Surviving Horror 2013 Part III – Fast times at Leafmore High
Released at the peak of survival horror's quality (or at least the Alone In The Dark/Resident Evil style one, anyway), Obscure takes the tried and true Resident Evil formula, adds a few things and sets it all in a high school. It'd be easy to dismiss them as cheap gimmicks implemented to vainly mask the fact that it's a generic survival horror game, and to be fair, I feel like Obscure would lose its edge without these things. Without its approach to co-op and its characters, it would play out like a rather generic and top heavy survival horror game, and by generic, I mean generic with a capital G. In other words, it feels like Obscure works not necessarily because of its overall structure, but because of its theme and its approach to the survival horror genre. Oddily enough, it's these things that'll make the game well worth your time.
Leafmore high school is no ordinary school – at least, not once you head into the basement. Kenny Matthews finds this out after chasing somebody down to the basement and finds himself surrounded by cages with some syringes poking around the place. Not only that, but there are some people in there who seem to be mentally scarred, and monsters in the darkness. Just as he's about to escape, the door shuts, trapping Kenny in the basement with the monsters. Kenny's girlfriend and sister notice that he hadn't come home that night and, alongside two guys, they decide to search the school for him. It's like a teen horror movie – starting off with a dark, scary scene showing Kenny investigating and then getting trapped in the basement before it transitions to a brighter scene of people entering the school. As you play through the game, you'll find notes that'll unravel the mystery and the final scenes will bring it all to light, ending the game on a satisfying note
Funny enough, for a game that has such a tense atmosphere, its story carries a rather campy tone. From its characters throwing out goofy and totally radical one liners to the exaggerated stereotypical roles (jock, nerd, hot chick, crazy professor guy) placed upon each character – hell, the title screen featuring Still Waiting by Sum 41 ought to tip you off about what this is all about, which basically boils down to poking at teen horror flicks the same way the Scream movies poked at slasher films. As such, things like most of the plot being given away at the start, underdeveloped characters and possibly convoluted motivations towards the end are a given. But there is something that can be legitimately bothersome. Since you're playing as two characters at once (either the AI or a second player controls the other character), you'd think that there'd be more to this than abilities, right? Well, any sensible person would, but for Hydravision, not quite. For characters with different stereotypes determining their personalities, they seem to be thinking the exact same thing and even reacting the exact same way as one another during certain scenes. Eh, I guess they were a few Euros short and told the writer to be on his way before he finished writing the dialogue. Thankfully, there are times where they do act as you'd expect them to, and from there, the cheesy teen horror feeling is retained, which is what makes the game work well.
Beats getting boiled alive, having your carcass processed and being served for lunch, I guess.
If you've ever played a survival horror like the first three Resident Evil games, you'll definitely feel at home with this game. Obscure employs fixed camera angles, tank controls, aiming mechanics that lock your legs in place and very simple, oftentimes braindead puzzles. There are some things done to try and make those feel refreshing – being able to look left and right a bit isn't so bad, especially during co-op play; and using your flashlight to destroy the monsters' dark shields so that you can shoot at them can make things feel more tense, especially when there are lots of monsters making their way towards you and especially once your torch overheats. I'd also argue that the higher than normal difficulty (unless you're playing on the easy difficulty mode where there's more ammo and monsters are easier to take down) is what tried to help it stand out. At the beginning of the game, you only have a flashlight and a baseball bat to defend yourself with, meaning that if an enemy was to jump out, you'd have to scramble around to keep it away from you while looking for a gun and some ammo to even the odds a bit. Plus the bosses can throw you through a loop when you can't shine a light source on them as they require their darkness shield thingo to be destroyed before you can blast them to kingdom come. That's if you have enough ammo to do so, of course! Well, I mean, you could use that lead pipe too, but bosses take a ton of hits and you're basically screwed. Don't get to that point.
Even then, that's Obscure being good. It tenses you up with a seemingly desolate atmosphere, making you think that monsters can pop up at any time. It can also force you to decide between fight and flight or how to fight the boss without getting your balls rocked. Any good survival horror game would do that to you. But when Obscure isn't giving you the heebee jeebies, it carries with it the same problems most survival horrors of it ilk does – the puzzles only really work in the context of exploring the school because on their own, they're a wee bit too simple, mainly involving the finding of keys, the combining of items and the boosting of comrades into vents because even a key can't unlock certain doors. Wow. Also, while extended combat sessions in these type of games can feel like a prolonged anxiety attack, Obscure just drags it on and not only does it make things significantly less tense – moreso if bosses are reused on a dime - but it becomes clear just how clunky the combat system is in conjunction with the camera angles. Come on guys, you know how to elicit real scares, there's no need to have fake ones too!
You may have noticed that I've referred to co-op quite a bit, and may be wondering how it really works in Obscure. For those in the know, co-op is Obscure's hook. Out of five characters, you play as two – one that you control, and one that either a second player or the AI will control. Not only that, but each character has their own special abilities. From better physical strength to better healing and faster lockpicking, each of these characters will be useful in solving this mystery and finding Kenny. In fact, Josh (the nerd) is invaluable because he can determine whether it's worth staying in the room to find stuff or to move on. Some would also find Shannon (Kenny's sister) useful for the fact that she helps you find items and solve puzzles, but I'm more interested in her mad first aid skills, especially since inventory management is done in real time. She simply saves time finding stuff, that's all. That being said, while they're all useful in their own ways, the game can be beaten with any combination of these characters. Part of it is that while they're better in areas of combat than others, beyond Shannon's healing boost, the differences are minute. Firing faster sounds cool until you realize that you blow through ammo much more quickly, plus the rate the others shoot at is good enough. Faster lockpicking is great because it's done in real time, but the others can lockpick at an acceptable rate while the other person can fend off pursuing monsters.
But most importantly, anybody can die, and death is permanent. So if you want to keep certain benefits, you may want to keep them alive. Keep in mind that they can't take heaps of damage, either - a few bludgeonings to the face will send them to the canvas. At least you can rob their dead corpses. Just try to keep at least one alive or else, it'll be game over. But don't worry – your buddy's got your back! While most would be quick to get a real life buddy of their's to be player two, don't be so hasty if you're only doing this because you may find the AI to be terrible, as the AI is far from that. It'll keep you covered when you pick locks or if you need somebody to shoot with you. They won't get in your way or be stupid enough to get themselves killed (nope, that's usually an accident, sometimes my fault). It's amazing that a low budget game from 2004 has better AI than the multi million dollar Call Of Duty games. I also find that with a real life companion, not only are things less tense due to the fact that you two can strategize in the real world and all that, but the camera can often put your mate off screen because it follows you and only you, making it hard for him/her to be on the same page as you if they find themselves lagging behind because of some boxes or whatever. Bloody hell dude, keep up – it'd suck if you died because the camera didn't show you on screen!
That's my warning shot! You got it!?
While it borrows a lot of its gameplay from Resident Evil, its presentation is more Silent Hillian by nature. From the dark, vacant halls to the grungy basement, you'll always find yourself wondering what will come out of the sides to rip you apart. At least you have a flashlight and whatever lights you can find to help you find your way and/or some monsters. That always gives you a fighting chance, especially when you apply sticky tape to a gun and a flashlight – then you can not only see ahead, but also fire when ready! In other words, the lighting is quite effective in giving you a claustrophobic feeling as you make your way through the school. It's a bit weird how a high school can look more like a mental facility, but what do I know, I never stay at school when everybody else including most of the staff are gone! Anyway, it works when you consider that it's basically hosting what you'd assume would be a torture chamber or something sinister down below. Not to mention that some of the staff are a tad on the crazy side after school. Technically, this game is a bit all over the place – while the models are sharply rendered, the walls are a bit fuzzy, and while some animations are fluid, others are a bit stiff. Ah well, low budget, what can you do?
But the big thing is in the monster designs. Based on the growls and screams heard in the beginning of the game, you'd expect some real abominations, and while it is a bit disappointing that they don't make you poop your pants, they're still gruesome enough to make you want to kill them as soon as possible. There does tend to be some model recycling, which is a bummer – unless it's established that a monster attacks in groups of similar looking monsters (zombies) or is virtually immortal and can strike at any time (Nemesis from Resident Evil 3 springs to mind here), do not recycle monsters. They lose their initial scare factor and wind up looking silly rather than scary, especially the boss monsters. Those monsters ought to be the highlight and yet, when I'm fighting a boss monster that I've already killed on the same playthrough, suddenly, it loses its scary aura. Bugger.
The sound design is on key with this one. I've already mentioned the Sum 41 song and how it fits with the whole trendy teen horror type of deal, but I've neglected to mention the voice acting. It's pretty corny, just like the dialogue. It feels like they either underact or overact, which is a common thing found in horror movies in general and in that sense, it works. It's never to an offensively terrible point or even bad at all, though anybody expecting good acting should look elsewhere. Despite that, the music and sound effects can definitely give you the creeps. Between the eerie choir performed by the children's choir of the Opera National De Paris, the droney ambient noise and even no music at all, it creates a rather haunting atmosphere that'll draw you in as you nervously wander through the hallways. Sudden clatters, screams and growls add a hell of a lot to the atmosphere as you wonder what could be around the corner. Then BAM, some fast paced beat plays as you fight a monster, adding more pressure! Damn, this is such a good composition...
Obscure receives a 7/10. It teeters between being a semi unique experience and a generic survival horror game. The co-op feature is pretty cool and the AI does a respectable job of controlling your sidekick, especially when a flesh and blood buddy might find him/herself getting wrecked off screen because the camera only focuses on you, plus the tension is lessened by a fair bit. But a real life mate can make things more fun. The story works rather well for what it's trying to do, but there are times where a bit more time and money would make it a lot better. But where it really shines is in how the first half of the game really sucks you in as you explore the dark, twisted hallways of the empty school, hoping that you can gather some supplies before you get jumped by monsters. You pray that each of these students can survive the onslaught and find Kenny, who hopefully hasn't died by that point. It not only highlights the strengths of old school survival horror gameplay, but it also highlights its weaknesses. Overall, I would happily recommend that everybody tries this out, but ONLY if you're a fan of things that may or may not go bump in the night.
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