One of the things that drive me nuts about Resident Evil loyalists is how blind some of them are to the franchise's shortcomings. Sure, the original game improved upon elements found in the seminal PC horror game Alone in the Dark and Doctor Hauzer for the 3DO, but it also added a bit too much in the way of b-movie cheesiness and some really awful controls that haven't aged well at all. While Capcom's recent revitalization of the franchise, Resident Evil 4, is a truly remarkable game in its own right, the fact that it took almost seven years for the company to finally wise up to the modern era is a sticking point with me, at least. Oddly enough, the lousy play mechanics found in the older games rears its ugly head all to well in the Outbreak games on the PlayStation 2, which makes me appreciate a great little title like Obscure all the more.
What's Obscure, you ask? Well folks, Obscure is a bracingly good and frequently scary low-priced survival horror game by Hydravision and Microids' MC2 division, published by DreamCatcher Interactive. Available for the PC, Xbox, and PlayStation 2, the game puts you in the shoes and sneakers of four teens who get caught up in a wee bit too much after school activity when they decide to investigate the disappearance of one of their buddies. Naturally, the meddling kids soon discover that some mysteries are better left undisturbed, and the horrifying secrets of stately Leafmore High will come at them in full force once they're unlocked. Let's just say, detention has never been this bad, and the kids surely earn some major extra credit by the time the closing credits roll. Sure, the dialog isn't incredibly original, the game is relatively short (around 8-9 hours) and some of the twists and turns it takes are predictable for the genre. However, the game mines the teen horror flick genre for much gold and presentation is the main thing here with some stunning visuals and a fantastic use of darkness to bring true dread your way whenever you see it.
What Obscure really nails is a number of interesting innovations that make you wonder why they haven't been implemented sooner. For example, you get a sweet co-op mode allowing a second player to join in at any time, the inventory menu is onscreen and manageable, leaving you always aware of your surroundings, and then there's the flashlight dynamics First put to use brilliantly in Silent Hill, then improved upon in Siren (one of the most criminally underrated horror games ever), Obscure lets you use light as a weapon as well as a way to pierce the darkness. Moreover, unlike Doom 3, you actually get to tape the flashlights you find to the guns in the game, which makes these modern teens a hell of a lot smarter than some future badass Space Marine. In single player, the co-op dynamic means there are some tight spots where if you or your AI buddy are careless, you'll be dealing damage to each other as well as (or instead of) the monsters in the game. As long as you don't totally freak out, start blasting or swinging away wildly, and manage your health, you'll make it through alive.
Speaking of making it through alive, you can pair up any character with any other character and take advantage of their special skills. Josh and Shannon are the brainy, puzzle solving types, Stan is the man when it comes to quicker lock picking, Ashley is the queen of combat (for some reason, they teach weapons skills at Leafmore), and athletic Kenny can run faster that any of the others. Your ally AI is smart enough to watch your back and do battle if you're picking a lock and monsters drop by to take your lunch money, and you can switch over and control your partner at any time. Should you or your classmate die during the game, you'll control the remaining characters, but if they all buy the farm, welcome to Game Over and a trip back to your last save. By the way, the save system is a nifty one in which you use found CD's to store game data on. More fearless players will end up with a nice stack of unused discs by mod-game, but the last third of Obscure is filled with monsters and will have you burning discs faster than an out of work DJ looking for a gig.
As stated above, Obscure has great visuals for a budget title. Hydravision and MC2 very wisely used a combination of tracking camera angles and standard static backgrounds for the action, and the 3D engine is quite impressive from beginning to end. The character models look great, and details like Josh's wrinkled shirt and Audrey's thong waistband peeking out of her jeans are great touches that give the characters a bit more personality than the common swagger and attitude found in many other games. While the game does fall back intentionally on a few silly teen horror genre clichÃ©s, you won't see any gratuitous sex or nudity here. The only thing that's suggestive is the brief peek at Shannon's rear when she gets a boost up to an air vent. Now you know why some schools have dress codes- camouflage micro mini skirts just can't hide certain things. The environments are also excellently done, with plenty of details and interactive elements like chairs and janitor carts that can be pushed about and windows to break, which let in much needed light that's detrimental to monsters. Oh, and the monsters are pretty damn freaky here, and although you won't see all that many types, this actually works in the game's favor and makes sense as the story unfolds.
As for atmosphere, Obscure's use of darkness is absolutely chilling. When you see that sickly-looking black pattern swirling around, you'd best hope you have a flashlight handy to dispel the darkness coming your way. The game offers up a number of increasingly powerful guns and flashlights, and the only thing you need to manage other than ammo is sticky tape. Without it, the game plays like a slower-paced Doom 3 as you struggle to creep slowly through darkened areas and survive. Running in Obscure is necessary once you've cleared areas of creatures. Monsters come bursting through walls and some can leap huge distances, so it's best to take it slow as much as you can. The sound and sound production in the game is also excellent, with brooding music that keeps your heart pounding while the assorted moans, shuffling, and shifting sounds in the background will put you on edge. The voice acting is solid (you're not going to get award winning thespians in a horror flick, but what's here is enthusiastic and well-played) and if you're a fan of Sum 41 and Span, you'll get to hear them in the game, as well as a music video from each group as an umlockable bonus.
Speaking of unlockables, for a twenty-dollar game, the replay value is great in Obscure. You get three initial difficulty levels, new costume bonuses, the soundtrack opens up as you play and the game's true ending isn't revealed until you brave the hardest difficulty setting. The worst thing I could say about the game is that there are no real mind-blowing action sequences where you're going to fall off your chair screaming at the TV set. Be that as it may, the game still creeps under your skin and settles there patiently while chewing slowly on your nerves. Definitely not a bad deal, all things considered, and that it manages to actually add to and improve upon elements standard to the survival horror genre only makes Obscure a must for dedicated horror fans looking for something else to give them the chills from the moment they fire up the game. Now if only Hydravision and Microids could get the rights to Doctor Hauzer and reinvent that old corker of a game.
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