Alan Wake's American Nightmare Review: What The Hell Is Going On?

Recently, a brand new mini Alan Wake Arcade game hit the Xbox entitled Alan Wake’s American Nightmare. I'm so used to only ever seeing games like Plants vs Zombies or Peggle on XBLA, that I was excited at the idea of a cheap ($15), quick, but substantial third person shooter to keep me occupied while waiting for the next great major release. I've never gone that in depth with the original Alan Wake, but figured that wouldn't really hinder my experience, right? Unfortunately, I was very wrong.

Alan Wake: American Nightmare is about, well, okay, how to begin. Alan Wake is a writer and he gets stuck in this show he works on, Night Springs , while his shadow self has taken over his real life. So he must find manuscript pages and rewrite reality, while stuck in a time loop, trying to get an accurate satellite read out, so he can play his wife's movie and…okay. There are these bad guys, the "Taken", surrounded by darkness, and you have to weaken them with light before shooting them. They are minions of your shadow self. And you keep encountering female allies who are affected by the darkness is some way and sometimes remember you and sometimes don't. Um. Okay. Oy. The whole thing seems to be in that kind of metaphysical/existential area, but without, well, without making a whole lot of sense. Look, let's just be honest here, I have no idea what the hell Alan Wake: American Nightmare is about, and I just played through and beat the whole thing. Who could have possibly come up with something this convoluted? Whatever. On to gameplay.

If you've played the original Alan Wake game, the mechanics here should be fairly familiar. You are armed with a flashlight that you need to use to burn away the darkness surrounding the Taken. Once you’ve done that, you can shoot them with a conventional weapon. You can hold up to 3 weapons, a flare gun, and two others of your choice that can be upgraded as the game progresses, and you also get to hold on to flares and flashbangs, to keep enemies away if you are being bombarded. You refill your health by standing in a pool of light, which are stationed in certain place in each level, and they each take a few minutes to return after you use them. For replenishing your ammo and batteries, there are a few ammo boxes in each level that follow the same regeneration rules. Aside from the light mechanics, you’re left with a pretty conventional shooter that occasionally forces you to run like a little girl.

There are three basic levels, the rest stop, the observatory, and the drive-in, and you go through them each three times. You're stuck in a time loop, and every time you return to the same location, you must accomplish the same tasks, except you have to face tougher enemies. Along the way, you pick up pages of a book that Wake wrote. These pages, along with the TVs and radios strewn throughout the world, are supposed to fill in the blanks in the story. They don’t really accomplish anything, though, because I still have no idea what the hell just happened and I gathered 51 of the 53 pages.

Even if the story’s a mess, the game smoothly guides you through the action. Although there is no automatic aim, hitting the left trigger to boost your flashlight helps direct you somewhat in the right direction of an enemy. The game always makes sure you are prepared for an enemy by either slowing down and pointing the camera towards the direction of the incoming Taken, or starting some fast paced scary music. When you aren't fighting the baddies, you are completing objectives, which you can find by heading towards the stars on your HUB. You know, the basics: grab this, bring it to this person, turn the lights on, get the keys, so on and so forth. Occasionally you have to match the scene at hand to something you've written, rewriting reality, because that does something – ugh, I'm frustrated just thinking about this story.

While the graphics, music, sound design and environment are extremely effective in world building, the world of Alan Wake: American Nightmare is not one I have any desire to visit ever again. Why would I want to be caught in an existential crisis fighting my shadow shelf in a dark, drab world, when I could be solving puzzles, cleaning up the streets of Gotham or defeating dragons? If I want my noir or horror fix, I'll find something a little more engaging. I'm just not sure who exactly the audience is for this other than fans of the original Alan Wake.

The most important aspect of any video game, obviously, is whether or not it is fun. And frankly, I didn't get a lot of joy out of this one. No matter how difficult or easy defeating opponents are, taking them out should at least be enjoyable. Here, it was annoying more than anything. It took me almost the entire game to get a handle on a rhythm of using the flashlight on one Taken at a time, then shooting them, to allow the flashlight to recharge on its own. But it didn't help matters that they kept seeming to defy the laws of physics. As soon as the scary music started and I saw the Taken heading for me, all of a sudden I would be getting hit from behind. Where did he come from? How did this lone Taken pop up right next to me, when I'm standing in a corner specifically to prevent such a thing from being possible? Plus, it's not very fun to have to play in the same three environments for an entire game, just going through slightly altered motions each time. It takes away a real sense of progress and makes the whole thing feel rather monotonous.

Now, all of this isn't to say the game is bad. It looks great, it handles well, and fans of Alan Wake and this kind of out-of-the-box storytelling are no doubt flipping for it, but for me, it is pretty much the opposite of everything I like. I want a cohesive story, characters I care about, innovative gameplay that excites me, manageable danger, and a world I crave going back to. None of this was at play here. But for fans of Alan Wake that have been dreaming of returning to that specific landscape, this is probably a dream come true.

A big positive from this in any event is the hope for the future of XBLA games. Though I didn't particularly enjoy this one, it was a comprehensive gaming experience, a solid six hours, with some Arcade levels to keep you going if you actually find yourself liking the combat. If a game like this was developed for a title I loved and felt a connection to, I would buy it a heartbeat. It shows a commitment and faith in the XBLA brand, and that I can totally get behind.

Players: 1

Platform(s): Xbox 360

Developer: Remedy Entertainment

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios

ESRB: Teen