Release Date: April 4, 2005
Drawing the inevitable comparisons to Resident Evil, Obscure is one of those survival horror games that keep cropping up all over the place, but it does a few things different from the normal style of those games. For one thing, it does not draw inspiration from the works of George Romero or H.P. Lovecraft. Instead, it pulls its genre from the good old American classic style of movies where a bunch of mid-twenties actors pretending to be teenagers get out there and get killed for your personal amusement. Scream and The Faculty are where this movie is sucking ideas from, and it pretty much works.
Obscure starts with a young jock charging off after an obvious lure, finding a secret underground lab beneath the school gym, being attacked by shadowy creatures and being sealed in the lab by an unseen enemy. Cue loud rock song. So yeah, this is a very American styled game even if it was made by a French developer, giving it a much different style and tone than previous survival horror titles.
Let me give you an example.
When I loaded up Obscure the first real "puzzle" I was presented with was the following: All of my controllable characters are sitting around in a room with a locked door. I'll need to leave through that door. How do I open it? Now, as far as I could tell, this wasn't actually supposed to be a puzzle. Bear in mind, however, that I was pretty firmly in the traditional survival horror mindset fueled by Resident Evil, Silent Hill and the like. I was expecting to have to shove a desk aside and find a key, or open an air vent and find an emblem which would unlock the window so one or two of the characters could crawl out and make their way back up through the building to unlock the door from the other side, or some other convoluted solution that could only possibly make sense in the land of video game logic.
Eventually, out of pure annoyance, I had one of my characters grab a baseball bat and beat on the door for a little while. The glass window in the door broke and my character stuck his arm through and casually unlocked the door. This method of "unlocking" proceeded to work with pretty much every glass-windowed door I came across, and as an added bonus, almost all of the vending machines in the building.
For about 10 minutes right then, and on and off through the next few hours of the game, I was thinking that Obscure was the single best survival horror game ever made, not solely because of the part where I rampaged through a school building smashing anything that looked breakable (although that probably says a few things about my psyche that aren't entirely healthy). No, I was thinking that because almost all of the puzzle solutions in the game are as straightforward and logical as that. Is there a door that has no key at all? Grab some acid from the nearby science lab and melt the lock off. Is a door blocked by some piece of furniture? Shove it out of the way and go through. Can sunlight alone kill the monster bearing down on you? Rip the boards off the window next to you and let some sunlight in.
It's like the development team went through a real school building (although one more akin to a college campus than a high school) and took note of what you could expect to find in there and then built puzzles around those objects instead of arbitrarily shaped locks and plugs. This is kind of refreshing.
That's not all that Obscure does which is refreshing, mind you. Given that most survival horror games revolve around mutagenic monsters, zombies, or other undead, it's kind of invigorating to see that the horrors in Obscure revolve mostly around bizarre plant-like creatures borne of darkness or something. Thus, they can be killed with sunlight (for preference) or a good flashlight beam aimed right at them. Even if the flashlight beam is too weak to kill them outright, it will at least weaken and slow them enough that your heroes can whale on them with a baseball bat.
Heroes? Yes, you get a few to work with. Kenny, the jock-kid from the intro, has at least a couple of people who care enough about finding him that they stay at school after hours to try and hunt him down. It's sort of like the classic adventure game Maniac Mansion in that you control a team of a few characters, each with a special skill. (Except that it's not really like Maniac Mansion because Maniac Mansion didn't revolve around shooting things, didn't take place in a school building and it was much, much harder to get your entire team slaughtered violently. Still possible, but difficult. So really it's not that much like Maniac Mansion, but please pretend it is so the analogy works. Ahem.)
Anyway, it's like this: your characters each have a skill you can activate. Some characters have skills like "can pick locks at a fast speed" or "can do a double-damage special attack." Other characters have less tangible skills, like "can figure out the premise of a puzzle" or "can identify all obtainable items in the room, even hidden ones."
It's possible to finish the game without any specific special power, which is good because Obscure is a pretty hard game. Enemies are fast-moving, quite vicious, and like to hold you down while other enemies take turns ripping you to bits. It's not just hard, but also a bit cheap. Often the game will wait for you to walk down a narrow corridor before abruptly spawning in one monster on either side of you and letting you get sandwiched and pummeled.
This is where the final innovation of Obscure comes in handy: As long as enough people are alive, you can always have an AI or human partner alongside your controlled character. This is the first survival horror game I've seen with two-player co-op, and that's kind of nice. It does mean you're occasionally stumbling and flailing into your partner, but two guns are always better than one.
The thing is that Obscure basically wants you dead. Aside from the cheap, fast, surprise-spawning enemies and the fact that it gives you several characters that are nice and expendable, the default control scheme is also pretty weird. The Resident Evil control scheme is much maligned, but Obscure shows off why it works with its pre-rendered backgrounds and frequent camera changes.
You can often end up wandering off in a random direction just after the camera switches views, because your character is suddenly facing a totally different direction in relation to the background. (Luckily, you can swap back to the more traditional survival/horror control scheme in the options.) Also, I couldn't find any key to swap weapons between teammates, so for heaven's sakes, make sure everyone gets a weapon or you might as well paint "TARGET" on their foreheads.
Also, Obscure has a painfully written manual. The character biographies win some kind of award for matching quality with old NES manuals, with lines such as "She is the one double shooting with a fire weapon," and "She dresses in a provocative and rebellious fashion to downplay her brains," which makes sense because nobody with a rebellious fashion sense is intelligent. What is this, the Breakfast Club?
To sum things up, Obscure is pretty good for survival horror fans but maybe not so much for people who aren't big on the genre. It does some new things that should've been improved upon a long time ago, and it's the only game on the market right now that offers double-player monster-blasting action with this kind of setting, but you might find that it's just too hard, too annoying or too rough-edged to hold your interest. It's also a short game (maybe 6-8 hours), so it would make a good console rental, but you may want to think hard about it before grabbing it for the PC.
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