Version tested: Xbox
Teenage kids. Who needs 'em? Always whingeing about being misunderstood, hormonally unbalanced, and incapable of deciding on a vaguely flattering hairstyle. No wonder Slipknot are doing such a roaring trade, and no wonder movie makers delight in finding new and interesting ways to cull them in an endless succession of teen horror movies; they make such willing fodder. Even though the genre became a parody of itself and then eventually went all ironic on us, it still has the capacity to be a winning horror formula. Witnessing a bunch of curious, pesky kids full of bravado gradually losing their cool as they get picked off by some unseen evil is always strangely satisfying. Mwahahahaha. Quite why no one thought to apply the exact same formula to a horror videogame before now is a curious thing.
Obscure unashamedly rips off the teen horror premise, and why not? There are evidently rich pickings to be had, and it's a surprisingly accomplished effort from the French team that flagrantly nabs some of the best bits from Resident Evil, Alone In The Dark, Project Zero and of course Silent Hill, as well as introducing a smattering of its own new ideas.
Take advantage of the sunshine while it lasts
Kicking off in a typical basketball-obsessed US college, it's the end of the school day in the gymnasium, and some of the sportier kids hang back for a bit of b-ball practise. Left alone, one of the lads shoots a few hoops before heading back to the changing room. Realising that his bag is missing, a few rooms later you're all too aware that something's amiss. It's no surprise when a dark and deadly black monster appears out of the gloom to consume your soul.
With little in the way of discernable build up, save for a quick chat and a run through the weapons mechanics, the intro kicks in and control switches to a trio of his school buddies, who take it upon themselves to investigate his whereabouts. Quickly the game settles into the well worn groove of lock-key puzzles, dispatching said deadly monsters from the gloom, and gradually picking your way through the scraps of narrative that build up to unravelling who's behind this deadly menace and why it's spiralling out of control.
In most senses, Obscure plays much like your typical survival horror title. Each section has a locked door that you eventually must work out how to unlock, and along the way you'll be set upon by evil. Nothing really new to deviate from the norm, you might think, but there are a couple of decent innovations that gradually thaw your resistance, and chief of them is the team-based system that enables you to go around in pairs if you wish, with the ability to play in two-player co-op mode if you so desire.
As you progress you pick up another couple of members to add to your 'team', and each has their own special ability. Josh, for example, can let you know if you should bother scouting out a room for more clues or not (a big time-saving device, believe us), while Shannon can give you clues as to where you should be heading next - small points, but ultimately a useful way to stop you wasting the sort of time you inevitably do in 'click everything' adventure games. As a team-based system it's leagues ahead of the torturously moronic offline clunkiness of Resident Evil: Outbreak, and has an intuitiveness that Capcom would be well advised to ape for future generations of co-op based survival horror.
Tape the gun to your face
Quite early on it becomes apparent that light is your friend, and in fact smashing windows becomes a routine exercise, as well as taping a torch/flashlight to your gun (hey, they should have given John Carmack a call). In conjunction with the left shoulder button you can shine the light in a concentrated beam at your foe while you loose off shots with the right, making the enemy more vulnerable at the expense of potentially overheating your torch temporarily. Combat wise, Obscure is the right side of tense and deadly, with enemies posing enough of a problem to be threatening and scary without being a total gameplay hindrance. On the odd occasion when your health is low, the game also offers energy drinks or health packs to top things back up, with a limited quantity of CDs scattered around to allow you to save your progress at any point.
Teammates, as we mentioned can provide assistance in terms of both combat and puzzles, but strangely only one at a time can accompany you, meaning others are left loose and redundant for the most part - a disappointing and questionable decision given the number of occasions when it's clear that safety in numbers would be the wisest strategy to adopt. Presumably Hydravision felt that having too many characters blundering around enclosed environments would compromise gameplay, but still, it's odd to be faced with such danger and then simply loaf around while your mates put their lives on the line for you. As such, it's actually possible to die and just carry on with the remaining characters - or just reload and try again as we did every time.
In terms of atmosphere the game's dodgy beginnings mask a fearsome progression. Skate punk-rock and cheesy voiceovers don't set things off especially well, but we challenge you not to jump two feet off the sofa as things burst noisily out of the walls and windows when you least expect them to a couple of hours in. Once you've had a chance to explore the alarmingly grimy and dark environment and become a little more confident in the combat it's a pleasantly enjoyable horror adventure that grows in stature as it goes along.
Visually it sticks to the third-person dynamic camera style that serves the Silent Hill games so well, and although the clean, basic quality of the backdrops are nowhere near as imaginative or stylish as other games we could reel off, it nevertheless tries hard to ape the grime and filth of Konami's efforts (after a while you really begin to wonder what the janitor does to earn his living). The familiar perma-darkness of the game gives the developer license to rely on torchlight, which, as Silent Hill fans will ruefully testify, is a great way to inspire dread as you stumble into one evil-ridden area after another, and, much like Project Zero, the stronger your torch beam, the more effective it is against your light-shy foe.
Teenage kicks right through the night
For all its innovations and solid premise, Obscure never really scales the heights that the very best of the genre have managed to date, with neither the most gripping yarn nor gameplay which takes us anywhere we haven't been several times before. The cheapness of the visuals and lack of convincing delivery from the voice actors ultimately knocks off a few marks, but on the whole it's a decent package that true aficionados of the genre will welcome as an interesting departure. In truth, you'd probably want to wait for the price to come down to a more realistic level before you take the plunge, but when you do you'll be happy you've found an unhyped, unpretentious adventure game that's a decent addition to the genre. Destined to be Obscure, but don't let that put you off.
7 / 10