You can read this review in full in our print edition.
Our April issue, which is on sale March 14, features a Post Script interview with head of franchise development Oskari Häkkinen on the challenge of squeezing big-budget production values into XBLA file sizes and why guns are holding games back.
The original Alan Wake – set in the Twin Peaks-inspired small town of Bright Falls – showed a deft understanding of how psychological horror works. It lulled players into assuming its fictional setting had a cosy, real-world pulse, and then proceeded to unnerve them by sending increasingly violent distortions through it. Remedy may have abandoned its sandbox ambitions midway through development, but the act of building Alan Wake’s world as a coherent space made it emotionally believable even after it had been carved into slices. And it remains a laudable example of a story-driven game that balances open-world scope with the sculpted pacing of linear progression.
Rather than build on its predecessor’s strengths, American Nightmare’s Story mode discards such wisdom. Whereas the wooded Bright Falls felt dense and vibrant, the desert of Night Springs feels like a barely furnished apartment. Each of the three areas hosts but a single NPC to dole out objectives, while flattening the yin and yang of the previous game’s day-night cycle to unremitting dark eventually shifts the feel from life-threatening to just plain lifeless.
Still, Night Springs deserves credit for making a powerful first impression. Standing out from the darkness, a petrol station sits with its pumps bathed in a harsh fluorescent glow. The evocatively shabby Desert Shore Motel compels you like a winged insect towards its buzzing, flickering neon sign. But when you finally draw close, Night Springs starts to feel less like a world and more like a glorified film studio backlot.
It’s a shame, but the game’s sandbox – literally, given the desert setting – fails to amply reward your nosiness. Try to read a notice on the wall and you’ll find illegible smears where text should be. Inspect the petrol station’s price-per-gallon sign up close and it becomes a grainy garble. Periodicals littering a desktop have nothing decorating their covers but a few pastel columns. Perhaps it’s due to the filesize limit, but the flow disruption of such contrivances feels like having somebody sitting a couple of rows behind you in the cinema loudly blow their nose every time the horror film you’re watching starts to feel legitimately spooky.
If you want to read something that illuminates the story behind Night Springs, you’ll have to settle for Wake’s own thoughts, which are recorded in the collectible manuscript pages scattered about. These range from syrupy ruminations on friendship to awkward taxonomic breakdowns of the Taken menace. One passage describes the game’s spider enemies as “part of the Dark Place’s less significant fauna”, proving nothing neuters supernatural horror like a professorial explanation. Of an astronomer NPC: “her social life would always play second fiddle to the mysteries of space”. Dan Brown, eat your sacred heart out.
Gameplay objectives are more fetching. At least, they involve more fetching. To accomplish the rewriting of reality that drives your progress, you must recreate the key circumstances described in certain manuscript pages. For example, if a manuscript page says that a Kasabian song was playing on the stereo at the moment of a key event, you’ll find yourself in pursuit of the CD in question. A clichéd time-loop premise, à la Groundhog Day, provides a thematic excuse for recycling the game’s three map areas – motel, observatory, drive-in – with negligible variations in each pass. One telling piece of voiceover narration describes Wake as “returning to the observatory, for what he hopes is the final time”. You and us both.
You can forget puzzles too. American Nightmare’s lone traditional effort requires setting three electrical switches to a preordained pattern, but it turns from dreary to insulting when you realise Remedy has telegraphed the solution via three tiny glowing lights on the wall directly above them. At least the series’ novel combat mechanic – wearing down the Taken’s buffer of darkness with the beam of your torch, rendering them susceptible to weapon fire – feels as vital as ever. The delayed gratification of having to wait those extra seconds before unleashing a close-quarters shotgun blast provides a tantalising payoff. On a purely tactile level, it’s the shooter equivalent of mashing the left trigger on a Forza turn, then releasing it to hammer down the right trigger in punchy, rhythmic succession.
With the bite-sized campaign clocking in at four to five hours, the meat of American Nightmare lies in its stellar arcade mode. As a ten-minute clock ticks down to sunrise, you score points by logging kills and successful dodges, while taking damage resets your multiplier. The action is so immediate and seductive that the lack of multiplayer doesn’t feel like an outrage. Asynchronous leaderboard duels will suffice.
Originally dubbed Fight Till Dawn during preview glimpses, the mode appears to have been stripped of branding in the final release. It’s now billed as Arcade Action, a beige shrug of a title presumably concocted by Wake himself. Our only other quibble is the strong-arm tactic of forcing you to unlock advanced weapon tiers by collecting manuscript pages in Story mode. It’s a pity that Remedy seems intent on making you eat your soggy story vegetables before tucking into American Nightmare’s only real confection.