Discussion Review: Obscure: The Aftermath

ObscureTheAftermath.jpg Back in 2005 there was a horror-survival game that echoed the setting of many slasher-horror movies by taking place in a high school. That game – Obscure for the PS2, XBOX & PC – got average reviews and not much attention from critics or gamers. In early 2008 a sequel was released. Obscure: The Aftermath takes place two years after the events of the original game as those who survived the horrors of the original (the events, not the game itself) have moved on to college, and follows yet another bizarre series of events. The game scored slightly lower than the original and got even less attention. Now Obscure: The Aftermath has been updated and tweaked and ported to the PSP in the hopes of finding an audience and setting that will gain it proper attention, and Matt and I have whipped out our PSP’s to see how it turned out. I took on the PSN version and Matt played the UMD.

Mike: Survival-horror games are another area where my experience is fairly thin, but I attribute that to the genre being best represented by console games such as Silent Hill and Resident Evil. My first experience in the genre was the DS version of Resident Evil, and since then I’ve played various games on the DS and PSP as well as the abysmal PC port of Resident Evil 4 and the wonderful Resident Evil 5. I played Silent Hill Origins for the PSP, and found that did a decent job of delivering a solid survival-horror experience. Obscure: The Aftermath attempts to deliver thrills and freak-out experiences, but for me the most remarkable thing was the horror of the controls and the wonder if I would survive when the camera stole control from me at a critical moment.

Actually, perhaps my biggest overall issue with the game was that it just seemed to try too hard. Because it is focused on teens, it seems that the developers needed to include every cliché and stereotype possible. It gets worse – the disease that turns the kids to raging monsters is an STD. In fact, after seeing so much cliché material piled on to so much bad dialogue and cheesy over-acting, I had to check to see if the game was a parody! Seriously! Matt – had you played the original game or Obscure: The Aftermath on the consoles? I’m interested in your take on everything.

Matt: Indeed, I did play the original Obscure — did a discussion review for it back at BonusStage too, coincidentally enough — and it was actually a multi-platform game for PC and Xbox as well. I never played the initial console/PC versions of The Aftermath, though, so this PSP port is my first experience with the sequel.

I rather enjoyed Obscure for its time, and for the most part The Aftermath picks up where the first game left off. By no means is it a great game, but like before I had a good time with it.

As you say, the plot is absurd, the voice acting is campy, and the characters are all ridiculously stereotypical, but it all plays into the whole “I Know What You Did Last Summer” / “Scream” brand of teen-oriented horror the game is clearly going for. So I just laughed off the silliness and rolled with it without much reservation. My problem with the story is actually more that it’s just not scary on any level. It lacks the psychological trickery of games like Silent Hill and really doesn’t have any of the more old fashioned “monster jumps up out of nowhere” spooks common in the early Resident Evil games (or even the original Obscure, which I remember being scarier than this).

That said, the game does have a dark, ominous atmosphere about it that kept me on edge a little. The graphics are actually quite impressive, I thought. The environments are lit well and have a creepy ambiance to them, and parts of the soundtrack also made my spine tingle a few times.

The game itself is pretty standard for a survival-horror game. You explore dark environments lighting the path ahead with the cone of your flashlight, you fight off nasty creatures with various guns and melee weapons like pistols, shotguns, bats, golf clubs, chainsaws and hockey sticks, and you collect keys, flip switches and solve various logic puzzles like cracking password combinations and that sort of thing. I didn’t have any problems with the controls, but I do agree with you about the sticky camera. I guess my complaint is that it’s not consistent in its format. For some scenes the camera is positioned at a fixed perspective, yet at others it’s open for full 360-degree 3D manipulation. Having to adjust the camera with the D-pad is awkward, to say the least, but I actually found that tapping the lock-on button (Right Shoulder) functioned as an effective way to re-center the camera behind my character.

Then there is the game’s co-op element. What did you think of that?

Mike: It is funny you mention co-op, as this was a rare occasion when I got to play some. I mentioned before that I had a friend at my former job who had a launch PSP and back in 2005 we would play some co-op. Since then it has been extremely rare that I have played ad-hoc multiplayer of any sort, so I was pleasantly surprised when a visiting engineer had a PSP Go and we started talking, and then the next day (his last in the country) played some co-op Obscure at lunch. It was a very rare treat that provided me one of my most positive experiences with the game.

My short impression: ANYTHING had to be better than the inept AI that had the other characters constantly wandering in between me and what I was trying to kill or in the way of where I was looking, especially when paired with the camera control issues we both have highlighted. That isn’t really fair, though. I honestly had very low expectations for a co-op survival horror run, but I think that the PSP makes it work very well. Because you are together and aren’t splitting a screen, you can still get the intimate feeling that allows the horror aspects to try to shock your character.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Obscure makes heavy use of two-players to get through the game. In single player mode, you will control one while the AI controls the other. There are several characters you will pick up as the game progresses, and most have unique skills and talents that you will need. You can switch between the two characters very easily, but if you brought the tough guy along and need the smart girl you left behind, you’ll need to track back and make that change. Fortunately the game forces you to take certain characters at certain times, which makes things less frustrating. This heavy use of two-player solutions, paired up with plenty of monsters to deal with, makes a two-player solution very satisfying.

Obscure uses a form of drop-in / drop-out that allows you to detect local players with WLAN switches on to join the game at startup. This makes things a bit more flexible, but in my opinion the limits of only local multiplayer reduces what I consider the best part of the game to a minor footnote… or worse yet, a missed opportunity.

I know you said that the controls didn’t bother you, and while I managed through them, I don’t know if that isn’t because we’ve become used to dealing with wonky camera actions and single analog stick jerkiness for third person games? Because playing some more after reading your comments I was aware of how much I struggled with controls.

I’m interested in your thoughts on the co-op, as it is a rare thing in adventure-based horror games. How does it compare with he original, and do you share my opinion that they diminished the best part of the game by not making co-op work over Infrastructure? Oh, and did you find the overall combat fairly bland and control-limited?

Matt: One thing we both continue to agree upon in our discussion of PSP games is the ongoing omission of infrastructure support. As the PSP evolves into more of a download-focused device it seems like more and more developers are scrapping online capabilities from their games, and it’s extremely disappointing. Like you, Ad Hoc play is something I can’t really take advantage of because no one I know owns a PSP. Well, my best friend has one, but he bought it a while back to kill travel time on a vacation he was going on and I doubt he’s used it since. He isn’t that local either, so we’d still need online if there was a game we wanted to play together.

As you say, the partner AI in Obscure is completely inept. Not enough to ruin the game, because it is easy enough to swap characters on the fly and get them to do what you want them to do, but having to baby sit like that is a drag. You also have to worry about damaging your AI friend, which is doubly annoying.

The whole idea of forcing co-op onto players is something I am becoming increasingly disgruntled with. I’m all for co-op modes, but to saddle solo gamers with brainless AI partners without any choice in the matter is just wrong. I recognized this problem most during my time with Resident Evil 5 — Sheva is a more annoying AI companion than anyone in this game! — and it’s also an issue in Obscure.

Those issues aside, I do like the concept the developers were going for with the cooperative elements in Obscure, switching between different characters and using their unique skill sets to clear different objectives. And if you do have a friend around to play with I can definitely see this game being a solid co-op adventure.

As for the controls, I really didn’t have any problems, though I’ve been playing survival-horror games on all platforms for years now and regardless of platform the genre has generally been noted as one with fairly clunky mechanics, so I suppose I’ve just adapted to it to where it feels normal. To me it didn’t feel any different than playing a Silent Hill game. Yes, the combat is simple, but that’s the point in these horror games because you are generally playing as regular people who wouldn’t have any combat training or some massive arsenal of weapons.

Mike: I think one thing that really hurt my opinion of the game was the way I played: I had only played a little bit – enough to get familiar – before engaging in about an hour of co-op play, and had to play the rest by myself. So I saw the game at its best early on and that made the AI suffer even more in contrast. I agree on the whole ‘forced co-op’ thing: co-op is a wonderful thing when done right in the right type of game, but that doesn’t mean that we should be forced to endure it in every game. Sort of like the classic ‘babysitting’ levels where you had to guide someone to safety – they could be fun and challenging, but it got to the point where it seemed obligatory for every new game to have one. Ditto for ‘forced stealth’.

With regards to comparing this game to Silent Hill or Resident Evil in terms of combat, let me explain my purpose in calling it ‘bland’. I agree that because you’re supposed to be an ‘average Joe’, combat should be relatively simple – and that makes sense. But that depends upon creating a near constant state of peril for the player – and I never felt that with Obscure. The bottom line was that regardless of what stupid things I might do or the struggles with the camera I faced, there was always ammo and healing available right around the corner. It also took away some of the frustration of having AI partners get in the way and get injured, as you could keep them healed up quite easily.

And that is ultimately what killed Obscure for me – it was the trifecta of inane story and voice acting, terrible AI and wonky camera, and combat and plot that was never scary or shocking. You mentioned early on about just letting the bad dialogue and voice work roll off, and I would have done that as well (given how any Eastern European games I play, I have no choice!). I could have forgiven any one or two of these things, but everything in combination was just too much.

What other positives or negatives did you experience?

Matt: I don’t think we are too far off here. I mean, I really can’t argue with any of your criticisms. The game has a lot of problems and really doesn’t do anything that hasn’t been done better many times before. But through the flaws we’ve both talked about, I didn’t find myself disliking the game in any way. The game looks and sounds great (except for the voice acting), and other than the camera and forced co-op pet peeve of mine, the game is a standard representation of the genre and plays pretty well.

Frankly, the PSP’s survival-horror library is fairly thin, so if nothing else this game fills a much needed niche. It may not fill that niche in spectacular fashion — Silent Hill: Origins is certainly a much better choice — but it’s a serviceable second option for survival-horror fans to fall back on, at least for a rental.

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Pros:
+ Core survival-horror gameplay is solid
+ Excellent graphics and atmosphere
+ Good soundtrack
+ Interesting co-op dynamic

Cons:
– Story is neither scary or funny, and it tries to be both
– Forced co-op and bad partner AI is a lethal combination
– Co-op is Ad Hoc only
– Awkward camera system

Mike: I have noted through the years that my level of tolerance for average or mediocre games – especially ports – is dependent on any number of things. These can include how well it works on the target system, the time separation from original release compared to the new features added, whether or not it has been adapted to maximize the use of system specific features on the target platform, and the listing price. It has been more than a year and a half since Obscure: The Aftermath was released for Wii, PS2 and PC, yet what we have gotten is simply a faithful port without major additions, that doesn’t make full use of the wireless nature of the PSP, released as a full-priced PSP game. I wanted more – or to pay less.

As you say, Obscure: The Aftermath isn’t a terrible game, but I would definitely call it ‘mediocre’. As noted, the story, dialogue and voice acting are all pretty awful, but as to whether or not that is a negative or par for the genre is up for debate. The core gameplay is – as you stated – ‘genre standard’ … which is fine. The overall game design – areas, scare-points, and so on – make the game totally un-scary and too easy without a solid feeling of constant peril. The two-person puzzles are decent but require too much backtracking if you choose the wrong companions, but the best overall feature was the co-op play with another live person. Sadly even this feature was spoiled by the lack of internet gameplay. So in the end I was left with very few good memories and mostly negative feelings. For those who have been DYING for another survival-horror PSP game, this will have to suffice, but I’d recommend spending your money on a good game instead. Despite what Apple implied a couple of months ago, there are loads of better ways to spend $30 on a PSP game.

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Pros:
+ Nice co-op mode
+ Solid visuals
+ Finally a new survival-horror PSP game

Cons:
– Lousy story / dialogue / voice acting
– Awful companion AI
– No co-op over the internet
– Too expensive for a late port

Game Info:
Platform: PSP (UMD and PSN)
Publisher: Playlogic
Developer: Hydravision
Release Date: 10/13/09
Genre: Survival-Horror
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-2 (Ad Hoc only)
Source: Review copies provided by publisher

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!