We begin in Night Springs, Arizona. This sham no man’s land is another of Wake’s 2-bit concoctions, though this time round he’s drawing inspiration from grindhouse flicks as opposed to Stephen King. Alan stirs to find himself caught in a quasi-Groundhog Day scenario in which he can only escape by carrying out a series of weary fetch quests and chatting to three ill-conceived women.
Remedy’s sequel to hit-and-miss AAA-exclusive Alan Wake is bereft of new, meaningful ideas, constantly at war with the limitations of Xbox Live Arcade and yet despite that strangely compelling. It’s a legitimate Alan Wake game in that it holds dear the idiosyncratic combat and all of Wake’s trademark self-absorbed and tortuous prattle. Wake no longer narrates the story but he still waffles on should you read the 50-something (FIFTY. SOMETHING) text entries that sew together the tottering narrative.
Trouble is though, Wake’s tale of rewriting reality is instead relayed through clumsy radio broadcasts, live-action TV shows and those 50 manuscript pages that demand you dump the controller so Alan can talk at you for minutes at a time. Sometimes he opines over things that matter. Most of the time he doesn’t. On one occasion he babbles about his choice of clothes.
The howling schism between game and story has never seemed wider with little of what happens outside of the in-game character conversations influencing the story. Alan’s conversations with the oh-so-helpless-ladies of Night Springs are painstakingly drawn out but they’re the only real source of no-nonsense explanation. You certainly don’t get much from big bad villain Mr. Scratch. He’s got more verve than the baddie from Bright Falls but he’s so helplessly two-dimensional (not to mention hammy – some evil caricature of Wake himself) that his infrequent cameos seem almost inconsequential.
Elsewhere, objectives never evolve beyond your average fetch quest and, battling against the 2GB limitation of XBLA, American Nightmare’s three levels are repeated three times over. With each revisit, Wake edges closer to solving the riddle that keeps him captive in his charade, and you skim over parts on the second and third times through, but it can’t possibly shrug off the feeling of deja-vu.
Still, with Alan’s commentary relegated to opt-in manuscript voiceovers and sidekick Barry MIA, the horror has chance to spread its roots and segue with Wake’s tale. While it never crosses the border into veritable scare-fest, Wake’s world is painted in eerie hues with stark cacti silhouettes contorting out of the baked land and the grim quiet providing a suitably fey mileu.
Meanwhile, combat has been consolidated – more the focal point here than it was in Alan Wake proper where the unfettered forestland allowed for hours of meaningless meandering. (Wake’s second outing feels more like one of the Dead Rising 2 expansions. You’re free to reconnoiter the levels, but there’s always a clear goal.) Fighting remains a case of whittling down the darkness surrounding Wake’s enemies, the Taken (zombie like chaps enveloped in evil bulletproof shadows) by aiming the torch their way, then shooting them some. Batteries expire at the speed of light but recharge just as quickly and there’s no shortage of them peppered throughout the motels and drive-in cinemas of Wake’s fanciful world.
It’s worth having a look around, too, because the new weapons are particularly good. The crossbow, for example, circumvents the need to erase the darkness shield surrounding the Taken. Flares function as makeshift safe zones – affording brief time to recharge batteries or reload, while a natty little nail gun doesn’t really do anything useful but then, in its defence, it is a nail gun.
The inclusion of a horde mode is a smart one – the ten-minute timed arena mode allowing the combat to take front and centre and the total dearth of commentary from Wake sees the game at its most intimidating. Prowling through Ghost Town during the witching hour knowing full well there’s one solitary enemy left skulking in the shadows is sure to give you the willies and the roaring great marriage of combat and the dark/light shenanigans makes for one of the better horde modes of recent memory.
There’s a great Alan Wake game to be made yet, that much remains clear. American Nightmare still isn’t it, but Remedy are getting closer. Here’s to ditching the milksop himself next time, then.