Going into Alan Wake's American Nightmare, I'd worried that I hadn't played the DLC that followed the 2010 game that introduced Remedy's literary action hero. I loved the long-brewing Xbox 360 exclusive but, after months of never being able to slot in The Signal and The Writer add-ons, I'd decided to skip them after repeatedly hearing how they soured people's experience of the game. After all, I didn't need to play them, did I? That way, I could keep my memories brightly-lit. Still, when Microsoft announced this latest new downloadable return to Alan Wake, I fretted about shadows encroaching on the series' unique flavor. Turns out I shouldn't have worried.
American Nightmare feels like fringe cinema, a work that embraces all its messy roots and questionable creative decisions unabashedly. What I loved about the original Alan Wake—the core premise that turns a thematic conceit playable—gets blown open even more here. From a story perspective, the metaphor gets stretched as Alan Wake finds himself trapped in the fictional Night Springs universe he helped architect. The game takes place two years after the events of Alan Wake. You're hunting for the keys to re-write reality in the game's levels, just as a writer hunts for the right words to create mood and meaning. American Nightmare adds depth to the symbols at the core of the Alan Wake formula—writing, light, darkness, multiplicity of self—and also ramps up the combat in a satisfying way.
Nothing about the way you play an Alan Wake game has changed significantly. You're still burning off darkness with a flashlight and then shooting the Taken—humans subsumed by the evil Dark Presence—until they die. Despite that familiarity, I still found myself tense and nervous, jumping at the Taken who managed to sneak up on me. That I'd still respond that way is a testament to Remedy's skill at setting mood with their art and sound design. The Alan Wake games are among the few that startle me with my own breathing.
You get a real villain here, too. Mr. Scratch—the evil doppelganger created by every shitty thing ever thought or heard about Wake—breaks free of the darkness in Cauldron Lake, leaving Alan trapped there until he manages to pierce through a intersection of reality and the Twilight Zone-style Night Springs show he used to write for. Scratch gives sharp voice to what was once an amorphous enemy and also provides a bit of meta-commentary with which Remedy can poke fun at themselves and their critics.
Their lead character might be restricted but Remedy doesn't feel trapped at all. American Nightmare feels looser and more confident than the game that kicked off the franchise. The experiments with a more action-oriented mode pay off and the character of Alan feels more seasoned and less whiny than in the 2010 game. The goofy yet macabre FMV presentation of the Mr. Scratch sequences and Rod Serling-style narrator testify that this is a game made by people with taste, people who know how to pay homage to formative forebears and make their own craft zing at the same time.
American Nightmare rotates around the idea of life as a series of drafts for what you're really supposed to do, like the movie Groundhog Day. That means you're going to run through the environments more than once in the story mode. But, just because Remedy's re-using environments doesn't mean that it's the same feel every time. I'd lulled myself into think that my last-go round would be easiest, but its difficulty had me sweating and swearing out loud.
Manuscript pages actually serve a purpose now, as collecting them unlocks weapons in the Story mode. You can then use those weapons—after foraging for them—in the Fight Til Dawn mode. It's this interconnectedness that makes AWAN's design feel like an evolution and not just a crass cash-grab.
Fight Til Dawn comes across as a rangier version of the scare-suffused combat that you get in Story Mode. You're not being led around by plot. You can wander and explore, writing the chase scenes, desperate stands and unlikely survivals of your own story as you go. The fact that the levels are timed adds another delicious wrinkle of tension, as your mind does the formula of how many more minutes you'll need to stay alive. While the creepy Pacific Northwestern forests that made the Bright Falls locale work so well in Alan Wake aren't present here, the Arizona desert carries its own sparer sort of environmental terror.
The waves-of-enemies experience you get in Fight Til Dawn put me through a roiling churn of emotions. The triumph I felt at putting down one swarm of Taken quickly faded into sheer fear at the advance of another group. Fight Til Dawn also creates a great push-pull symbiosis between the two most satisfying parts of Alan Wake: do you venture and explore the dimly-lit scrub-brush for more manuscript pages, weapons or ammo or do you try to make a 10-minute stand on familiar ground?
Either way, it's a more chilling variant of the one-vs-many template many games are trying out. The only thing you can fortify, really are your own nerves.
New enemies—like Splitters, who cleave into two smaller dudes when you blast darkness off of them and Grenadiers that throw explosive chunks of shadow at you—change things up. Shapeshifters who burst into clouds of birds and hillbilly Giants round out the bad guy types you'll need to sear with your flashlight and blow to kingdom come.
The hints of what's happened after the first Alan Wake game dropped by American Nightmare tease that there might be more expansion for this action/horror franchise. AM feels like a game that proves the Alan Wake concept is sturdier and more flexible than just one game, ripe for the episodic updates a book-minded game series cries out for. It makes you yearn for more. More chapters of self-consciously (?) stilted writing, more run-to-the-light desperation, more of Alan Wake becoming increasingly likable while still not becoming a boring square-jaw. There's loads of self-aware texture in this little slice of downloadable experimentation. Open it up and rub your fingertips along Alan Wake's newest chapters to see what great psychological horror plays like.