Obscure (2004) Review
Obscure is a 2004 survival horror released on Xbox, PlayStation 2, and PC from developer Hydravision Entertainment.
In Obscure you play as one of five protagonists who are students of Leafmore High, a typical high school campus with a particular American flair to it.
After a brief cutscene where we see our protagonists shooting some hoops, set to a generic early 2000s angsty nu-metal track (it was originally set to Sum 41’s Still Waiting but was later replaced as the license expired) the game begins on an indoor basketball court without much of an introduction. One of our main characters, Kenny, hasn’t met his field goal quota for the day and decides to stay back after hours to practice. He follows a mysterious figure to a nearby house and enters the basement, discovering a secret underground laboratory filled with cages and experiment apparatus of all sorts. He meets a prisoner and they attempt to escape the laboratory but never make it out.
The next day our remaining protagonists, concerned that their friend is missing, decide to stay back at the school after hours to search for Kenny. However their search is hindered by the fact that the school is now infested with horrible, mutated creatures engulfed in some sort of ‘darkness-fog’ that increases their defence against attacks. Also their shady principal is skulking around and seems to know more about this outbreak than he lets on.
Throughout the game you will explore the school campus with locations such as the library, classrooms, dormitories, theatre, gym, gardens, and as is par for the course in a lot of these early survival horror games, a secret underground laboratory. These locations are adequately designed and portray a dark, brooding atmosphere that holds up for most of the game, I did find the endgame laboratory area quite annoying as it’s filled with identical-looking hallways and you don’t get a map for this area, but overall the locations and atmosphere fit the game nicely.
One major detriment to the game is its audio and soundtrack. The sound design and score can make or break a horror atmosphere, and unfortunately in this case it comes off as highly goofy and in some cases the choice is downright bizarre.
The score of the game is filled with a lot of choir and orchestral pieces that in the context of the game don’t make a whole lot of sense, there were multiple times where I would be doing something as mundane as searching a room and the choir would be in full swing drowning out any other noise to be heard. The soundtrack just feels off for this game and really relinquishes any ambient horror that could have been established with an appropriate score, it reminds me of the music from the Fable series or Candyman (1992) out of context and without the sense of foreboding dread.
Conversely, the ambient background sounds in the game are excellent. When the soundtrack isn’t drowning them out you can hear all sorts of skin-crawling sounds, muffled footsteps from afar, creepy creaks and cracks, and scraping of metal and glass that work surprisingly well and Is one of the few elements of the game that work towards its horror atmosphere. The voice acting is sub-par, at least with the English voices, the developer Hydravision was a small French-based company so I can’t fault the game too much on this, however, there were multiple issues with the audio sync between the characters and subtitles. Often times voice lines would overlap with each other creating dialogue that came off as quite jarring in most cases.
The story isn’t a focal point of this game, it is largely forgettable and cheesy to say the least. The characters are one-note and undergo little to no development throughout the short 3 or 4-hour campaign. Luckily the game makes up for this in its core gameplay.
The gameplay of Obscure features solid survival horror mechanics reminiscent of games from the early Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises, doing away with inventory management but keeping in puzzles, although they’re rather simplistic. The game utilizes fixed camera angles that were a bit cumbersome at times but ok for the most part, these were particularly effective when I could hear ambient noises off-screen but not see what was making them.
Weapons are plentiful throughout the game with a mix of pistols, shotguns, and melee weapons available to use, ammo is also pretty abundant as I never had to switch back to a melee weapon after getting a firearm.
You can save the game at any point provided you have a ‘disc’ item in your inventory, these are plentiful and I never found myself irreversibly stuck throughout my playthrough. Throughout the game you will reach certain checkpoints known as ‘gathering points’ where all playable characters will gather, the game has a handy feature whereby you can teleport to this location at any time allowing you to switch out characters as needed.
A unique feature to this game is that it’s entirely playable in split-screen co-op (remember the days?) or with an AI companion. As mentioned before, there are a total of 5 playable characters, 2 of which you can select at a time and each has their own special ability. Kenny, the ‘jock’ can sprint. Stan, the ‘burnout’ can pick locks faster. Josh, the ‘nerd’ can sense if there’s anything of interest left in the room you are in such as items to pick up. Shannon, the ‘shy intelligent girl’ provides hints on how to progress throughout the game. And Ashley, the ‘cheerleader’ can perform a special attack I never figured out how to use.
You can switch between current characters at the press of a button, health and key items are accessible regardless of the current character you’re playing as, but weapons must be individually given to specific characters, however, your ammunition stockpile is shared among all, meaning if you provide an AI companion a pistol you don’t have to worry about manually giving them bullets.
I found the AI companion mechanic to work very well. There is a range of basic commands you can issue such as follow, wait, and show, where the AI will lead you to a point of interest. The only instances I found this mechanic to be a bit cumbersome were in the endgame laboratory sections as the tight corridors led to some issues of retreating from enemies but overall it’s a decent feature.
Also interesting to note is that if one of your characters die they cannot be revived, this is an interesting mechanic as it has the potential of forcing you to adapt to the situation by using your remaining characters, you will also need to go to the location that the character died in order to retrieve any weapons they had equipped.
Lastly, the enemies that you face throughout the game are fast-moving mutants covered in a sort of dark cloak providing them resistance to many forms of attack. You can attack them while this cloak is active expending more ammo or, using one of the many flashlights you find throughout the game, you can focus the beam on an enemy and strip away their dark aura ensuring you do maximum damage. These enemies come in a handful of varieties such as a quick ankle-biting popcorn-chicken mutant, a ceiling dwelling mutant that chokes you with its tongue, a fast humanoid mutant, a heavy-type mutant that knocks you down, another heavy-type that can cause spikes to rise from the ground, and a mini-boss type mutant that does an area-of-effect (AoE) attack and can release a swarm of exploding maggots. The monster designs work well within the game’s aesthetic, even if they aren’t iconic in their own right.
Although I wouldn’t consider the game scary in the least, the awful voice acting and inappropriate music take away from any horror aesthetic the game has going, I’d say the game has more of a spooky atmosphere rather than being outright frightening. The lacklustre characters and story is just about made up for by decent survival-horror mechanics and the quirky yet interesting multiple playable characters aspect coupled with some light puzzle solving and combat. If you’re a fan of classic survival-horror games such as Resident Evil, Silent Hill, or Dino Crisis you will probably enjoy this game and you can get it pretty cheap on a Steam sale. While not ground-breaking or particularly memorable, it’s fun enough for the few hours it takes to complete and can be done in one sitting, I’d recommend it for fans of the genre or old-school horror games in general.