Review: Rise of Nightmares (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Rise of Nightmares
Developer: SEGA
Publisher: SEGA
Genre: Horror Action/Motion Gaming
Release Date: 09/06/2011

To be honest, picking up the Kinect camera was more of an excuse for my fiancée to get a hold of the “new” S-style Xbox 360. While the launch window had a couple of above average games, the “Wii shovelware train” reared its head and I can’t say I’ve fired up the camera for the better part of 2011.

Thankfully, more original efforts such as Child of Eden, The Gunstringer, Rise of Nightmares and, heck, even Kinect Fun Labs are looking to breathe some new life into the format. Of course, the one that always stands out, though, is the M-rated Rise of Nightmares, filled with action and mature content. This approach is about as far removed from the other games on the format as you can get, but, thankfully, it reminded me that I do, in fact, own a Kinect.

Upfront, I certainly had fun with Rise of Nightmares. Instead of emulating something I could just do in reality, the title attempted to place me amid a gauntlet of hellish enemies and traps to navigate through, all without a traditional controller. Interested gamers shouldn’t expect Rise of Nightmares to reinvent the video gaming wheel, as it certainly has a number of rough edges, but when viewing the title based on its Kinect merits, I can only hope the format continues to evolve this way.

Unfortunately, I have to kick this off by dwelling on a negative – I’ve never seen much strength in SEGA’s storytelling, and Rise of Nightmares does little to change my mind. The title injects players into the middle of a couple of situations (the tutorial actually occurs through the point of view of a completely different character), attempting to create mysterious circumstances as to why the player is going toe-to-toe with the game’s monstrosities.

When the game kicks in to the main story, the main character, Josh, is on route to a vacation hotspot with his wife, Kate, when she discovers he has secretly been carrying on with his alcohol abuse. Upset, she runs from the cabin, leaving the player to pursue her. Toward the front of the train, all hell starts to break loose, as Kate is seen heading to the front of the train with a very creepy and mysterious gentleman who separates the train and leaves the passengers with a few nasty abominations to fight off. With the train jackknifed and various undead creatures closing in on the survivors, it is then up to players to grab any weapon they can find and try to figure out what the hell is going on.

If you’ve ever played any of the classic House of the Dead entries, you’ll certainly get the same storytelling vibes here. For some reason, the player is the only survivor that isn’t completely helpless, and to break up the action, a number of cutscenes depict the demise of the handful of people you meet throughout the journey. I mean, seriously – why would you investigate something that obviously looks like a giant guillotine by kneeling down and leaning over the blade catch? It does get kind of ridiculous, but I suppose it is standard horror movie fare.

In a way, Rise of Nightmares does do a lot to echo themes from different horror movies, even going so far as to including a cutscene that could have come straight from one of the Hostel movies, or in a few other instances, even the Saw franchise. Those comparisons would be fitting, as the game lacks any sort of genuine terror or fright, instead relying on its repeated themes of gore and cheap (and mostly predictable) scare tactics.

The characters in the game are just as clichéd as any horror movie and it just becomes very difficult to invest yourself in the game’s story, especially when it becomes just as derailed as the opening scene’s train, as the game’s “twists” start to pile up toward the end. Any standard player that pays even half a mind to popular horror movies or video games of a similar nature will have already seen most of Rise of Nightmares‘ story elsewhere, which is certainly disappointing.

Graphically, Rise of Nightmares is another area which is very comparable to House of the Dead. Everything involved does its job, but the character models aren’t very inspiring and feature awkward animations in the cutscenes, some of the environments are slightly muddled and detailed effects such as water won’t do much to impress.

Thankfully, the visuals take a bit of a step up in the creature models, which can be fairly impressive, as details such as the burlap sacks with the question marks printed on them placed over the heads of some of the common enemies really stood out. On that same token, though, the basic enemy models are repeated so often, by about halfway through the game, the player begins to run out of interesting character models to see outside of some of the boss characters.

The audio department is certainly an area where you don’t want to be compared to House of the Dead and, while it hardly shines in Rise of Nightmares, thankfully, the sound and music is certainly passable here. The uninspired and cliché roles slapped on each character don’t help very much, but the voice acting is still fairly wooden in this entry. While the environments are bolstered by ambiance such as flowing electricity or water, and the combat sound effects are satisfactory, the music tends to become easily lost in the action.

Even though the sound is decent, it just becomes disappointing that in a game such as Rise of Nightmares, it wasn’t eerie or creepy, which is the real detriment on hand. The title does throw out some awkward groans from the enemies and shrill screams from human victims, but it does little to mess with the player’s psyche. Some of the most effective sound implementation design I’d ever heard came from the opening moments of Silent Hill 2, where the player makes the long trek down the trail and multiple footstep effects start to mesh together. What was at face value only a short jog down a trail turned into a creepy, paranoid journey that lasted a few minutes because I was constantly watching my back – Rise of Nightmares is devoid of such moments.

Getting to the meat of this entrée, I constantly get asked how this title plays out, as most gamers expect this to be an on-rails game. At its core, no, Rise of Nightmares is not an on-rails game, as players have access to a set of gestures which allow them to walk where they please. However, the presence of an “auto-walk” that does place players on rails should be the flaming, red flag that shows Rise of Nightmares could have used a little extra time in the oven.

Standard navigation in the game requires players to place one foot forward to have Josh move forward while a rotation of the shoulders directs Josh left or right in a sort of tank-style classic Resident Evil method. Players can also place a foot behind the other to backtrack and, if you get frustrated, holding up your right hand to the corner of the screen triggers the auto-walk toward the current goal.

The general action of moving around wasn’t as awkward for me as I’ve seen other people online comment about; however, in the heat of survival, the Kinect can’t quite keep up with the quick shuffling of feet, making the game’s most basic actions an occasional chore. If the player shuffles from having a foot forward to behind him or her too fast, the camera still recognizes that there is just still one foot in front of the other, sticking the player in a forward animation (or vice versa), which can direct him or her into the game’s many one-hit-kill death traps. Overall, this is the most glaring mechanical flaw in the entire game.

The Kinect camera was also very iffy in recognizing my feet in certain instances. My current living situation does put me at about eight feet away from the television, but it is still fairly cramped among my furniture. In “quick-time event” instances where I needed to run, the camera just wouldn’t recognize my running motion and the game sent me to my death every single time. I actually had to call up a friend and use his living room to progress past the second full level in the game, so if you have cramped quarters, beware these required motions.

Otherwise, I have no real issues with the way the rest of the game is carried out. Combat is initiated by throwing your arms up in fisticuffs fashion, and this auto-locks you onto the closest enemy. Items of interest are vividly highlighted in the environment and players merely have to place a single hand in front of them and direct a cursor over the highlight.

From these points, everything is fluid and just makes sense – with most melee weapons, players can jab, hook and thrust; projectile weapons are lobbed with a flinging motion and the gesture controls used to navigate the environment add a bit of variety and life to the gameplay. When a door is highlighted, players can thrust a hand forward to swing it open or jut a foot out to boot the door open. When the only way forward is a small space, the game asks the player to crouch down to navigate the space. When there is a lever to be pulled, the player just has to stick a hand out and motion it downward.

It just would have been nice to see such gestures implemented more into the survival aspects of the game. Perhaps the most thrilling parts of the game are in remaining completely still to throw off a massive enemy that can only sense sounds or sticking your arms into something icky, Saw style, to pull out a necessary item. There is also a lot of gratification to be had in turning all of the deathtraps against the enemy, as the handy kick attack is more of a positioning attack than a damaging one. By booting a baddie backward, you can impale them on spiked walls and more. With some decent gore effects and the ability to target attacks to cause dismemberment and decapitations, the combat involved in the game is fairly satisfying and much more rewarding than in other Kinect efforts.

Unfortunately, much like the enemy variety, Rise of Nightmares will only be able to introduce so many weapons and deathtraps before the wall of repetition sets in. While boss fights could have freshened this up, these battles are similar to battling any standard enemy, but occasionally, certain attacks will trigger “quick-time” moments the player needs to gesture out of. While there are a number of hidden goods to find, nothing requires much effort to track down other than finding switch “A” to open door “A” or navigating the environment without the auto-walk.

As such, as long as the player can get a grasp of how to make Rise of Nightmares work, it becomes an easy game to get into and, even among its issues, it was one I wanted to stick with. Also, with its status as an M-rated Kinect title and with the actual attempt to create a game out of the Kinect premise as opposed to trying to emulate something such as sports, dancing or pet care, Rise of Nightmares will easily appeal to an action-oriented crowd.

The title’s biggest positive is certainly its fighting and gestures, but players have a lot of in between to work with in order to get to these parts. Rise of Nightmares will require a little more patience than most other games, but I would place it among my top five favorite titles for Kinect. So far, that isn’t saying a whole lot, but I appreciate what SEGA was going for here and the results were at least mildly successful. If Kinect games can keep evolving like this while working out the rough edges, Microsoft might finally be able to catch that “core crowd” it keeps clamoring on about.

The Scores
Story: PRETTY POOR
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: DECENT
Control and Gameplay: ENJOYABLE
Replayability: BELOW AVERAGE
Balance: DECENT
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal Factor: VERY GOOD
Miscellaneous: ABOVE AVERAGE
FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary
Rise of Nightmares gets a satisfactory nod for crafting a core game around the Kinect concept. The results create some interesting, if repetitive, combat, and the gesture work is some of the most sensical and responsive I’ve seen among Kinect games. Oddly, your biggest obstacle in this title is… walking. Once you get around this nuance, though (i.e., using the auto-walk feature), if you can also get around a pretty awful story and characters and passable presentation, there is actually a decent chunk of material to like. Some gamers might not have the patience to wade through the bad to get to the good, but Rise of Nightmares certainly has the potential to surprise and impress, and it certainly helps that its M-rated approach doesn’t fit the mold of the expected fare on the format.

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