It’s pretty scary the first time Rise of Nightmares gets up in your face, spitting acid and snarling. But then you get a grip on it, look deeper, and realize that there’s no intelligence behind its eyes, just a bundle of remembered impulses. Still, like a zombie, though it’s not going to impress you with brains or creativity, the visceral impact is potent.
Sega’s first really good decision here was choosing the right genre for their Kinect debut. Any veteran of the early Resident Evil titles will quickly deduce, “A dark castle, undead creatures, a cackling madman, silly lock-and-key puzzles, clunky movement, and combat controls—why, this must be a survival-horror game!” And that alone makes it possible to forgive much of the imprecision of Kinect gameplay. The survival-horror genre has always aimed for inducing helpless terror rather than action-game empowerment, and the leaden controls effectively amplify the nightmarish feeling of being unable to run fast enough to escape the ghouls.
And it must be said that Rise of Nightmares feels much more responsive than most games for the Kinect. Smart under-the-hood compensation for imprecise data makes the game feel responsive even when it’s actually filling in for player movements it can’t track; even the menus feel quicker and more satisfying than most Kinect interfaces. You’ll spend a lot of the game punching, kicking, or slashing, and while it’s easy for the Kinect to lose track of what your limbs are really up to, the game’s ability to make guesses about your position makes the combat feel far more immediate that I would have expected from previous rounds of Kinect Sports Boxing.
Unfortunately, the Kinect programming is a lot stronger than the gameplay fundamentals. As soon as you get attacked by more than one enemy, which happens less than an hour into the game and continues for most of it, the unswitchable lock-on puts most of the attacking monsters outside your field of vision, even the ones right up on top of you. The basic combat system, which demands that you slice your hand in the right location to hit enemy weak points, is a great way to bring the simple satisfactions of Fruit Ninja into a deeper narrative game. But the frustrating targeting leaves you feeling less like you’re surrounded by demons and more like you’re locked inside an Edsel with a bad steering column.
Despite all that, there’s definitely fun to be had in short bursts. Even with the game’s many problems, it’s impossible to stand in a room punching air and not feel at least kind of immersed in the action. Survival-horror games have always been willing to trade ludic correctness for effective terror-mongering, and the pure kinesthetic response induced by holding your fists over your face and lashing out while monsters leap at your field of view is unquestionably effective. Even there, though, the game comes up short of others, since the physical exertion of Kinect play means you can’t engage in the kind of multi-hour sessions that make a player deranged enough to get good and spooked.
The game’s effective sound design and drippy character models, though compromised by the Kinect’s CPU-cycle overhead, do a good job of making you feel grossed-out and jumpy, while paying tribute to the campy delights of horror games past. Initial hints at honest-to-gosh character depth are soon drowned out by more typical crazed ranting and victimized screams, but the writers did a good job of inventing new and unusual variations on both the kinds of revenants you’re confronting and how you’ll have to avoid them. In particular, the enemy you can only elude by remaining perfectly still is a clever twist on Kinect interaction, like playing Red Light Green Light against Michael Myers.
Still, “good for a Kinect game” isn’t particularly high praise for a full-price title. It hasn’t been a great couple of years for survival horror, but there have been some real gems, including the interesting Amnesia, the sharp-witted Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (which made clever use of the Wii’s simpler but more dependable motion controls), and the more-or-less perfect Dead Space 2, which turned every flaw of the genre into a compelling narrative element. If you’re in the market for a good heart-thumper and want to use your Kinect for something other than silly VJ tricks, Rise of Nightmares is worth a rental. But it’s ultimately one more game that fails to prove that the Kinect can make for gameplay experiences more compelling than what came before.