It has been almost a year since Microsoft released the Kinect to the masses, and in that time, we've seen lots of game genres represented: brain training, casual, fighting, dancing rhythm, an experimental shooting game, game shows, pet simulators, racing, sports minigames and traditional minigames. There's even a hub for several tech demos. Like any console or peripheral, the quality of each Kinect-related item has varied wildly from utter garbage to true brilliance. One thing that has remained constant, though, is that none of the games using the controller-free device has gone beyond a "T" rating. For that reason alone, Sega's Rise of Nightmares is significant in that it is the first title for the Kinect to be rated "M," coming in before other games like Mass Effect 3 and Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, which are expected next year and will use the Kinect to supplement gameplay. One has to wonder if the gameplay in Rise of Nightmares is decent or if it will simply be a footnote in the Kinect's history.
The plot goes into familiar territory but starts off with two completely unrelated characters who take you through a tutorial level before meeting their demise via two moving walls. After the title sequence, you are introduced to Jack and his wife Kate, who are riding a train somewhere in Romania. Kate is on the cusp of telling Jack some good news when she witnesses a flask drop from his coat pocket, a sure sign that he hasn't kicked his alcohol habit. Furious, she storms off to the dining car, leaving Jack to follow her. Once he reaches her, though, he encounters corpses and a large beast of a man who has Kate in his clutches. Before Jack can do anything, the train derails and knocks him out. As he comes to, he realizes that he must escape, and after finding a castle, he makes it his mission to find his wife alive.
As one would expect from a Sega horror game, the story veers toward the amusingly absurd. Everyone you meet in the train introduction plays up the horror archetypes: flirtatious ballet dancers, rude young businessman, stern train conductor and pack of young ravers. Unsurprisingly, they all die off, but it's laughable to see a villager die and hear him say with a calm tone that he expected it. The villain takes the cake, however, with his calm demeanor one minute and overt lunacy in the next. Calmly chopping off a victim's hand before making up ringing noises to signal he has a phone call only solidifies the fact that despite its more serious tone, Rise of Nightmares is still a campy horror game from a publisher that thrives on campy horror games.
While the story seems to have a House of the Dead vibe, it feels more like Condemned: Criminal Origins. Despite what you may think, the game isn't on rails. You're free to explore every area in the level, breaking most boxes and barrels in search of weapons, tarot cards or tape recordings to flesh out the backstory. It's still a linear experience, but at least you feel like you're going at your own pace instead of being shuttled against your will. The light exploration brings with it some light puzzles, mostly in the form of finding keys and switches. It isn't the most taxing thing, but it adds some variety to the lengthy campaign. Though you will find projectile weapons later in the game, combat is mostly melee-based. You punch down zombies and block their attacks, inflicting more damage if you go for the flesh instead of their metal-covered pieces. You can pick up weapons, such as brass knuckles, knives, machetes and rusty pipes. Chainsaws and exploding test tubes prove to be exciting weapons to use while hedge clippers and severed monster arms add to the gruesome nature of monster dismemberment. Weapons are only durable for so long, and you can only carry one at a time, so you need to plan accordingly.
There are some things in the gameplay department that knock down the title a few notches. For starters, Rise of Nightmares is a pretty slow-paced game. No matter what the game says, you can only run during special scenes. Most of the time, you can't even speed walk, so don't expect to run away from monsters or dash through booby traps. The focus system makes it easier to lock on to an enemy, but it sometimes doesn't target the one closest to you, making you blind to others that pose a more immediate threat. Finally, you can expect to die in the game, but you wouldn't want to because the death sequences and game over screen take such a long time to appear. Considering that some kills are one-hit affairs, prepare for some frustration.
The biggest question on gamers' minds is how well the Kinect controls work in a survival horror title. Surprisingly, the developers manage to pull this off quite well. Moving through the environment is as simple as putting one foot forward, and doing the opposite lets you move backward. Turning is done by literally turning toward the desired direction, so it's possible to move and turn at the same time. While this is essential for exploration, those who want to get to the next event or fight simply need to hold up the right arm up to let the game go on auto-pilot.
Standing still and placing your hand forward lets you pick up objects or, in some cases, interact with them. These interactions also feel natural. For example, opening a door requires you to push forward, pull back or slide it across. You push forward on buttons and pull down switches. You also make climbing motions to go up and down ladders, and you do lifting motions to open hatches. There are also some Quick Time Events (QTEs) that utilize your natural instincts. Going through a swamp asks that you make swimming motions. You really swat against your arms to get rid of bugs and leeches. You even have to run in place to escape a falling train or stand perfectly still to avoid being crushed by a giant. These natural expectations make the game a joy to control simply because you don't have to learn extraordinary gestures to do something mundane.
This instinctual control scheme also carries over to combat. You mostly stick with punches when fighting enemies, but pick up a weapon, and you'll instantly know how to use it. Swinging away with severed arms and ice saws produces the desired effect. Using explosive vials requires you to throw them. Using clippers forces you to mimic the motion while using a chainsaw is as simple as moving over the body with both hands holding the imaginary object. About the only thing that doesn't mimic real combat moves is the block, which simply requires you to keep your hands up — the same motion used to initiate combat in the first place.
All of this doesn't mean that the controls are perfect. Turning is sometimes too sensitive, often making you shimmy just to walk straight. Even then, expect to run into a few walls every now and then. Fighting is also a bit too simplified. You can punch and kick, but don't expect to throw anything but straight jabs. Stabbing is fine, as are horizontal and vertical hits, but trying to do diagonal slashes only produces vertical ones instead. The controls still work well, but some more additions and fine-tuning would have made it an even better experience.
The audio straddles the fine line between silly and well done. The effects give off just the right pitch of blunt weaponry hitting flesh, and it's satisfying that you can hear some differences between the weapons. The music veers toward classic horror compositions instead of the metal heard in modern horror films, and that lends the game some gravitas. It's good mood music, and it does so without being overwhelming during exploration or during fights. The voice work is fine, but the dialogue is humorous, although the jury is out as to whether that was intentional. It isn't as bad as the first Resident Evil or the older House of the Dead games, but you can't take it as seriously as the Silent Hill titles, either.
The graphics look good but not exactly great. Human character models look fine, but there isn't anything special about them. The monsters fare a little better, especially when you notice how well the metal appendages and rotted flesh blend together. Victims and enemies animate fine, though lip-synching is sub-par at best. The environments share the same traits as the characters in that they look good but not spectacular. Most of the time, you'll encounter the dingy castle walls or the nighttime outskirts, so the feeling of sameness creeps in early. What makes this a little above average is the use of a grainy filter, which makes the game look like an old film. It's an effect that isn't overdone save for the title sequence after the tutorial level, but it is noticeable and a nice nod to film lovers.
Rise of Nightmares is flawed fun. The story and characters are as schlocky as the publisher's lightgun offerings, and there's not much to be had in the scare department, but it's still an interesting tale that's worth going through just once. The sound and graphics are certainly more than serviceable, though not the best. Movement may be slow, but the gestures feel right, and combat is very satisfying. In the end, that's all that really matters. It's worth checking out, but only horror fans would be interested in buying it outright.
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