The Signal left Alan Wake in a strange place. On one hand our writer seemed eager to indulge in his next piece, Return, and further unravel the narrative threads left dangling throughout Alan Wake proper. In the real world, and for clarification's sake I mean the physical world you and I exist in, the developers at Remedy seemed vaguely non committal in regard to any sort of sequel. Enter Alan Wake's American Nightmare, a downloadable departure that leans more toward an X-Files "Monster of the Week" installment rather than Alan Wake's Twin Peaks-inspired episodes. On one hand the focus provided by a smaller scope stood to greatly benefit Alan Wake's manic narrative, on the other Xbox Live Arcade isn't a space traditionally associated with production value of Alan Wake's surreal caliber.
American Nightmare operates under the ambiguous principle of Alan getting stuck inside an episode of Night Springs, the creepy Twilight Zone homage featured on televisions throughout Alan Wake. How exactly he got there, other than Remedy perhaps thought of it as a great vehicle for a smaller self contained episode, is deliberately unclear. Further clarification can be attainted through finding manuscript pages throughout the course of your adventure, but even they seem to be holding back the sensational details. As Alan says at one point in American Nightmare, "what you write isn’t as important as what you imply," and as part of a culture obsessed with explaining every last detail, I was totally fine with hints and allusions, regardless of how unsatisfying some may find a deliberate lack of clarification.
That's not to say American Nightmare is vacant or modest, as it actually layers a fairly heavy narrative on top of Alan's actions. Mr. Scratch, Alan's nefarious doppelganger, is wreaking havoc in the nondescript Arizonian wilderness. All the narrative flourishes from Alan Wake, such as terrorizing television shorts and pulpy radio clips, return, as do the pages and pages of Alan's manuscript scattered throughout the landscape. Thankfully Remedy dropped distracting collectable thermoses and other advertised nonsense, keeping American Wasteland free of miserable distractions.
The heart of American Nightmare's plot is difficult to discuss. Revealing its overall purpose and point would completely spoil a reveal I thought was supremely well placed and perfectly timed. It would destroy a revelation I intimately suspected but shelved in the back of my mind due to my preconceptions of the scale and scope of downloadable titles.* Remedy actually manages to play with their environments in a very clever way, and forces American Nightmare down a path that might initially seem disappointing had Remedy not kept close attention to subtle deviations. Again, sorry for the vague references but know that American Wasteland's three seemingly limited environments are keeping a clever surprise under wraps.
The puzzles Alan needs to solve on the way there felt a bit underwhelming. Contextually they're pretty solid; by looking at a page from his manuscript, Alan needs to change a few variables around in his environment to correspond with that specific page. It's a great idea, but also damaged by being entirely straightforward. Every object you need to manipulate is marked clearly on a map, leaving little doubt as to what the player needs to do. This approach certainly makes the game more accessible and easy, but it comes at the cost of what could have been a really cool, thoughtful idea. It's unfortunate that Remedy didn't have the confidence to leave a bit of nuance to their puzzles, especially when the ultimate revelation is revealed in a "oh, just one more thing” manner.
Combat retains its frantic nature. Alan's Wake particular brand of third person action required Alan to shine a flashlight at an enemy before they could be "broken" and harmed with traditional firearms. American Nightmare retains this concept and adds another layer via some cool new weapons. The most viable of which is the sort of hilarious nail gun which basically functions as an SMG, but other new stuff like an assault rifle and combat shotgun can be unlocked via collecting manuscript pages. Stations to replenish Alan's ammo and flashlight batteries are all over the place, which sort of dilutes the need to apply skilled aim at Alan's aggressors but simultaneously encourages bits of experimentation with its increased weapon count.
New Taken populate American Nightmare. Alan will meet one who divides and then divides again before bullets can bring him down. Another disappears into a flock of birds, and one particularly threatening eight foot monster required an entire 30 clip from my nail gun. What I loved about Alan Wake's combat, and what really set it aside from its peers, was how well it manages gunplay in a completely open environment. Cover is relatively pointless, and the lack of any good place to hide meant there was always the possibility of someone sneaking up from behind. Breaking guys in front of you with the flashlight before turning around headfirst into another one only to dodge at the last possible moment, drop of a flare, and unload on all parties can be incredibly satisfying - and American Nightmare seems eager to please in creating this sort of tension. Alan Wake overdid these encounters and eventually pushed me into running from everything, and while American Nightmare seemed destined to go down that same path its protracted length did well to keep it in check.
American Nightmare also looks and sounds above its class. The motel, the observatory, and the drive in are geographically limited but loaded with detail. I didn't notice the pool in the back of the motel area until my second run, and the observatory's winding paths aren't revealed until you're forced to dodge its environmental disasters. Alan Wake also had a clever relationship with its licensed music, and while I could have done with a little less Kasabian, American Nightmare's other couple of tunes are employed with fantastic context. As one might expect from Remedy American Nightmare is extensively voiced and while it’s still not clear if the writing is intended to be hack-ish, it’s entertaining all the same.
There's also a hoard/survival mode, of sorts. Dubbed Arcade Action, it inserts Alan into five closed, though usually large, maps and tosses waves upon waves of Taken at him until the time limit ends and the sun comes up. Is it derivative? You bet, but taking lit safe zones, weapon pickups, stunted ammo boxes, and progressively challenging waves into account, it all works surprisingly well. Ascending the leaderboards isn't a stress I am personally interested in undertaking beyond the purposes of this review, but such hooks are in place should the player so desire. On its own for $5 or $10 Arcade Action might not stand up to similar modes in retail peers, but as an alternative mode attached to a 5-6 hour standalone narrative, well, it looks pretty good.
*edit: though after reading other reviews it appears other writers certainly didn’t feel this way!