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Rise of Nightmares preview: Less fear, more tension


Can a Kinect game be scary?

"Kinect is a full-bodied experience, so there is an immersion to it. Part of a horror game is feeling like you're in it," producer Satoshi Ito told me when I asked him that very question, via translator Sam Mullen. "On top of that, Kinect works in the dark -- you can turn off your lights and play Kinect. So we feel like if someone wanted to focus on the pure, make-you-crap-your-pants horror aspect of it, they can."

I didn't crap my pants at Sega's dimly-lit Rise of Nightmares demo event in San Francisco (embarrassing!); luckily for me, the game wasn't that scary. After flailing, ducking and twisting my way through four different areas over the course of a few hours, I found no fear -- at least, this Kinect game wasn't scaring me. But what it lacked in frights, it more than made up for with wonderfully tense moments.

Gallery: Rise of Nightmares (8/17/2011) | 11 Photos

Sega had set up four different stations to demonstrate different parts of the game: the E3 demo (which we've already talked about), a boss fight against a pair of ballerinas at the end of the third chapter, a combat-heavy section in the first stage of the fourth chapter, and the very beginning of the game.

Now, seeing as how I had never played the game before, I probably should've started with the first stage, but instead I went right to that boss fight. Armed with a simple hatchet, I encountered the two knife-wielding dancers, atop a nondescript wooden stage. From the sidelines, someone (presumably their instructor) yelled for my head. Like most boss fights, it mainly revolved around pattern recognition (they're twirling -- duck!) and violently punching the air. I also kicked a few times, too.

That portion, while pretty quick, set a wonderful tone for the remainder of my time with the game. While the boss fight itself was standard fare, the way I engaged in it wasn't -- and it was totally tiring and rewarding, to boot. Something about ducking, then kicking, then putting my leg out to run up to a crazy ballerina so I could shadowbox her face into dust really hit that sweet spot. It was just plain fun.

Though I was sure it was simply "beginner's luck" or some kind of fluke, I moved on past the boss fight into the next demo area, definitely the most difficult of the four: the first stage of the fourth chapter. Suddenly, I was inside of a cave, moving around piles of skulls looking for a key to a locked gate. Here I got my first taste of the free movement, which ... well, it's a bit clumsy, to be honest. For me, it seemed a bit too sensitive when trying to turn my shoulders and not sensitive enough when trying to control my movement speed. Interacting with the environment was a cinch -- when something that you can interact with is in your view, an icon pops up, and you put out your hand and touch the object in question.

When you're looking for a bit less freedom, you can have the game move you along by putting your right hand in the air. Then the game goes on-rails and moves you to the next segment, though there are segments where you can't employ this feature. One such off-rails sequence had me running across the top of a derailed train as I stood in place, visions of youth spent crushing a Power Pad beneath my feet raced through my head.

Back to that key, once I found it and opened the gate, I emerged out in a courtyard teeming with zombies. I picked up an acid gun, a MacGyver-esque doodad that uses a bellows as a delivery method for hot, hot acid. Once swarmed by the undead, my weapon broke and I started to panic in the most wonderful way. I flailed against my attackers to knock them back, quickly dropping my fists and putting them back up to target different enemies. Slowly, I was killed, but those last brief moments desperately battling to free myself from the clutches of these monsters was gaming magic. I would've loved to see the look on my face then.

The first stage was entirely tutorial, establishing the controls and game story, so I won't bother touching on that. The E3 demo -- well, let me just say Richard was spot-on with his comments about the chainsaw, but I'm still kinda ticked that I didn't have to pantomime starting the thing up. That stuck with me.

The tension from not having a weapon on hand, or from your weapon being about to break, is masterfully delivered in the more action-oriented segments of Rise of Nightmares. Don't be fooled: this game is in no way scary, but it manages to elicit emotion more because it's a Kinect game. I'm more connected to the experience having to physically punch and turn and walk my way through this game world. Trying to run from a zombie by moving an analog stick is very different than moving your whole body. And it was because of this that I had a blast playing Rise of Nightmares -- and enjoyed another night of life on earth wearing clean underwear.

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