Rise of Nightmares: Review

Title Screen

The Kinect had an interesting year in 2011. Widely acknowledged as the ‘winner’ of the semi-pointless gadget war between it and the PlayStation Move, the Kinect went on to emulate the Wii Remote. This meant that the X360 market was hit with countless collections of mini-games, a few inane dance titles and Child of Eden (AKA the reason to own a Kinect).

Enter Rise of Nightmares, both onto the market and into my heart.

You have to admire SEGA’s determination in pursuing the thankless task of funding serious games in areas where the target audience really don’t care. You would have thought that, after Madworld failed to inspire people and House of the Dead: Overkill was virtually stillborn, the publisher might have been a little more hesitant to try another motion-controlled game. But no, Rise of Nightmares is a melee-based, first-person horror game for the Kinect.

The whole of the game is set in Romania, primarily in a castle/mansion that a group of unfortunate passengers from a derailed train end up coming across. As the protagonist, it’s down to you to unravel the mysteries of the edifice and its sinister owner.

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This guy shows up pretty early on and most of the story unravels around him.

Mechanically, RoN is extremely ambitious. The halls and rooms that comprise the manor are crude and the layout is linear enough that I could imagine them making it an on-rails fighter (although in its current guise there are enough nooks and crannies to explore, if you are patient). It would have been simple enough to just guide the player from one routine encounter to the next. Instead, RoN gives the player free-form movement. This requires the player to stand in front of the Kinect and place one foot further forward to start walking in the game, then tilt their shoulders left and right to turn. These motions take a lot of getting used to and they never quite feel fluid, but ultimately, they work – and a lot better than I imagined they would. Even so, the developers clearly realised that these gestures might not be everyone’s idea of fun and have helpfully included an auto-pilot feature that will automatically move you to the next encounter. This cleverly means that any over-reliance on this feature will result in the player missing out on hidden content and secret weapons.

The combat sections and situation-specific actions are more entertaining and better realised than the movement controls. The combat consists of a frenzied series of punching and slashing movements that isn’t always as responsive as it could be, but is nevertheless enjoyable. The game allows you to target various enemy appendages and lop them off, with that strategic element becoming more important on the harder difficulties. The selection of weapons is good and varied, with meat hammers caving in skulls and chainsaws grinding up corpses; there’s also an arcane twist near the end of the game that mixes it up even further by adding the ability to pull off ranged attacks and which helps the gameplay avoid becoming too repetitive. On top of that, the situation-specific moments provide a welcome break to all the travelling and combat by providing a series of mini-challenges. You might have to balance on a beam, search through a pile of skulls for a key, or tip-toe past an enemy. For the most part, these mini-challenges work nicely, with only a few of them being a little awkward to play due to the limitations of the motion controls. Fortunately, these actions are rarely repeated, so you don’t have to worry about that same annoying stealth section cropping up over and over again during your progress through the game.

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Plenty of time for a widdy bit of ultra-violence.

Unfortunately, pretty much all of what I’ve described comes with the same caveat, and the truth is that Rise of Nightmares is far from perfect when it comes to the controls. There are certainly points in the game where everything descends into a jerky mess as the game starts to interpret every tiny gesticulation as a command to move and has your character slowly, inexorably march into some spikes.

The story is also suitably laughable and, after only 10 minutes of the game’s story, there is no way you’ll be able to keep a straight face at the dialogue. There are definite echoes of the House of the Dead games as opposed to titles like Fatal Frame or Sirens.

Ironically it’s all of the things that the game attempts to move away from that end up proving its strengths. Rise of Nightmares strives to be a serious single player experience on the Kinect, something different from the collections of mini-games and colourful party experiences. However, if you choose to play the game solo then there are large sections of the game that will give way to frustration. The checkpointing is generally solid but there are some scenes that, even on the easiest setting, will have to be repeated more than once – and the walk animation is so slow that trawling through them a second or third time can seem like a chore.

Played in the style that Arcadian Rhythms opted for – 3 or 4 people drinking beer and taking turns – is how Rise of Nightmares actually ends up shining.

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"Yeah, but we'll be doing that at about a mile an hour."

The communal nature of the Kinect feeds into the game’s silliness. Instead of screaming at the game when it dumps you into a trap, you laugh and pass it on to the next person to attempt. After a few beers, WKDs or bitter shandies the bad dialogue is a cause of celebration rather than contempt.

It doesn’t matter that the experience as a whole is not particularly absorbing and that it will probably only last about 7 hours. As a social outing it works just as well as Dance Central, with its straight-faced attempt at a ‘real’ game meaning that you really don’t care about how stupid you look while playing it. In some ways, the crummy lines and muddy visuals feed into that: it again doesn’t matter if you look stupid because the game does too (I am projecting that last sentiment on to RoN as I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the game’s intention).

Rise of Nightmares is both a great Kinect product and an awful one; succeeding mainly in spite of itself. It so desperately wants to take the Kinect toe-to-toe with a more conventional controller-based survival horror title and, in turn, be a real game. It is neither of those things, however, because a) it would’ve probably played better with a controller and b) it really isn’t very scary. Played in the ‘right’ way, and in the manner that most Kinect games are supposed to be played, it transforms into an utterly beguiling playthrough of smashing virtual skulls, laughing at lines of dialogue such as “bucks like a Shropshire pony” and giggling at the weird gestures that your friends make while playing.

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Yeah, I wasn't joking about that.

So, even though things most certainly go wrong with Rise of Nightmares, it might actually be for the best.