Review By: Siou Choy
|# Of Players:||1-2|
|Accessories:||Memory Unit, Dolby Digital 5.1|
With all the (from what little I've seen, mostly undeserved) hype over the series departure of Resident Evil 4, some "lesser" survival horror games seem to have slipped completely under the radar. And regardless of one's opinion on the future of Capcom's cash cow franchise, that's a damn shame. One slice of obscuritana that really surprises me is a release I never heard a word of advertising, hype, or fan murmuring in regards to, and it's a true gem: the aptly titled Obscure.
To put it quite simply, Obscure is awesome. An all-too infrequent entry in the high school horror subgenre, Obscure seems strangely reminiscent of earlier games covering several disparate survival horror subgenres. The most notable influence comes from earlier (and far scarier) entries in the Silent Hill series (don't get me started on the lame, unscary, yet strangely over hyped gross-out of Silent Hill 4: The Room), but Obscure also combines elements from Resident Evil, Buffy The Vampire Slayer (the original, good one), Parasite Eve and/or Carrier into a strangely satisfying hodgepodge that emerges as its own, wholly unique entity.
You play as one of 4 (later, 5) schoolmates stuck searching the campus after hours for a missing compatriot, and running afoul of a hundred plus year old semi-occult, semi-science fiction plot best not described in detail (so as not to spoil the fun, of which there awaits the interested reader a-plenty). Spoiler #1: in a neat case of misdirection ala Psycho, you start the game playing as the missing party, Kenny the jock, but after a brief intro, you won't see the guy again for quite a bit. From this point forward ('till you run into Kenny again halfway through the game), you get your choice of two (out of four) swappable characters: Kenny's annoying girlfriend Ashley, his perky sister Shannon, and ostensible pals Josh and Stan.
Ashley is supposed to be some kind of great fighter, and good at "self defense", but this proves to be pure crap, so all you're left with is her nappy hair, whiny personality, and snotty arrogance (this is one of the most egotistical playable characters in video gaming history). I found her quite expendable, and only dragged her into "difficult" situations to save on health and ammo for the other 3 (though I did consider leaving her dead once or twice). Josh likewise, while a fairly personable and inoffensive sort, proved to be of little use as a detective (his ostensible "special skill") and a bit too wimpy when it came down to the nitty gritty of survival. After trying him out for the first little bit, I decided to leave him, huffing, puffing and holding his side, at the various "gathering points" (the courtyard, backstage, etc.) alongside cannon fodder Ashley.
Unless you opt to bring Kenny back into the game when he returns to the storyline as an active participant, this leaves you with the other two playable characters. Shannon, besides being a cute sorta-punky sorta-smart type, proves to be a good choice all around, as she's just about as smart as Josh (while both Josh and Shannon are supposed to be the "smart ones", they must be grading on a curve - neither one struck me as particularly brainy, except in comparison to a dope like Stan, which really isn't saying much), a fair fighter, and a relatively quick runner (though halfway through the game, she starts to bitch about being sick of running, as "(she's) not Kenny, after all"). She also gives little game hints every now and then if you start to feel lost (you never will, the game is fairly linear), and seems to put things together fairly well, insofar as clues and problem solving.
But the real star of the game? Stan (who really may be "the man" as he claims). A stupid hip-hop wannabe with lousy grades and a great toque (or "beanie cap", if you prefer, though his "class profile" shows him with 'hat to da back' in true b-boy style), Stan is good on defense (thus wasting less of your health supplies than the others), decent on offense, an expert lock pick and just damn funny. Putting Stan in the lead results in several amusing cutscenes and one-liners (particularly when offing a monster), but by far the funniest was when an evil teacher bamboozles him out of a map you find in the principal's library office - don't ask, just make sure you use Stan the second time you visit the library. I almost fell out of the chair laughing. The only time you definitely don't want Stan in the lead is when you take a look at his grades (another great one-liner). Stan is the kind of moron everybody knows, and most everybody likes having around - he's so cluelessly amusing, it's actually endearing, making him almost as cool as he thinks he is (though for very different reasons).
Gameplay is fairly standard for this sort of thing, with nothing much to recommend (on the positive side) or get worked up over (on the negative side). That said, there is one rather annoying issue in that for some reason, the weapon and item selects scroll in a counter-intuitive fashion, making changing weapons on the fly (i.e. in the middle of a fight) a hazardous proposition, as you inevitably scroll in the opposite direction than the desired weapon slot (often meeting your lead character's demise as a result). Additionally, there's so much item switching (both solo and between characters) going on by the end of the game, it gets almost as crazy as Resident Evil 0.
While I still haven't tackled a few recent and notable genre entries (Fatal Frame Crimson Butterfly, Call of Cthulhu, RE4 beyond the demo version), past experience leads me to rank Obscure as one of the better genre entries of the past year or two, and certainly one most deserving of a sequel. Now if only someone would get out there and spread the word...
While not quite perfect, Obscure holds its own against the best of the genre, most of which are the very games it seems to be aping: Resident Evil 0-2, Silent Hill 1-2, Parasite Eve, Fatal Frame 1-2, Eternal Darkness. That alone should say enough about the game, but several things stand out: respectable graphics (not quite RE level, but what is?), extremely well defined characterization, excellent creepy atmosphere, plenty of cheap jump-out-of-your-seat surprise "scares" and an all-too underrepresented high school setting. What more can you ask for? Obscure is hands down one of the best, and deserves a lot more promotion than it (apparently hasn't) gotten.
Posted: 2006-02-03 15:26:16 PST