|I am, very publicly, a huge fan of horror. Movies, novels, games – I like to be scared, I suppose. I love the feel of creeping dread, and right about now all the psychotherapists among our reader base are rushing to sign me up. |
Clearly I'm not alone in my fandom. Horror has long been a staple of gaming, from early masterpieces like Infocom's The Lurking Horror (plus weaker fare like Crypt of Media for Apple II and the Friday the 13th / Nightmare on Elm Street adaptations for C64) to the recent Resident Evil and Silent Hill installments. A lot of us aren't content to read about haunted houses or watch teens stalked by undead killers; we want to be in the thick of the action.
That last genre, the teen horror film, was rescued by the ironic Scream series and has since wandered back into play-it-serious territory. And all of this introduction is a long way of bringing up Obscure, a budget play-it-serious teen horror game from French developers Hydravision and published in the U.S. by DreamCatcher Games, fast becoming a well-respected player in this industry.
Obscure begins like a teen horror film, from the licensed soundtrack (in this case, a song by Sum 41) to the first victim. The first victim here, a jock named Kenny, actual provides players with a tutorial on the game's basics while kicking off the story. Playing basketball late one evening, Kenny stumbles across dastardly doings at his high school which culminate in his possible fate as zombie chow. The next day, Kenny's very Breakfast Club group of friends meets to ponder his fate.
You get no points by predicting that said meeting leaves them in the school after hours and on a collision course with the mysterious evil infesting the halls. What is novel, though, is that each friend has a skill appropriate to their archetype. The hot female A student, for example, provides hints on what to do next. The scrappy (and also hot) female athlete is a good fighter, while the geeky male (but, of course, hot in the teen horror genre mold) newspaper editor has an easier time noticing items that can be used. And finally, the scruffy but hot male outcast can quickly pick locks.
In a really nice approach, you can control one character at a time while having another provide support. Despite their specialties, every character can perform every action, so you can choose to either teleport back to the meeting area and reconfigure your team, or just forge ahead without taking advantage of their abilities.
The overall feel of the game is similar to Resident Evil or the old Alone in the Dark games, right down to the set camera angles. That's one of Obscure's few stumbles; it'd be neat if the environment were truly 3D, especially when being swarmed by baddies who are only two feet away but hidden by the awkward camera angle. That's exacerbated by the control, which is definitely based on console gamepad systems. PC gamers without gamepads will find a hard time of it using the keyboard, especially during movement. Plus, I was disappointed to see that the keys in-game are mapped differently than what's laid out in the manual. On the other hand, that means console players can more easily take advantage of co-op gameplay, where two players control two characters. Hard to do on PC.
One last quibble: Why don't characters regenerate when left in the meeting area? I was surprised to see that, since the meeting area is a safe place where the characters sprawl when not in use. Even on easy difficulty, healing items are in pretty short supply.
I did love the graphics, which really do capture the creepiness of a school after hours. Even better, this is a very European school, with dormitories and Gothic architecture and plenty of dark corners. Sound is good, and even more, the good sound is essential. With camera angles hiding what could be right in front of your characters, it's essential to be able to hear the bad guys approaching. The voice acting was serviceable, though the translation from French to English (during both voiceovers and subtitles) was sometimes awkward.
Gameplay is neat, ranging from your usual hoard-the-ammo tactics to some cool twists. The baddies hate light, for example, which means during the early part of the game, you can forego fighting them and instead just bust open windows to the outside. (Glass doors, too, can be broken into.) Later, flashlights taped to weapons become indispensable, since the light weakens enemies and can be boosted to do additional damage. (Hear that, Doom 3?)
One last warning: Obscure is short, even for a budget title. The good news is that winning it unlocks hidden features, so there's more incentive to go back and try the harder levels. I can heartily recommend this one to horror fans, in the hopes that Hydravision creates a sequel (come on, every horror title has to have at least one sequel) that's actually feature length.