Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Great Games You Never Played: Obscure

"Fine, obscure gems." Part of a periodical series: Great Games You Never Played.

Talk about obscure games, am I right? They don't get any more obscure than Hydravision Entertainment's 2004 premiere Obscure (or ObsCure if you ain't got no understanding of how them there English grammaticals work), a good old-fashioned survival-horror game in the same vein as the original Resident Evil. This isn't a sissy game like Resident Evil 5 or Dead Space; this is hardcore survival-horror, complete with limited saves, weird camera angles, obscure puzzles, and more enemies than bullets or healing items. 

Not only is Obscure a faithfully functional rendition of the classic formula, it's got enough style to make it stand out from the crowd. You control up to five different high school stereotypes who've gotten trapped inside of Leafmore High while trying to find their missing friend. Each of the characters has unique abilities that aid your gameplay in different ways, and when a character dies, s/he's dead for good. (Unless you reload a save.) The campaign also boasts a strong two-player co-op that lets you and a friend play on the same screen. 

And if that's not enough to sell it to you, it features music by Sum 41 and Span, as you can read for yourself on the front of the box. Seriously, this is one you don't want to miss. More about Obscure after the jump.

All things considered, the gameplay of Obscure is almost identical to the original Resident Evil. Instead of being trapped in a mansion, you're trapped in a high school. Instead of being a STARS agent, you're a high school student. Instead of fighting zombies, you're fighting weird necrotic plant creatures. And instead of the viral breakout being a corporate conspiracy, it's an academic conspiracy. 

The story develops as you'd expect---secret experiments on students, all for the sake of academic and scientific pursuits. When one of the characters goes missing (you actually play this intro sequence, and it's quite distressing when your character "dies" and you have no idea if that's supposed to happen or not), a group of friends who've heard some rumors team up to search the campus for him. Before they know it, they're trapped in the building with no way out and have no choice but to dig deeper into the mystery if they want to escape with their lives.

The school setting is enjoyable, in part because so few games are set in schools. But the environments have a rustic, homely charm to them. Leafmore High looks beyond its years, a little run-down from wear and with some interesting gothic architecture in places. The school's got character just in its visual design, and it ends up being pretty interesting just exploring around and seeing the layout for yourself, especially since it's a non-linear, persistent environment. Some areas aren't much like a high school at all, but it does a great job of establishing the game's charming atmosphere.

Each of the characters is supposed to represent a stereotypical high school role. Kenny is a varsity basketball athlete, Josh is a reporter for the school newspaper, Stan is a delinquent stoner, Shannon is the attractive smart girl, and Ashley is the cheerleader with an attitude. You control up to two of them at a time, and you can substitute them out whenever they're all together in the central courtyard. When I say "control," I mean that you actively play one character while a computer AI takes over the secondary and follows you around, with you switching back-and-forth between them at will. 

The interesting reason for this is that each character has unique abilities that assist you. Kenny can sprint faster and move things faster, Josh can tell you if there's anything left for you to find or do in a location, Stan can pick locks and break into places faster, Shannon gives you hints about what you need to do and provides a healing bonus, and Ashley can shoot firearms in rapid-fire and deal more damage with all weapons. None of these skills are necessary to beat the game, they just let you switch characters depending on what bonuses you think you'll be needing up ahead, giving you a functional reason to play certain characters.

Their skills are inessential because each character can permanently die. You only officially reach a "Game Over" when all characters are dead. So if one of them dies, the other characters continue on without them. In practice, it just means that you'll (most likely) reload a save when a character dies and try to preserve them, but it adds so much to the survival-horror aspect when you know that your characters can actually die for good unless you play well, instead of just getting a game over screen and restarting. 

This also makes resource management more critical, because characters' health persists throughout the game. If you swap a dying character out for a healthy replacement, they won't magically heal while they're sitting in the courtyard. When you return with two badly wounded characters, your replacements will be more wounded characters. In typical survival-horror fashion, healing items are few and far between, meaning that sometimes your best (or only) option is to take whomever has the most health at the time, regardless of their special skills, simply because you don't have first aid kits. And then when you do get those precious heals, who do you use them on?

Continuing with that theme, you also get limited ammo and saves, which further raises the balance of resource-management. Using firearms will kill enemies at a distance (useful when you're low on health and out of healing items, and for the periodic mini-bosses), but if you use all your ammo then you have to use a melee weapon which almost always results in taking damage. As you explore you find CDs; one CD gives you one save. Saving often will help maintain you at high health and ammo, and limiting how much content you might replay if something bad happens, but if you use them all then you're really screwed.

The co-op is of course the real selling point of the game, though. The co-op mode allows a second player to join in and play through the entire campaign, which is a real treat because there just aren't that many co-op games any more. Co-op is fun in Obscure, though, because the characters can act more independently, dividing and conquering to handle different tasks. You can also ration your resources a little better, and the players can heal each other on the fly.

The camera has an interesting role in the gameplay as well, because it centers on one character and follows him around, while the other character moves around freely within the frame. It's totally possible for the other character to fall behind the camera and get lost off-screen, so it requires teamwork and cooperation just to navigate the game. If it sounds tedious, it's really not, because the other player can press a button to center the camera on himself. 

Some aspects of the game are a little clunky and tedious, but the fun of cooperating with a friend and experiencing the game together makes up for any of the game's blemishes. (In fact, I wouldn't especially recommend playing it solo unless you're a solid fan of old-school survival horror.) 

There's also a sequel, Obscure 2: The Aftermath, which takes place two years later at Fallcreek University, following some of the same characters from the first game. But it's kind of rubbish compared to the first game, so I wouldn't recommend it unless you've already played Obscure, which is definitely worth it. 

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