SEGA's Rise of Nightmares finds itself in a challenging position: filling a niche that may not actually exist. Rise of Nightmares is trying to be an M-rated, hardcore gaming experience for Microsoft's excellent, but family-leaning Kinect peripheral that can hold its own against dancing games and motion-controlled sports titles as a killer app. Does it succeed?
Pay no mind to the game's razor-thin story, which sees our flavorless hero chasing his wife and her mad scientist captor across the eastern European countryside and into a deliciously typical gothic castle: Rise of Nightmares' raison d'etre is the melee-based mauling of a mob of moribund miscreants and mutants. Cut from the same cloth as House of the Dead (which is appropriate, seeing as how this game was developed by the same team), Rise of Nightmares foregoes pistols for punches, and firearms for fisticuffs. What that means for the player is assuming the appropriate "put ‘em up" stance in front of the Kinect camera whenever within range of your foes and miming the appropriate action for whatever weapon you may have. Knives demand a series of quick slices, brass knuckles ask the player to box, and the chainsaw…oh, the chainsaw. The first time you pick it up, there's an undeniable feeling of psychotic giddiness that's only amplified when you finally use it, rending your foes limb from limb with a thrust that would make Bruce Campbell proud. Unsurprisingly, all this combat makes for a helluva workout: flailing your arms around to dismember the restless dead is not for the faint of heart or body.
Unlike House of the Dead, however, Rise of Nightmares is not set on rails, but instead allows the player to control their movement through a series of logical gestures. Turning your body slightly left or right will start your onscreen character moving in the same direction, and putting your right foot forward or backwards will allow you to move in kind in the game. It sounds functional in theory, but the execution is far less forgiving. Your character's movement feels floaty and never quite concrete, and the slight disconnect between what you're doing and what's happening means that you'll often find yourself bumping into walls and obstacles. When navigating empty hallways it's a minor annoyance, but when you're trying to creep down a corridor lined with spikes, it's absolutely maddening. SEGA hoped to alleviate some of this pain by giving players the option to raise their right hand to force the game into an "on-rails" mode which overtakes the motion controls and sometimes, to be frank, I think this would have been a much better option.
Which is too bad, because the game offers up so much to hardcore horror fans. The aesthetic is set somewhere in between the gothic offerings of Hammer films and the modern, gritty vibe of "torture porn" movies like Hostel, and the nastiness is relentless. You'll go only a few moments before stumbling upon another severed head, disemboweled carcass, or worse, and the explosions of onscreen violence are brutal and blunt. It's bold, trashy fun.
In spite of the hamstrung movement, Rise of Nightmares' fantastic combat and gruesome settings are both incredibly satisfying for genre fans. It may not be a killer app, but it's a welcome diversion for Kinect fans looking to do more than engage in soft sports and digital dance parties.