The history of the Obscure franchise is more than a little unpleasant, muddled and, well, obscure. It started only a console generation ago and never really made the jump to the current generation of consoles, even if Obscure: The Aftermath made a guest appearance on Nintendo's Wii. It was reviewed poorly, with a peculiar cooperative play mode and nothing else to set it apart from the crowd.
Cooperative play doesn't usually pan out well for survival horror titles, where a sense of atmosphere is achieved by isolating the character for most of the game. In all versions of Obscure: The Aftermath, however, you'll never be lonely again. In single-player mode, you have two characters to switch between at all times. The game gets away with this thanks to its cheesy plotline revolving around body-altering flowers and some clever character-dependent puzzles. Every ridiculous challenge and plot element seems to have made the portable leap unscathed.
The game looks practically untouched on Sony's portable powerhouse. If you held the game side by side with its big brother on the Wii or PS2, you could see the slightly shrunken textures and the stretching of the environments, but it's still pretty gorgeous for a tiny screen. Rather than truly rebuilding the graphics of the game, Obscure feels like a solid port, pulled at the edges a little to accommodate the wide-screen format demanded by the PSP.
As it prepares for release, it looks like everything that made the original game what it was is completely intact. The graphics are a little too dark to see in normal or bright lighting but are otherwise spot-on, making it one of the best-looking games to come out for the PSP this year and not just a remake of an average-looking Wii game. It's still a fast-paced action title, split up with some lock-picking and hacking mini-games to complement the unique specialties of the cast. All the crate-pushing, partner-lifting and monster-crushing that fans remember is present and accounted for.
Anyone who has played a later Silent Hill or Resident Evil game should be immediately familiar with the basic mode of play. There aren't too many attempts to differentiate the game from others in the same category, so you'll find all your basics. There's a pistol, a shotgun, a baseball bat for monster whacking, a (peculiarly electric) chainsaw and a few other cool guns and gadgets to clutter the inventory screen. The game likes to encourage exploration, so there are also quite a few hidden powerful weapons that you can unlock by finding small keys scattered around the premises. Other than that, though, the title may as well be a cheap and schlocky Silent Hill.
The co-op is still around, although in a cool new way. Because two players can't sit around a TV together with two controllers, the developers had to find a way to make it work for two people with two different copies of the game and two handheld consoles. To that end, a loose drop-in, drop-out system was created, allowing players to leave their WLAN switch turned on so that nearby players could find them with a quick search on startup. It wasn't clear if this was going to be extended to Internet play so that people could join in from across the world like Resident Evil 5, but the openness of the system leaves a little room for hope. Regardless, the developers managed to keep hold of the most distinctive part of the game while avoiding tedious wait times in the lobbies.
The menu systems have also been revamped for the portable release, letting you manage equipped items by holding the L shoulder button. You can switch out equipment on the inventory screen, which is accessed with the Select button, but if you need to switch to one of your four selected weapons on the fly, it's as easy as holding L and pressing a face button. Likewise, the four different healing items are mapped to the directional pad for your quick-healing convenience.
You'll definitely need ready access to your med packs. Expect to be hurt a lot in this game, thanks to lack of any real aiming or dodging mechanics. Aiming is restricted solely to auto-targeting, unlike on the Wii, so holding the R button and praying to lock on to a baddie is pretty much your only method of self-defense. There are plenty of random, unexplained bullets and health packs lying around, so it's never a prohibitive issue, but it's still more annoying than it has been on other consoles. The melee in particular is extremely useless, and there aren't ever enough bullets to take down everything you need. Unlike Resident Evil, you don't often have a way of avoiding enemies, so it comes down to eating a bit of damage and bashing in skulls. Subtlety in gameplay or story is not this game's forte.
The camera would also be a niggling complaint on the PSP, only the control of it really isn't the sticking point. Movement is accomplished with the analog nub, and the d-pad is normally in charge of rotating the camera, which actually works just fine … when it works. The game enjoys wresting control out of your hands fairly often, gluing you to a single camera angle for many rooms and obscuring your vision, likely getting you killed even faster.
The only real technical problem with Obscure seems to be a drastically shortened battery life. I found my battery drained within two hours of picking up the little machine, when most games usually only drain me in five to eight hours. The review copy was still a build, but unless the developers have really optimized loading, it's looking like Obscure's portable release won't be that portable after all.
The other annoying factors are all things that have always been around. Obscure has done nothing to improve its terrifically corny dialogue, and it's still just as mired in clichés as it ever was. To give a taste, the disease that changes students into raging monsters is an STI, which the game comments on whenever it gets the chance. The kids are all neatly categorized and accounted for, so the game gets its character variety from a cast including a tech-savvy Asian, thong-wearing blonde, depressing goth chick , druggie stoner and muscle shirt-wearing jock who wants nothing more than to get laid. It's raunchy college horror/comedy at its finest, and if you can't stomach that, there's nothing new here to entice you to get over your aversion. However, the story is so bad it actually veers back into comically good, especially with the voice actors doing their best to sound like they've never acted in their lives. Once you start factoring in the strangely epic soundtrack, it's a mismatch made in comedy heaven. Still, gamers looking for the thrilling story, disturbing chills and cool characters that the advertising promises will come away very disappointed.
Obscure: The Aftermath is a cheap thriller. It has a few stand-out features, but it still does nothing exceptionally. The soundtrack, which is now available for perusal straight from the main menu, is sweeping and grand, but the game feels like it was cobbled together from spare pieces. The opening references the reality of "urban legends," and this game feels a lot like the horror film named "Urban Legend." It's quick, anything but cerebral and based more on the joy of killing off college kids than any honest attempt to scare anyone. Obscure still looks to be one of the most exact, clean PS2-to-PSP ports ever made, and there's something there for old fans to pick up if they're in need of a portable horror fix.
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