki, they make recommendations on what your value should be for your particular resolution. Still, there should have been an in-game number to tell you what it did. All of the keyboard keys can be rebound while the controller only offers an alternative control scheme. Finally, there are four separate audio sliders for music, sound effects, speech and cinematic volume. All in all, outside of AW missing some in-game explanations for what everything does, the PC settings menu is very well done.

All of the above being said, there are some real glaring texture quality problems throughout American Nightmare.

All of the above being said, there are some real glaring texture quality problems throughout American Nightmare.

Alan Wake goes for a fairly realistic style that’s less punctuated with the bright lights and dark shadows of the previous title. However, instead of animated in-game cutscenes that the original title did, they go with live-action cutscenes every time Alan Wake and Mr. Scratch “interact”. It’s weird to see it used and I’m not convinced it works. I’m also not convinced by the setting of Arizona’s desert, as it feels way too bare in contrast to the Pacific Northwest’s forested and hilly areas. Side note, there are some awkward animations with facial expressions and body movement that’s bizarre to watch when the characters converse. It’s not enough to ruin the experience but it looks really dated by current standards.

Soundtrack
Even though the production quality is nearly the same, the soundtrack has much less impact than the original game. It just sounds so generic but I can’t place why that is. That said, a number of tracks in the OST are from the band Poets of the Fall. Several of the tracks are from previous albums with one original single created for the game called Balance Slays the Demon. Which happens to be one of my favorite videogame-related tracks as well. You can find it on Google Play, iTunes, Amazon as well as other music stores. It’s worth picking up if you like that genre of rock music.

Just dancing his cares away apparently.

Just dancing his cares away apparently.

Final Thoughts
American Nightmare has some serious problems that seem to stem from its limited budget. It’s missing a lot of what made Alan Wake a good experience, that underlying current of tension is all but gone. The story, writing and acting is schlocky as hell. What some of the characters say sounds weird and Alan Wake seems to be indifferent to most of what’s going on around him. Furthermore, Mr. Scratch fails to be an interesting villain, feeling like a side character most of the time. Probably the most egregious issue is the game making the player repeat the same levels three times. While they don’t have you repeat the exact same dialogues and actions, the repetition is still there and it isn’t interesting. Combat does get some changes but most of it is the inclusion of high powered weapons. Otherwise, fights are mostly set in big open areas where enemies can be seen for miles. It loses the tension fights had in AW and settles for a mostly mediocre third person shooter. Should you pick it up? I can’t decide. There’s nothing actually wrong with AN from a story or game mechanics perspective, it’s just not as good as Alan Wake. There are better titles out there worth checking out in comparison. So, my suggestion would be to think on what I’ve said and see if the change in tone is worth checking out or not.

Thanks for reading!

-KingIsaacLinksr

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