Release Date: March 30, 2005
A lot of survival horror games draw their inspiration from the movies. For Resident Evil, it’s George Romero’s “Dead Trilogy”; Eternal Darkness is an H.P. Lovecraft story from the word go; and Silent Hill wears its countless influences on its sleeve.
Obscure (also known as Mortifilia: Veil of Darkness), on the other hand, comes straight out of the mid-nineties, from a period when Scream and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” briefly revitalized American horror movies. A host of inferior imitators immediately sank it again.
Obscure is one of those imitators, set in an American high school called Leafmore, starring a cast of characters who’re all too good-looking to be teenagers, and featuring a pop-punk soundtrack with bands that you’ll hate in a year, like Sum 41. If you check out the official website, it’s even got the five main characters doing a Kevin Williamson pose lineup in front of the school.
At the beginning of the game, Kenny Matthews stays late after basketball practice. Someone steals his bag, and Kenny chases the thief into the school’s basement. There, he finds a loaded pistol; a student who’d mysteriously disappeared, locked inside a padded cell and scared to death of some mysterious captor; and a nearly unstoppable monster.
The next day, Kenny’s disappeared. His girlfriend Ashley, sister Shannon, and friend Josh stick around after the school’s closed so they can search for him, and wind up trapped inside the administration building. As they search for Kenny and a way off the premises, they find that Leafmore High School has had quite a few disappearances before this, that the school’s founders were probably insane; and that when the sun sets, photosensitive and inhuman monsters sprowl the halls.
As a survival-horror game, Obscure does everything that I wish Resident Evil: Outbreak’s offline mode had done. You have up to five characters to choose from, but you can only play as one or two of them at a time. The unused characters, instead of being fed into a metaphorical meat grinder by blatantly stupid AI, cool their heels in a central safe zone, such as a well-lit courtyard, while you go out and do your thing.
When you’re in the field, so to speak, you can swap between your active characters by pressing the Black button, as long as they’re both in the same room. You can also give your AI buddy commands with the D-pad, or, most importantly, plug in a second controller and let someone else play. Two-player simultaneous Obscure is a bit clumsy, owing to the often-bizarre camera angles, but when you’re trying to pick a lock and five monsters suddenly spawn right next to you, you’ll be glad your buddy’s along for the ride.
When you start the game, you’re unarmed and empty-handed. Fortunately, for a whitebread suburban high school, Leafmore has a lot of weapons lying around. You can find and wield baseball bats, chunks of pipe, pistols, and shotguns. If you run across a spool of tape, you can attach a flashlight to your firearms to help frighten off the monsters. Early in the game, you can break out windows and let the sunlight in, instantly barbecuing any monster that gets close.
To progress from area to area, you’ll need to solve puzzles and circumvent obstacles, naturally, but those puzzles’ and obstacles’ solutions are more intuitive and logical than what you usually find in a survival-horror title. I can’t help but think that it’s because Obscure’s the only game in this genre I’ve ever seen that was designed by Westerners. (Specifically, it was made by the new French developer Hydravision.)
For example, at one point, your goal is to rescue the school nurse, who’s locked herself in the infirmary. To get to her, you have to fix a blown fusebox in the cafeteria, thus turning the lights back on and clearing the monsters out of the building.
If Obscure was a Japanese game, you’d have to go halfway around the school to someplace like the gym’s locker room, where a powerful monster’s unknowingly guarding the scarab key. That would unlock the supply closet in the gym where you’d find a puzzle that involved playing cards and the current phase of the moon. Solve it and you’d get the can opener, which would open a can in the cafeteria that inexplicably has a fuse in it. It would have the continuity and narrative sense of a fever dream.
Instead, you simply pick the lock on a supply closet, grab a box of fuses, and go rewire the fusebox. It’s simple, it’s easy, and it makes sense. There’s one “put the gewgaw into the thingy to create a puzzle” sequence, just to remind you what genre this is, but otherwise, Obscure exists in a sensible world.
That does lend itself to some remarkably short sequences, which leads quite naturally into another mild criticism: Obscure ain’t all that long. I hit the halfway point on this incomplete demo version in about three hours, not counting a restart. In the full version, you’ll need to win it on Hard mode to see the game’s real ending, and even Normal mode can be remarkably difficult (there are monsters in the school basement that can chew you up and spit you out in three hits), but Obscure still flies by.
I’m looking forward to the full version of the game, as the demo cuts out right when things are getting really interesting. Obscure is a breath of fresh air in the survival-horror genre, and if future games emulate some of its conventions, it could revitalize a fading style of gameplay.
More articles about Obscure