After a short prologue in which your character dies by being squished in an Indiana Jones-esque closing wall trap, you take on the main role of Josh, vacationing in Romania with his wife Kate, hoping to fix a somewhat strained relationship. Josh heads to the dining car for a date, with the typical side-character interactions you would expect to see in the opening of a horror story, including a cliched tarot reading by a gypsy. Josh arrives in the dining car only to see Kate get abducted by a large masked man. Soon after, Rise of Nightmares shoves you into the Romanian wilderness after your train derails. You awaken tied to a chair in a dungeon with other survivors.
This could be the opening to a really good horror game... but it isn't. Aside from one decently novel plot twist about two thirds of the way through the game, the story of Rise of Nightmares is extremely derivative, pulling ideas from too many differing sources: an ex-World War 2 mad scientist named Viktor creating mechanically animated corpses, with a bit of H.P Lovecraft cultist mentality thrown in for good measure, along with a weak, almost nonsensical ending that takes too long to get to. The dialog is tediously written and horribly acted, including far too many bad "Romanian" accents. I could no longer take the story seriously after meeting Fido, the head of Marchosias and a former servant of Viktor's, attached to the body of a miniature doberman pincer.
Motion control is fairly standard, but still somewhat clunky and unnatural. You move forwards by placing a foot forward and move backwards by placing a foot backwards; this is a decent way to handle motion, other than in the heat of battle when Kinect loses track of whether my foot was placed in front or behind, forcing my character in the wrong direction on several occasions. Turning is done with the shoulders. The design of the interface is extremely restrictive, forcing characters to either move or interact, and making exploration of the environment extremely tedious. It would be good to see future Kinect games ridding themselves of these limitations, allowing multiple actions to take place simultaneously. I would also like to have seen camera control through head tracking. As is, the game has no independent camera control, which makes exploring even more tedious. The game employs an auto-move feature to take you to your next objective, and to be honest without it much of the game would be impossible. Since it involves raising your right hand, it invariably led jokes along the lines of "I solemnly swear to go where I am supposed to." Many of the quick time events are also extremely hard to interpret. The standard "step back" or "side step" is easy enough, but "swat them away" and "comfort", among others, are more than a little obtuse.
Combat is equally hit and miss, sometimes literally. You are only allowed one weapon at a time, with no reserve, so when your weapon breaks (which it will, too often, and too soon) you are often left with your fists to fend off the "creature" hordes with, and they don't do much. Aside from a precious few two handed weapons such as katars and shock knuckles, you are only allowed to fight with the one weapon, one fist, and kicks. It's not until halfway through the game that you realise the true reason for this when you are bestowed an Iron Man-like energy unit on your left hand (and always your left) called Azoth. The motions you're required to produce vary according to the weapon equipped, from punching and stabbing to slashing or just holding the chainsaw in the general area of the zombie. The motion sensing in combat is frustratingly general, and in many ways provides the most horrific exercise regimen around, as it often requires more flailing than striking with any kind of accuracy.
You enter a focused combat mode by putting your fists up, which unfortunately Kinect has some difficulty telling apart from putting a hand out in front of you to interact with the environment, so at times you will stop moving and try to pet a creature's head instead of putting up your fists to block attacks. Just as you are not allowed to move and interact with things at the same time, you are only able to focus on one enemy at a time, and you may not turn away from the enemy you are focused on. Moving is fine, but not turning. In order to turn and run, you must put your guard down.
Other survivors from the train wreck appear later in the game as demented re-animated versions of themselves in the form of boss battles. This would be a nice touch if we spent enough time with these characters on the train to care about them, or know what they look like. All the boss battles in the game follow the same formula of exploiting a weakness of the boss while dodging their attacks with a quick time event. Honestly, the game is at its most fun during these boss battles, because more complex gameplay is involved than simply waving your arms around.
When you progress beyond the menu, which sets a great tone for a horror game, it becomes very apparent that this is the same team that brought us theHouse of the Dead arcade rail shooters. Rise of Nightmares feels very much like it should be on-rails, especially given how impossible it is to figure out where you need to go without the auto move feature. The graphics are seriously sub-par for a 360 game, and even more so for a horror game when compared to such benchmarks in the genre as the Silent Hill or Dead Space series. The extremely small number of models used for enemies makes the zombies very unbelievable. The gore of the game is exactly what one would expect from a rail arcade game; over-exaggerated splashes of blood which are juxtaposed on top of the screen in the general area you hit an enemy. The environments are uninspired and poorly rendered, lit like a 90s arcade game, and there are quite a few instances of noticeable graphical mergers.
The necessary sense of immersion for a horror game to work is totally absent. When attacking, the game shows you your hands and weapon, but when interacting with the environment, your character does nothing. Gears turn, gates open, levers flip, all without any input from your character on screen. Many of the devices used in the environments are too cliched to be horrific; hallways and pools filled with blood, iron maiden trap doors, searching through entrails and blood-filled toilets to find keys to continue through the level, and so on. The one well designed, creepy enemy of the game, Ernst, a juggernaut of a man wearing a full-face eyeless metal mask, is also one of the easiest to deal with since all you do is silently avoid him.
The game suffers from some game design problems as well, most notably cheap deaths (such as floor spikes and guillotines), combined with checkpoints that are too far apart. The game only saves at the beginning of each new section, which makes for roughly once every half hour to hour, and the checkpoints along the way are extremely random, sometimes being as much as five or even ten minutes of gameplay behind where you died. Save points being so far apart led to at least two hours of lost gameplay in total during my time with the game.
The voice acting of the characters is extremely over done and hackneyed, and the voices of the creatures are not scary at best (and camp at worst), and the game does not use surround sound in the least. TMusic is the one area that the game truly excels. I feel that if you put the music alongside a better executed game it would have done a great job of setting the player on edge and making for a great atmosphere. Unfortunately, it cannot rise above the mire when placed against the poor execution of the rest of the game.
Rise of Nightmares was marketed as a true horror experience for Kinect. I'm sorry to say that it was seriously miss-billed. If you pick up Rise of Nightmares wanting a survival horror experience, you will be sorely disappointed. If, on the other hand, you get it hoping for a zombie slasher akin to something you might find at your local arcade, you will likely have a lot of fun for the 7 or 8 hours it will take to get through the story proper, and then have a great time with the "Endless Nightmare" mode that opens up.
For all its faults, it does show some potential for what's in store for future Kinect games. Had the mechanics of Rise of Nightmares been put in a setting that was not trying to be a horror game (such as aliens on a spaceship), it would likely have been received better. As it is, SEGA had an arcade developer make a game that was marketed as something that it never set out to be, which has caused many, including myself, to seriously question our $50 investment.