Alan Wake’s nightmare began when, at his wife’s behest, he accepted a holiday in an isolated mountain resort, the idyllically named Bright Falls, without being aware of the heavy price he would have to pay. It seems that the local Lake Cauldron is haunted by something Alan calls “a dark presence”, a demonic entity/consciousness, never truly explained, capable of possessing humans or objects and manipulating time and space.
At the conclusion of the previous game, Alan had managed to partially defeat this demon, but still ended up being thrown into a parallel dimension. Two years have now passed (in the story) and Alan is declared missing, even dead by Alice, his wife, even though he is actually trapped in an episode of Night Springs (a blend of Twin Peaks, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and similar titles), a fictitious TV series in the game’s world, for which Alan was a screenwriter for a while in his youth.
The problem gets considerably bigger because in the real world (as much as we can call it that after all that happened the first time), an evil “clone” has appeared – Mr. Scratch – an Alan that is extremely libertine and has the courage to be “all that Alan never dared” and “all that tabloids have ever made up about him”. But this doppelganger is not a writer, but a profiteering murderer who intends to bust in Alice’s life with an equally dark final purpose. Why he hasn’t done it until now, no one explains.
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And so, Alan is now somewhere in the desert of Arizona, under a superb starry sky, in a perpetual night. On one side, the moon is blocked in the same position while at the opposite horizon you can see the timid sunrise incapable of advancing. The ambiance is immediately more attracting than in the predecessor, where although the atmosphere was equally great, you were always feeling closed in because of the dark and foreboding forests. If Bright Falls was mainly cornered by mountains, here, under the clear desert sky, everything seems more open and breathable, even relaxed.
And with this I can again complain about something on which I insisted enough the first time: the illusion of freedom with which the game lures you in at the start. The first place where Alan wakes up is the vicinity of an isolated motel in the desert, a pretty big area marked by a few building and various objects.
Once you get to the motel, the first major objective is divided in three smaller ones which you can complete in whatever order you desire, but this freedom won’t carry on further. As soon as you are done with this section, the game comes back to its predecessor’s model, where you need to walk on a very direct path from place to place to collect or activate an object.
And from here onward all the objectives are delivered in this boring way. Most of the time you are tasked with walking a certain distance until a checkpoint where something must be procured or activated, an action that is almost universally followed by the arrival of a group of Taken. You must then return from where you left to further activate something else or talk with the only character that populates the zone.
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After the isolated motel, Alan makes it, one after another, to an observatory and to an outdoor cinema. They are each visited three times, because Alan needs to prepare in each of them a scene conforming to a script page, an action that will eventually lead to him escaping from the dimension he’s caught in. But the repetition of events is apparently necessary because Mr. Scratch continuously seems to spoil his plans.
The first has the most spectacular ending, but exactly as in the sections seen at the ending of each episode in the original, I can’t say that it truly connects with what the game delivered until then. Don’t get me wrong, Club Foot fits like a glove to the stuff that’s happening, but the fact that said scene is repeated three times without any variation doesn’t do anything for the gameplay.
A good occasion for increasing diversity has also been missed in the construction of these mini-puzzles. All that must be done is to activate some objects until they are in the position or the state needed by the script, with nothing left for the true contribution of the player who is guiding Alan. And the few possibilities of exploration are also eliminated by the fact that absolutely everything (objects and necessary locations) are marked on the map.
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The story is the same mix of parapsychology, supernatural and metaphysics in which you can leave whatever gaps you want that can be filled with pretty much any “solution” is at hand. Fortunately, the presentation is again at the level of the predecessor and manages to partially sweeten the extremely repetitive nature of the gameplay.
On TV you don’t find episodes of Night Springs anymore (well, you are in one already) but recordings of Mr. Scratch in which, most of the time, he kills someone while verbally defying Alan. The recordings could partially be called campy, but are indeed very atmospheric and among some of the best efforts of the Alan Wake presentation.
Each of the three main zones has a woman as a tenant. Maybe each of them is a metaphor for something else or maybe not, what’s clear is that they add flavor to the locations, bringing them a tangible air of real space, habitable… as much as we can talk about it in Alan’s world.
So as not to intervene too much in the gameplay’s fluidity (as much or less as it is) you can choose how much you talk to them, although I recommend the few necessary minutes for this pause. Some very interesting considerations about destiny and free will are made and I’m really curious to know how many of the ones that defend this series at any cost could say they have ever benefited intellectually from Alan Wake’s dialogues and monologues.
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The truth is the game has a lot to thank to its presentation and atmosphere, because without them the present form of the interactive parts could not really save much. The fact that you constantly feel in a nightmare that’s about to explode, that Alan’s universe seems to hide ancient and eternal secrets and that the three women are not very sure – just like us – what to think about their world and about Alan’s explanations, enriches the game with a very unique character, thanks to which I understand why some can be so indulgent with the heavy lack of the gameplay’s variation.
The mechanics of the action scenes didn’t get any essential upgrade. Yes, the arsenal is slightly bigger with an SMG, a crossbow and a few other weapons, but we got nothing that will modify or enrich in any amount the few tactics necessary for confrontations. Even worse, a variation of using the light that had been introduced in the first two DLCs has been eliminated. Although some new types of enemies are present, they change absolutely nothing about the way fights are carried.
But in the context of the Alan Wake approach, these are minor problems that can be partially forgiven, because American Nightmare is here mostly to connect the original’s narrative with that of the sequel instead of truly changing something. It is indeed short – about four hours – but for an expand-alone, the length is somewhat standard.
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For those who want to remain in Alan’s company after escaping from the main storyline, there is the newly introduced Arcade mode. Here, through the duration of five completely new levels, you must survive for 10 minutes until sunrise.
Initially, the fact that the Arcade sessions can be so addictive seemed inexplicable, taking into account how much I’ve criticized the gameplay’s lack of diversity, but the truth is that no matter how much you have to do as Alan’s puppeteer, the mechanics are solid (this would have been the last straw seeing as how “diverse” they are) and Alan responds to commands with an eagerness that deserves applause. Some multiplayer would have done only good in Arcade, but as it is, in the run for points and stars, the five new levels can easily occupy at least one hour of shooting action.
One of most spread and clichéd questions about a sequel is if it can be understood without playing its preceding parts. No matter if you supported Alan the first time or not, American Nightmare is a good start as any, because its interactive sections are exactly the same and the story won’t spoil any surprise after the first iteration.
And the current episode might actually be the better choice, since it is isolated from the series’ origins and has a character that differentiates it enough from the preceding eight. I consider it to be at least at the same level as the fourth episode, the best one yet from my perspective.
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On one of the pages written by him and spread, as before, all over the place, Alan notes approximately: „Flashlight and gun. Sometimes it feels that’s all I have left.” At first sight, American Nightmare could be a different Alan Wake, a bit more open, somewhat more colorful, allowing a bit more time for accommodation and attachment to its characters, correcting at least a part of the original’s shortcomings.
But just as its predecessor, it remains a game sentenced to struggle on the line between interaction and presentation, a space where compromises must be made by at least one of the sides, with the game proper still taking the larger hit. Because when it comes to its interaction degree, Alan Wake really doesn’t have much more than a flashlight, a gun and, occasionally, a flashbang.
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