Sunday, May 27, 2007

Obscure Post-Mortem

Obscure is a game that lives up to its title. Developed by French studio Hydravision in 2004 and released in the Euro-Australian market long before it made its way to the US, the game never really made much of a splash. Which is a shame, because if you're into old-school survival horror, Obscure serves up a unique, if derivative, experience.

Obscure's really like a trip back in time to late 90s teen horror flicks. The first character you control meets a hideous fate before the opening credits roll, and then you'll find yourself leading a group of teens out to investigate their missing schoolmate. You'll end up traipsing the length and breadth of an American high school while simultaneously fighting off waves of darkness-spewing plant mutants.

Your team of groovy mystery solvers starts out with just three members, but you'll soon pick up some friends to round out the posse to an even five. Each character has a special ability, although none of the abilities are ever absolutely necessary. Stan, for example, can pick locks quickly and without needing to use the length of wire that everyone else requires. Shannon can advise you of where you'll need to go next to progress, while Kenny can run a little faster than anyone else. You can play as any character in your party, and you can take a second character with you as backup. The remainder of your group remain at a central "meeting point", which you can return to in order to swap people in and out of your expeditionary party.

It would be polite to say that Obscure references Robert Rodriguez's 1998 sci-fi teen horror romp The Faculty, but it would be more accurate to say that it steals from it wholesale. Entire level designs are taken straight from the film, along with large chunks of the plot, and the character model for Stan looks so much like actor Josh Hartnett that you'll be surprised to hear someone else's voice reading his lines. What it doesn't take from The Faculty it draws from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, including a very familiar school courtyard and foyer, and a principal who bears an uncanny resemblance in appearance and character to Armin Shimmerman's portrayal of Principal Snyder.

The single player action isn't particularly inspiring. The game borrows gameplay elements from Resident Evil and Silent Hill, without really surpassing either of those classic franchises. You'll be moving through the interiors of school buildings, gathering ammunition and health items, duking it out with nasty critters, and solving simple puzzles. The two main innovations come from the use of light, and the second character.

It seems the monsters in Obscure are mutants created from a rare light-hating plant. Seeing as ammunition is brutally scarce even on the easiest difficulty, you'll be doing everything you can to pour light onto your enemies before finishing them up with a well placed bullet. Early on in the game, while the sun's still up, this involves smashing in windows to let the evening sunlight pour into classrooms. Some particularly tense scenes involve you working your way around the outside of rooms, near the windows, avoiding nasties waiting in the room's centre. Later, once the sun goes down, things become more problematic, but luckily the game lets you acquire flashlights, which can be sticky-taped to the barrels of your firearms.

The real genius, though, comes from the second character. In a single player game, your ally will support you with firepower, lighting, and the occasional bit of advice. You can switch between your active characters on the fly at the press of a button, and the two characters can even use healing items on each other to create healing support during combat.

But if you have a second controller sitting around, the game really begins to shine. Drop-in drop-out co-operative gameplay means that a friend can take control of that second character and turn an otherwise average survival horror-game into a fairly strategic social experience. The second player adds a whole new element to the game, allowing you to lay down covering fire, have one person providing light while another explores, or just have someone watch your back while you're working on a particularly tricky puzzle or door lock.

As far as I'm aware Obscure is the only modern survival horror featuring two-player co-op on a single console, and it's an absolutely fantastic idea. Everyone knows that horror movies are better when watched with friends, so why have we been consigned to playing survival horror alone?

The graphics are largely adequate to the job, although not special. The game makes extensive use of darkness, to the point where it occasionally becomes difficult to find your way around simple environments. Luckily a quick brightness adjustment on your TV will fix the problem.

The sound effects for monsters, weapons and suchlike are unexceptional, but the game makes fantastic use of ambient sounds including distant screams and breaking windows to suggest terrifying mayhem in progress just out of sight.

The music is even better than the ambient sound. In fact, it's absolutely fantastic. Opening music by Sum 41 and closing music by Span set up the teen-horror atmosphere, and the in-game themes feature rousing orchestral instrumentals and the creepy tones of a children's choir. You'll frequently want to stop and just bathe in how awesome the soundtrack is.

Is Obscure scary? Not in the same way as Silent Hill. The game makes use of very few scripted sequences, instead relying largely on the game's inherent difficulty and atmosphere to keep you on the edge of your seat. It's effective, but if you're looking for cat-in-the-locker or haunted-funhouse sequences you might be disappointed.

Arkem and I slogged through the easy mode beginning-to-end last night in about five hours, so it's not a particularly long game. There's a New Game Plus-type option which gives you access to new costumes and weapons, but none of that is very enticing. Even easy mode is pretty unforgiving, though - we did a lot of saving and loading - and normal might be a challenge for even survival horror veterans. When your characters die, they stay dead, and the game just teleports you back to the meeting place for you to continue on with whatever surviving teenagers you have left. There's also one bitterly stupid sequence involving a collapsing floor that can take several reloads if you're unlucky, but it's thankfully quite brief.

If you enjoy the survival horror genre, you should absolutely grab a friend check out Obscure, if only via rental, as a pleasant change from the genre kings. Or at least to tide you over until Silent Hill Origins finally makes its way onto store shelves.

1 comment:

arkem said...

What he said!