The Breakfast Club meets Resident Evil, with this survival horror adventure set in a typical American high school; the first video game developed by the French studio Hydravision Entertainment. Players take the roles of five different students attending the run-down Leafmore High School, each representing a different social-clique stereotype. Kenny comes off as a typical BMOC jock. His sister Shannon is an "A" student with first-aid training. Kenny's friend Stan is a bit of a delinquent, always scheming, while Ashley is a prom-queen-type with martial arts skills and Josh is a nerdy reporter for the school paper with a good eye for important details.
At least one of the five must survive through the story to reach the game's conclusion, but each possesses distinct abilities -- such as Kenny's speed and strength, or Stan's thieving skills -- so keeping as many of them alive as possible can make it easier to overcome various obstacles and survive surprise attacks. The students' exploration of the spooky high school corridors is punctuated with fast-paced running and shooting action sequences. In good adventure-game style, players will also need to fill their inventories with whatever items they can scrounge, and figure out how to use or combine this equipment in order to solve puzzles and progress through the story.
Obscure was previously released in Europe under the title Mortifilia. Prior to development of this survival horror game, Hydravision created Zombies, a series of French language pen-and-paper role-playing rulebooks.
Following on the heels of Resident Evil 4's release, Hydravision needed something to set Obscure apart from the other games in the genre. I had high hopes for Obscure once I found out that it featured music by Sum 41 and was set in a different type of setting, a high school. However, even Sum 41 couldn't save Obscure, and it seems that the team spent more time developing their website which advertises the game than actually creating a unique game for fans of the genre to enjoy.
From the start I had difficulty playing the game due to cumbersome camera control. This is where Resident Evil 4 shines in its third-person camera view, while Obscure fails miserably. There are times while navigating the room where the camera rudely cuts to a different angle, causing the player to shift the direction on the controller. It often seems that the camera is either too far away, or so close that one cannot see important details such as a door. Since Obscure's gameplay seems to be more about navigating than actual combat with monsters, having such poor camera control leads to frustration.
The theme throughout the game is the use of light to kill monsters and the presence of "Black Aura". Light is used in two ways: by breaking windows to allow light in, thus killing any monsters within range, and by taping a flashlight to a gun to increase the gun's effectiveness. "Black Aura" is an effect that dynamically covers objects around the player with a mossy-looking texture when monsters are nearby, then recedes back to normal once danger has passed. The "Black Aura" is more of an annoyance than anything since it obscured my view of paths and objects, as well as being inconsistent throughout the map, sometimes appearing and receding for no reason.
While playing Obscure you choose to be one of four characters. Each character supposedly has special abilities. For example Stan (who looks strikingly like Josh Hartnett) is skilled at lock-picking and therefore picks locks quicker than the other characters. It sounds like a great concept, devised to add depth to the gameplay, but Hydravision didn't fully execute its playability. I didn't find the character's abilities to be distinct enough to warrant switching between them when needed. As I mentioned, you can have the ability to switch between characters, but it's only useful for extending play time rather than for utilizing their individual abilities.
One thing that stuck in my head was the Ashton Kutcher-caliber dialogue. In one scene Stan turns to one of the characters and says "You better not be punking me" as well as "This school is totally whacked". In a computer lab, while examining a computer the description is "the new plaything of spotty pre-pubescents with glasses" Charming, but not enough to make this a good game.
The A.I. in Obscure can be both a blessing and a curse. Since the player can choose up to one other student to accompany them, there is always a "tail" that follows and often gets in the way. If a fight ensues and the accompanying student is not equipped with a weapon, she will stand there and examine her nails while the main character is blowing up monsters.
On the other hand, the A.I. is helpful if equipped with a weapon. Sometimes monsters will sneak up while the player is trying to perform an action, such as picking a lock or solving a puzzle. Rather than stopping in the middle of the action, the player can continue while the accompanying student will automatically fight off the monsters.
One good thing that Hydravision did was to make the map useful and interactive. Although the entire playing area isn't vast, it is easy to get lost among the various buildings and doors. While looking at the map, the game automatically marks for you doors that you've already gone through, doors that are currently locked or blocked, as well as the next objective you are heading in the direction of, which ultimately saves you from having to backtrack over ground already covered.
The developers also took a page out of Valve's play-book by including a neat but hardly integral feature in which the player can dynamically interact with objects in the room. I'm not talking about moving bookcases to find keys hidden underneath, which has been around the genre since PS1. The player has the ability to move almost any movable objects in the room: wheeling around TV cars, knocking beakers off a shelf, smashing the glass on a vending machine.
As touted on its cover, the only redeeming quality of the game is its music, unless you're not a fan of mainstream bands that try to pass themselves off as punk. Even if Sum 41 or Span isn't to your liking, the sound team, did a decent job of providing interesting ambient music. For example, there is one place where you solve a puzzle by attaching two compasses to a map in the Headmaster's Office, which causes the map to open a safe behind it. Once the puzzle is solved, you are rewarded with soothing New Age-ish music reminiscent of the Myst series. There are also some great thriller styled effects to provide foreplay to the few and far between monster battles.
Although Hydravision tried hard to create a distinctive, unique game in a heavily contested genre, they fell short. Aside from the dynamic object interaction and music, the graphics and gameplay made me feel like I was back in high school, playing Resident Evil 2 after doing my homework. But that was then, and this is now, and Obscure just doesn't make the grade.
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