Reviewed: April 21, 2005
Released: April 6, 2005
The survival horror genre has been over-hyped and overwrought for so long now that you can often walk into a game store and see a new title you've never heard of before, despite a rabid scouring of your favorite gaming websites or magazines. Such is the case with Obscure, which got little fanfare with its recent release. Its gameplay offers little to invigorate the genre, but that doesn't mean it's not worth your time.
Like other survival titles before it, you are in control of characters trapped in a world far from the comforts of home with enough dread and menace to rival a Haitian town meeting. Obscure plays out like an episode of One Tree Hill (no, I don't watch it, my girlfriend does) from its "emo music" opening right into the beginning scene that starts the game proper. This allows you, as the player, to discover the plot along with the characters. What unfolds is something like a cross between The Faculty and Resident Evil with a dash of Darkness Falls thrown in for ambiance.
Now we've all played a game like this at some point since the seminal Resident Evil made its auspicious debut on the PlayStation back in 1996. Back then, the stuff of B horror movies sent chills up the spines of eager gamers with a Romero-esque touch never before imagined on a game console. The problem is that the formula established in that title has been warmed over in approximately a boatload of bad games. Techniques gleaned from classic horror movies that were revolutionary back then are now considered prosaic at best.
Basically, the plot revolves around a group of teenagers at a local high school that become embroiled in hideous plot of Obscure does a lot of things differently, which is refreshing if not entirely successful. One of those things is the streamlined interface. Using an inventory scheme similar to Metal Gear Solid, you can easily run through your things and equip them with minimal fuss. By keeping the screen free of as much clutter as possible, you feel more immersed in the world such as it is.
Unlike games such as Silent Hill, which takes you to surreal locales scarcely seen outside of nightmares, Obscure keeps you in the very real location familiar to most gamers and a source of great horror, namely Leafmore High School. If you've ever seen The Faculty, or even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you've probably entertained the notion of sinister goings on after the sun goes down in the dark hallways of your local center of education; especially around report card time. I certainly found it more interesting than vampires at the prom.
The combat consists of little more than either brandishing a weapon (the usual guns, pipes, crowbars, what have you) or even some minor hand-to-hand action that won't be confused with any Tekken moves. But using light as a weapon in the form of the flashlight's beam, which can be boosted for short periods of time, or removing boards from windows to let in sunlight (in rather short supply as you would imagine) is an interesting enough angle in a tired genre. There is something to be said for a developer not afraid to take on industry giant id software's better wisdom by uniting the flashlight with the gun thanks to a roll of duct tape. How many of you wanted to do that in Doom 3?
Thankfully, as the PS2 nears the end of its life cycle, developers are finding ways to cut down on load times and that shows in Obscure even when going from one large area to the next using a variation of the classic through-the-door transitions of Resident Evil.
Obscure does a great job of making the game feel like you're watching an episode of one of the current popular teen-oriented shows on Fox or “The WB”. It even starts with a stylistic intro to the cast of characters set to a rocking soundtrack (either Sum 41 or Span according to the box credits – I don't care for that kind of derivative music myself) that could be on any one of those shows leading seamlessly right into the opening scene of the game.
MC2 has done a fine job of rendering the locations of the haunted halls of Leafmore High School in a palette of blues, grays and browns while giving each of the detailed areas a believable amount of clutter and grime without laying it on too thick. Often games like this tend to be either too clean and cold like a museum or too gritty and nasty like the Silent Hill series. This place looks like a high school most of us attended, not too new, not too run down, but with suitably dreary emptiness in the half light that creeped us out whenever we found ourselves the last ones in the building at dusk.
The lighting in the game works very well, with nice touches to the flashlight and anywhere that light manages to stream in through cracks in walls, hatches, or boarded up windows. For a game that puts a great emphasis on light as a weapon, it was important that the developers not drop the ball on the luminance physics. I always enjoy playing with the flashlight in dark corners of rooms looking to see how shadows play or how different surfaces handle the reflections. While this is no Half-Life 2 or Doom 3 engine, it works well for what it is asked to do.
Animations however are a different thing. Most games of the genre suffer from stiff walking animations and Obscure is no different though I give them credit for giving each character a personality in their body language.
Another hallmark of the genre that Resident Evil fostered was the infamous bad voiceover. To be fair the voiceover work isn't the worst in a video game of any type - even a survival horror game – but it still gets a little laughable sometimes. The sound effects however work well to establish an appropriately creepy mood especially in cut scenes. I really enjoyed the beginning of the game where the starting character chases after a shadowy figure that takes his backpack while his back is turned in the boy's gym locker room.
Every time you enter the next room, a door or gate swings shut behind the thief leading you forward into unknown areas of the school. All the while the music and sound effects get progressively moodier as the smile on your face gets wider. This is a horror movie playing out before you and you are the one in control. This is what all good games of the genre should do more often; set the mood and keep it going.
The game doesn't take very long to complete by most standards. As the consoles near the end of their life cycles, the familiar habits of game development companies start to appear; games are priced more moderately and are shorter with a little less budget than during the heyday of the console's life. That's not to say that Obscure doesn't deliver a decent experience, but when it comes to the genre there are simply few surprises left and thus should perhaps not be dragged out into a double digit hour length.
Without the benefit of secrets or collectibles - something that tends to take often takes away from the flow of a survival horror game – there is little reason to go back and complete it a second or third time.
The game's mechanics have you running around in control of a main character and a sub-character that can be given rudimentary commands. The co-operative mode simply lets a second player pick up another controller and play as that sub-character rather than have the somewhat sketchy AI handle them. This makes for a more interesting game but would have been much better as an online component with full voice support.
It's time this modern era of the Playstation 2 and Xbox for developers to quit making excuses and put online functionality into their games. If a second player can participate in a game, there's no reason that player shouldn't be able to do so from anywhere in the world via the Internet.
If nothing else, you can hardly pass up a game of this quality for a mere $20 on a shelf of games that often cost around $50 that provide less entertainment.
Obscure doesn't claim to do anything new in the survival horror genre other than a stylistic approach in the vein of the popular subgenre of teen horror movies. This isn't going to invigorate survival horror games by any stretch, but it does its job well by sticking to the conventions of the source material despite a reliance on teen-aged stereotypes.
For a game that relies on teamwork and the use of light as a weapon, you can't go too wrong with a budget priced title that looks and sounds as good as this one even without the online component. Hell, this game is almost as scary as high school was.