Obscure: The Aftermath Review (PlayStation 2)
Developer: Hydravision Entertainment
Platforms: Wii, PlayStation 2, PSP and PC
Reviewed on PlayStation 2
The students at Fallcreek University have a problem. A problem that goes well beyond the promiscuous sex and rampant recreational drug use that permeates the dorms. Undergraduate life has recently been swept away by a new drug of choice – the pollen of a mysterious black flower.
On the same night as the frat party of the year, that addiction turns out to be more sinister than a buzz and a wicked hangover. The campus is suddenly overrun by nightmarish monsters... monsters that appear to be transformed undergrads.
In Obscure: The Aftermath, when a freshman crashes a hot frat party, it's less of a big deal that he's a frosh, and more of a problem that he's a 500-lb monster with malleable flesh and a hunger for co-eds that's more influenced by his stomach than his nether regions. Billed as a survival/horror game, Obscure: The Aftermath is actually more of an adventure game with a clunky combat interface styled after a teen horror flick. If you're wondering how I can sound so negative concerning a game that earned three out of five stars, read this site's review criteria. Obscure: The Aftermath has problems aplenty, but it's still only $20.
The original Obscure followed the horrible events two years earlier at Leafmore High, where the principal's experiments unleashed horrific monsters on the students. Now, some of those students have made it to college, where eerily similar events, linked to suspicious black flowers, are once again transpiring.
Obscure: The Aftermath may have only just reached North America, but it was released last September in Europe. And frankly, it has a lot more in common with the original Obscure, released more than three years before that, than contemporary PlayStation 2 games, let alone games for the PC or the latest generation of consoles. And that's the game's biggest problem.
Most hardcore gamers have upgraded to newer technology, making the PlayStation 2 the platform of choice for more budget-conscious casual and party gamers. Obscure: The Aftermath is not a casual game. It adheres to very "gamey" action conventions and a high difficulty level (that has more to do with the camera and controls than anything else) of a hardcore game, but on a platform now populated with casual gamers. That makes it something of a game without an audience, as most PlayStation 2 owners who won't be distracted by shinier games will have difficulty with this one.
Worse yet, Obscure: The Aftermath just isn't up to modern PlayStation 2 standards. Unlike recent titles such as God of War II that squeezed every last drop of performance out of the PlayStation 2, Obscure: The Aftermath looks much like Obscure, leaving the game's engine more like the early Resident Evil or Silent Hill from the early days of the PlayStation 2. The game is blocky with awkward controls, and the artists leaned heavily on excessive blood rather than elegantly frightening visuals. I'm not looking for PlayStation 3-caliber visuals, but at this point in its lifecycle, the PlayStation 2 can do a lot better than this.
Obscure: The Aftermath is dark. Intentionally so. Also unworkably so. If I'd felt in control of the game's characters, that wouldn't be so bad, but between the difficult camera angles, other characters getting in the way and the clunky controls, it was difficult to get a flashlight pointed in the right direction, let alone actually search the environment for small keys and hints. The camera is set up to give you dramatic angles when you first enter an area, but after even the tiniest movement, often moves to an impossible angle that makes all action awkward. The game can be played cooperatively, but the awkward camera angles leave both players getting in each others' way.
The game is primarily about puzzle-solving – either finding the right items or keys to move on to the next challenge. But there are monsters to fight, sculpted from the flesh of Fallcreek High's libidinous students. Unfortunately, combat is so unwieldy that these scenes are inconveniences rather than entertainment, making this an adventure game with painful combat rather than a "survival/horror" game. Between the camera angles and the difficulty of locking onto your intended target, combat is a matter of attrition rather than coordination. As long as you have the health to absorb enough damage to hammer on the shoulder buttons, you'll prevail. It's made more frustrating by the fact that the coolest weapons like the (battery powered?!?) chainsaw are almost impossible to use effectively in a fight.
This is further aggravated by an antiquated approach to game saves. Each level typically has a single flower that you can touch to save the game, and each is usable only once. The game never really builds up enough suspense, so rather than further building suspense, this save mechanism just led to tooth-grinding replays on those rare occasions when I died.
The adventure portion of the game comes down to figuring out which character is the right tool for job. Each has different skills. For example, the burly jock can move heavy objects while the gymnast can jump and hang from ledges. One girl can hack electronics, while the blond (with the huge chest and g-string) has the unique skill of reassembling pieces of paper that have been turned into at least six smaller pieces and left together in convenient piles. Most of the puzzles are simple, and tend to be more of a struggle against the controls (such as moving boxes) than an effort to solve a conundrum.
Hacking is probably the hardest puzzle of all, and it's just not a challenge. Apparently, every password in town is the name of a famous person, so hacking computers is like playing hangman with a limited pool of letters – guess the name correctly and the door opens or the computer reveals its secrets. There are some optional items, such as weapons, but they appear to matter little in terms of actual play.
So, if you aren't playing Obscure: The Aftermath for the visuals, the combat or the puzzles, why are you playing? For the story, of course! It's just that the story isn't particularly strong, either, even for a teen horror film. Perhaps it worked better in the original French, but the writing is just plain dismal. It's as if you assigned a middle-schooler to write a slasher flick set at a college, and told him he could use as many boobies as he wanted. There's not nudity (the game didn't go for the "AO" rating), but there's a surfeit of juvenile, cheap sexual innuendo.
One character actually says, "It's sad to see all these bodies. When a man dies, it's like losing a potential lover." Or when discovering a memo suggesting the horrible contagion that is turning the campus into monsters can be transmitted sexually, says, "They should have known better... you should always use contraceptives." Either that's a translation problem or a preachy point that ignores the fact that many contraceptives don't protect against disease. The character motivations are worse. The most believable motivation is survival, although lust, alcohol and drug use seem to be more important to the main characters most of the time. At one point, when everyone is dying or turning into monsters, one character even abandons his girlfriend to go check out his car!
Not all the language problems are bad takes on sexual innuendo. The game is supposed to be set at an American-seeming university, replete with frat houses and football players in letterman jackets. But the English doesn't ring true for a native speaker, and that breaks the mood. For example, one character was impressed that a frat house had a "real American Billiards table." I became more interested in the fact that he couldn't just check out the "pool" table than the fact that the building was littered with deformed corpses.
Obscure: The Aftermath is trying to bring classic survival/horror-style play into the kind of setting that would befit a teenage horror flick. But with lackluster writing and technical issues, the game doesn't achieve Nightmare on Elm Street status and ends up being more like The Faculty. Given its $20 price, if you don't have access to a better system (and better games), Obscure: The Aftermath will help pass the time. But not as quickly as you might hope.