The first Alan Wake was an exercise in slow-burn subtlety, a game that took you by the hand like a loving mother and gently eased you into its dark waters, only letting go when you knew you could keep your head ever-so-slightly above its inky surface. Alan Wake's American Nightmare, however, is like your obnoxious uncle that flings you screaming bloody murder, arms and legs flailing helplessly, straight into the deep end.
When we last saw Alan Wake, he was wrangling with the truth that his literature was becoming literal, and that dark forces were oozing in through tears in reality. Alan Wake's American Nightmare picks up where that plot thread was left dangling, with Alan trapped in the television town of Night Springs, a southwestern sci-fi hamlet that he wrote in his early years. Now, Alan has to face off against Mr. Scratch, his sadistic doppelganger that revels in darkness and chaos.
To give away any more would spit in the face of what Alan Wake and American Nightmare bring to the gaming table: their clever use of story. The concept of ideas being written into reality and turned against you is a terrifying prospect, and one that both games handle with a high degree of cleverness. Where American Nightmare veers away from its predecessor is in its overall vibe. The softer, David Lynch-inspired sense of unease has been replaced by a decidedly hokey science fiction vibe. Even Wake's introspective narration has been replaced by the sinister purr of a Rod Serling sound-alike that comments on the events that transpire with a Twilight Zone flavor.
The other notable addition is Mr. Scratch, the antagonist for the piece. Scratch shares Wake's voice and face, but veers off sharply in regards to personality. He's a sadist and a murderer and he regards Alan, whom he taunts in a series of recorded video messages, as an inferior being. He's so wide-eyed and enthusiastic in his evil that he becomes equally as intriguing as Wake.
Besides these shifts, it's business as usual for Alan Wake. Characters possessed with a sentient darkness must be chiseled down with light-based weapons before being dispatched with a well-placed firearms blast, although these firearms are now procured by trading manuscript pages in at locked ammo crates. This trading mechanic, coupled with the bombastic sci-fi storyline, give American Nightmare a far more action-based feel than its predecessor. It's jarring in its absurdity (one scenario sees you decimating a monster-spewing oil rig with a rogue satellite), but it's a wholly satisfying experience for Wake fans.
Alan Wake's American Nightmare is available now on Xbox Live Arcade for 1,200 MS Points ($15.00)