Obscure, a survival/horror game ala Silent Hill, was one of those games that I vaguely remembered existing, but any thought or proactive decision to play it was quickly extinguished by the deluge of other games in 2005. I suppose the same could be said of Obscure: The Aftermath, 2008's full featured and budget priced sequel. Critical perception for the Obscure games was neither stellar nor horrendous, and while an average opinion certainly isn't a bad point of view, it typically leaves a game out of forum discussion and podcast discourse, or, more appropriately - it's left in the dust and few remember it. Now, a year after its Playstation 2 release, the second Obscure game is getting another shot at life on PSP. With a considerably different library (quick, name two survival horror games on the PSP), maybe Obscure can find its place in the handheld market.
While the original Obscure closely paralleled The Faculty, the sequel has moved the three surviving protagonists out of high school and into college. They're joined by three new characters, but the main antagonist (if you can call it that) of the first game is still wreaking havoc. Yep, out of control, chemically altered plants are still hell bent on transforming the young populace into an army of horrific mutants. Couple that with a litany of sex and violence and you have something that approaches a cookie cutter teen movie. It's cliché, not something we haven't seen a half dozen times before, and probably intentional, but it's lack of sense and hammy discourse blur the line between parody and flat out bad.
Actually, the entire game seems to have a considerable identity crisis. The horror elements aren't exactly scary, but the dense atmosphere, full of dark corners and flashlight sequences, does well to create tension. That's fine, but at the same time, the characters dialogue and actions are so laughably bad or misguided, it almost seems like they're entire existence is predicated upon being a parody of a SciFi movie of the week. Worse, it's practically impossible to know whether the parody was intended, if it's an accidental satire, or if it's all some Kaufman-esque practical joke on gamers. The latter isn't likely as it's actually decent fun, but Obscure is screaming for an identity that never quite reveals itself.
At least it looks good for most of the ride. Typically I don't put visuals at the forefront and save the eye candy for later in the review, but Obscure grabbed me right from the onset and rarely let go. The character models and environments might have been a tad muddy on PS2, but they look fantastic on the smaller screen. Beams of light, be it from lit windows or the occasional flashlight, make great transparencies, and textures look quite good. The campus settings are appropriately decorated (that is to say, terribly), and often ripe with activity, but I found myself wishing for more original settings instead of a clichéd dorm or sleepy hospital. The voice acting is erratic and occasionally beset by awful dialogue, but that seems to fall in line with the "I don't know if this is a parody or not" conundrum. Lastly, a high point lies with the game's score, which the press sheet boasts was conducted by the Boston String Quartet and Paris Opera Children's choir. It feels a bit off that a game's subjectively best output lies in its sound, but the whole audio/visual package went well above what I expected.
The gameplay, unfortunately, doesn't quite reach similar escape velocity. Combat is a big item on the menu, with hockey sticks, electric chainsaws, and various small arms fire there to help you annihilate your mutant aggressors. Enemies often rely on cheap tactics (I'm looking at you, dryads) and are typically more of an annoyance than a true roadblock, but the few bosses, with their multi-tiered fights, are reasonably engaging. Puzzles are also present, but their design is often so archaic (in the first part of the game you literally push crates and move bookcases, hellooo 1996) that, like some enemies, they're more annoying than anything else.
What is reasonably intriguing, however, is Obscure’s stab at creating cooperative gameplay. Each character you encounter will have a specific skill set, which typically involves switching over to a different character so they can better accomplish a direct task. For example, Mei can hack computers to open doors, Stan is the master of old school unlocking, and Corey can jump considerably high. Sometimes this involves you and an AI character running around side by side, with you freely being able to switch off to whomever, but most the time Obscure prods you to leave characters in different places as you run around and solve separate puzzles. Its co-cop 101, move a piece here so a guy can get over there, but at least it's functional. And yes, the game is playable with another person (which should make combat noticeably easier), provided you have another human with a UMD of Obscure.
Originally I intended to end the review here, but, after checking up on some reviews of the Playstation 2 version (a good week after I wrote this review), it seems a rather large issue has been addressed; the save system. Apparently you could only use each save point once in the PS2 original, which was a thorn in many sides, but, at least in the copy I reviewed, I could use each save point as many times as I wanted. Props to Playlogic for taking the criticism to heart and making a much needed change to Obscure's design.