Obscure It Ain't
This survival horror is so determinedly derivative of Hollywood’s arguably sorriest subgenre (the dreaded teen horror flick) there’s barely a lick about it that’s mysterious. Then again, teen horror is a fairly new motif for a gaming genre overdosing in zombie plagues and deadly alternate realities, so a throwback to Scream, Prom Night, and I Know What You Did Last Summer of cinematic yore is, in a bizarre way, refreshing.
Teen horror is pretty simple really. You assemble a set of five or six ridiculously good-looking teenagers (or college students) and then you give them the stereotypes of American high school life we’ve had lovingly drilled into our skulls by ‘80s comedies and slashers like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (respectively) or the legendary TV shows DeGrassi High and Saved by the Bell. Well Obscure got that part right. The game pretty much opens with a zippy cut scene that introduces four of the five playing basketball, and immediately their one-note personalities begin to reveal themselves. Kenny’s the resident hot jock; Stan’s our pot-smoking troublemaker; Shannon, the goody-two-shoes brownnoser; and Josh, the attention-seeking filmmaker wannabe. You’ll have to wait a little until after the b-ball to meet our final heroine, the tough-as-nails token black naggy girlfriend Ashley, when Kenny makes his way to the showers (via the player’s control) only to receive an annoying call from her on his cell phone. As the camera intercuts between the not-so romantic lovebirds, we notice a mysterious figure pilfer Kenny’s backpack in the foreground.
US: Jul 2007
And so the game begins, and of course, Dreamcatcher Interactive’s wonderful use of teen horror conventions (freakish camera, jump scares, etc.). Gamers resume control of Kenny as he trails the shadowy thief outside the gym, and around back to a shady garden and dilapidated residence of some form (haunted house alert). It seems the villain has disappeared into a creepy cellar, which any sanely cowardly human being would happily leave be. While our dumb jock shows one glimmer of intellectual hope by calling a buddy before venturing inside, Kenny throws it all away as he decides to do it alone, even if that means descending by ladder into a dank dungeon corridor that would make the Resident Evil sewers look like a walk in the park. The intro concludes when Kenny makes a requisitely horrifying discovery, including what appears to be an imprisoned student named Dan and some big nasty monsters straight out of The Faculty.
Depending on how you play it, Kenny either ends up as the “opening kill scene” of Obscure, or he simply ends up trapped below and presumably captured. The next day, the investigation begins, when Shannon (Kenny’s sister), Ashley, and Josh decide to stay late overnight to figure out why Kenny never came home. Eventually they run into Stan, who’s doing some extracurricular homework (aka smoking some weed in an abandoned classroom) and teams up to share his quick lock-picking abilities. The rest is exactly what you’d expect out of run-of-the-mill survival horror. Exploring dank hallways, linear paths where all doors are locked until you solve basic keystone puzzles, etc. The plot’s more of the same: secret experiments on students, monster summoning, and worse. And while the story is nothing really inspired, the revelations come in slow, shocking spurts like they’re DaVinci’s Code.
Gamers control two of the students at a time, allowing for nifty co-operative action if a friend is around. Each character has one unique trait (RE: Resident Evil: Outbreak) linked to their stereotypical personality (Ashley, the bitch, can add extra punch to her already street-thuggish combat; Shannon gives brainy tips; Kenny, the jock, can run fast). These gameplay innovations are certainly Obscure‘s true selling point, and it helps to make the semi-challenging fisticuffs with those ferocious monsters (some sequences can be frustrating if not quite controller-whipping rage-inducing). Of course, if you’re playing alone, I wish you good luck. The buddy A.I. is so mentally challenged that if you’re not constantly barking out commands (the usual repertoire of sidekick instructions include “Stay” and “Come Here”) expect lots of helper deaths. Well, up to a maximum of four, that is. Another interesting thing about Obscure is that you can feasibly complete the game with only one of the fiend fodder. And what’s more interesting is that cutscenes change based on who you’re controlling, and well, who is actually remaining, which gives the frighteningly short game a bit of replay. Of course, the ending(s) are scant and disappointing regardless who you finish it with, so your desire to relive the story may not be as high.
Graphically the game is pretty impressive for a low-budget developer. The environments are mostly pre-rendered, which feels a little dated next to Resident Evil 4, but they successfully capture the feel, both in atmosphere and the details of an abandoned semi-private high school, so Dreamcatcher seems to be doing something right. The students are rendered with trendy styles that are simple, which gives the illusion that these kids are real. Too bad the animation is sluggish, taking the semi-blurred approach that low-budget television like Beastmaster uses to hide the fact that it couldn’t afford expensive choreography. The gore effects and monster designs are also amateurish at best, again compared with the masters of this genre, so don’t be expecting a decapitation bloodbath. Music is serviceable and sparing, and the sound effects are intermittent, crisp and appropriately eerie.
Obscure is a noble attempt for a newcomer to the industry. Instead of attempting a high-resolution epic action experience, Dreamcatcher wisely opted to keep their early venture low-key so that the execution would seem a lot tighter, which is saying a lot. However, the teen horror gimmick only goes so far, and creates a catch-22 situation where the characters are so annoyingly stock, we don’t care in the least for their survival (though Ashley’s butt-kicking attitude is highly amusing, if racist), which makes the story all the more listless. While the gameplay is nicely balanced between creepy exploration and high-reflexes action, and the co-op bonus is a nice touch, rarely does the experience rise anywhere above mediocre.