The set-up to Rise of Nightmares is pretty straightforward stuff. Josh is a drunk and a bit of an idiot. He's going on a marriage-saving trip through Eastern Europe when the train he's on is hijacked by scary weirdoes and his wife ends up kidnapped by an evil scientist who lives in a nasty castle and likes to do very strange experiments on people.
The pitch for Rise of Nightmares is a little more complicated. This is a free-movement first-person Kinect game for the survival horror audience: a title that is effectively going to test whether the Fruit Ninja and Dance Central crowd want to bash in shambling corpses and barrel through a campaign filled with grim horror and sickly amusing torture. It raises some interesting questions. Is Kinect up to it? And, beyond that, is the audience up for it?
The second question will only be answered on release. As for the first, though, it's looking tentatively positive. Sega's AM1 team, which is making the game, has implemented a back-to-basics control scheme with some clever asides - and while there's a bit of a learning curve, after a few minutes with Rise of Nightmares you'll pretty much get the hang of it.
Movement is admirably simple: step forward to start walking, and lean your shoulders to the left or right in order to turn. Cornering suddenly is still a bit awkward, to be honest, but if you get lost you can always raise your hand and the game will snap you onto rails and whisk you to your next objective. Traversal's also filled with clever shortcuts: items you can interact with show up as little icons, and you can surf through some parts of the game by seeing an icon in the distance and activating it by holding out your hand. This pulls you right to it, and feels a little like clicking on interesting parts of the screen in Myst. (Not that there were that many interesting parts of the screen in Myst LOL.)
Combat's not bad either: raise your fists to enter focus mode, and then swing your arms to attack with whichever melee weapon you currently have in your possession. The targeting lock-on seems intelligent enough, and there's a gentle layering of tactics, since Kinect can sense the height and angle of your swing, meaning you can take off arms and heads if you're good enough. Meanwhile, all your weapons will degrade over time, so you're always on the lookout for something new.
The weapons are everything you'd hope for, too: machetes, bits of pipe and chainsaws amongst the melee offerings, throwing knives and little test tubes of volatile chemicals - think grenades - when it comes to ranged combat. These tools of the trade are liberally scattered around the game's roomy environments, and when you're down to just your fists, there's a nice shove move you can fall back on to make room while you look for something else to get bludgeoning with.
Beyond the controls, the game's shaping up to be schlocky and pleasantly eccentric. It may not be on rails anymore, but it's still everything you'd expect from the team that made the House of the Dead arcade titles.
After a short, sharp teaser opening that I won't spoil, you find yourself on a train rattling through the wilds of some unlikely-looking forest. It's the perfect environment to get to grips with the control scheme. (You learn to crouch, incidentally, by ducking under the legs of some ballerinas practising in the corridor. Europe, eh?) But it also allows the developers to slowly mess with your mind as you journey further along the train, searching for your wife, while things gradually get curiouser and curiouser.
By the time that carriages are filled with splattered blood and there's a lunatic with an iron mask pulling the conductors to pieces, things have gotten pretty curiouser indeed, and that means it's time for a quick train derailing, followed by a bit of light platforming as you try to navigate carriage rooftops that are now tangled up in a swift-flowing river.
Platforming in a Kinect survival horror sounds like the worst thing ever - and I say that as a man who was once trapped in an elevator for an hour while the speakers pumped out Athlete songs - but it's largely painless with Rise of Nightmare's point-and-step scheme. Beyond that, it's into the woods and then on to that weird castle.
Rise of Nightmares is fairly gory, but there's an element of Looney Tunes to the whole thing. Hands are lopped off and axes go into heads while sexy zombie nurses are decapitated - this is all in a single cut-scene, incidentally - but the developers are in on the joke throughout. It's almost cute: reanimated corpses shuffle towards you with Dudley Moore haircuts, and the mad doctor argues with his wife on the phone as he carries out his inhuman experiments.
Meanwhile, although you can go wherever you want, the game's quite good at directing you through its stone-walled corridors and creepy torture chambers. There are gentle puzzles to be tackled, of the switching-on-generators-and-finding-keys variety, and enemies grow increasingly dangerous the further you progress, some spitting acid onto the floor, others coming equipped with weird metal arms and legs bolted on - perfect for channelling deadly bolts of electricity in certain environments.
It's not hard to imagine Rise of Nightmares working as a standard House of the Dead game, actually, but if Kinect adds anything, it does so by drawing you deeper into the experience. Weird as it sounds, when you're standing up and shifting around to move through the environments, it feels like the difference between watching a horror film at the cinema and going on a carnival ghost train.
I love ghost trains, and I'm certainly interested to see how Rise of Nightmares turns out. The control system may not be perfect, but it's both ambitious and helpful, while the game beneath it looks creepy and funny in equal measure.