Alan Wake's American Nightmare review: Paging Mr. Scratch

"Our destinies and inspirations are shaped by lies, myths and fables." So reads a manuscript page hidden in Alan Wake's American Nightmare, explaining humanity's love of a good story. It states that our favorite fictional characters are dearer to us than the real people we pass on the street every day.

It's hard to deny the truth of it. We admire our favorite characters, dream of them, of playing a part in their story. That was the power of the original Alan Wake. It swept players up in its characters and their story, inviting us to help craft it and see it through to the end. American Nightmare attempts to recapture the same magic, flipping the script for something less horror and more sci-fi camp, though the end result is somewhat less elegant.
%Gallery-146594% American Nightmare finds author Alan Wake still trapped in the Dark Place, feverishly searching for a way out and constantly bedeviled by his maniacal doppelganger, Mr. Scratch. In order to escape the Dark Place and put an end to Mr. Scratch, Alan must once again write a new story, reshaping reality to his own ends.

Confused? If so, there's a good chance you haven't played the original Alan Wake. Even if you have played the original, you may find yourself revisiting it and its subsequent DLC episodes just to remember what happened. Despite developer Remedy's assertion that American Nightmare is a standalone episode, it is essentially a direct sequel to Alan Wake's final DLC chapter, "The Writer." That's by no means a bad thing, but newcomers will have to wrap their brains around a few things to fully appreciate what's going on. A "previously on" feature would have gone a long way to remedy this, but it's surprisingly absent (despite such features appearing in both Alan Wake and its DLC).

Mechanically, American Nightmare feels right at home. Alan awakes in a small town in Arizona, a place that is simultaneously real and fictional, the setting for an episode of Night Springs, a sci-fi television series Alan once wrote for. In this place caught between reality and fiction, Alan jogs his jumbled memory by collecting manuscript pages detailing his own story. By following his own fiction, by arranging the details properly, he can rewrite reality and, ultimately, defeat Mr. Scratch.

As Alan hunts for his new truth, he is once again dogged by the Taken, former human beings enveloped and twisted by darkness. Only a light source -- usually Alan's trusty flashlight -- can burn away the darkness and render a Taken vulnerable to firearms. There are some new weapons this time around, many of which have to be unlocked by collecting manuscript pages, but for the most part combat remains unchanged from Alan's previous adventure.

Between bouts with the Taken, Alan plays a game of catch-up with Mr. Scratch. He crosses paths with the same characters and encounters depraved television recordings left behind by his evil twin -- live action videos of Mr. Scratch torturing hapless victims and laying out his murderous plans for Alan's friends and his wife, Alice. Along with the videos, there are several radio transmissions to find, each giving Alan a chance to find out how his loved ones have fared since his disappearance. I have to admit, it was nice to hear the voice of Alan's onetime agent, Barry Wheeler, again.


That brings me to the narrative. Given the original Alan Wake's emphasis on strong characters and plot, American Nightmare falters a bit in both categories. Alan's encounters with other characters -- three beautiful, nearly interchangeable women -- are fairly static, stifled and heavy on exposition. Alan Wake rather famously begins by stating that there is "little fun to be had in explanations," that the thrill of a good story is in seeking answers, not in finding them. American Nightmare, on the other hand, is bulging with explanations, doling out details on exactly what's happening and why. Some explanation is probably necessary for those unfamiliar with the world of Alan Wake, but it's still heavy-handed at times. It's also worth noting that Alan will literally retread the same areas multiple times before the nightmare comes to an end. There's a narrative reason for it, but it may rankle some players.

To be fair, there are some genuinely thrilling moments to be had, some wonderful set pieces I'd rather not spoil. The story manages to come around in the end, even returning to the delicious, dangling questions we've come to expect. Oh, and the narrator, pulled straight out of The Twilight Zone, is just about perfect.

But that's only half of American Nightmare, leaving us with the new arcade mode. I'll admit I was skeptical when it was announced, but Alan Wake's combat mechanics make for a surprisingly addictive arcade experience, not unlike the Mercenaries mode in the Resident Evil series. As the ten minute round begins, players must scramble to acquire weapons as the Taken begin to spawn. Each map has predetermined items available, including basic weapons and more advanced firearms that require a certain number of manuscript pages to unlock. I strongly suggest playing through the campaign to unlock them, because you will need them.

While very few Taken spawn at first, each wave becomes larger and more difficult. Taken are much more aggressive than your typical survival mode fodder. Rest assured that, as soon as Alan draws a bead on an approaching Taken, there is another already circling around behind him. Surviving each level, never mind attaining a high score, is definitely a challenge. And, if you want a real challenge, each map has a "nightmare" variant, in which Taken no longer spawn in convenient waves. They're just always there, waiting for you to make one mistake, run out of ammo or flashlight batteries, bend down to pick up a life-saving flare.

Alan Wake's American Nightmare isn't perfect. As he writes his own escape from the Dark Place, the tale ironically lacks the narrative punch of his first trek into the shadows. Even so, it invites us back into Alan's world, takes us on a new adventure and sheds new light on his predicament. The writer is correct: we love our characters, and if you love Alan Wake, you really don't have a choice. You must survive his American Nightmare.


This review is based on review code of Alan Wake's American Nightmare, provided by Remedy.

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