Review: Obscure Aftermath (PS2)

Obscure Aftermath
Genre: Survival Horror
Developer: Hydravision
Publisher: Playlogic
Release Date: 3/25/08 (estimated)

The original Obscure, if you’ll excuse the tired joke, lived up to its cleverly chosen name upon US release; a budget title published by small-scale publisher Dreamcatcher and developed by virtually unknown company Hydravision, it quietly slipped out onto store shelves, attracted a small niche audience, then faded back into the virtual nonexistence of being a cult favorite. At least, in the US; for whatever reason it was a small-scale hit in its native land of England, thus prompting a sequel. Dubbed Obscure 2 across the pond, a budget priced port (along with the more EXTREME name of Obscure Aftermath, I don’t know why either) is a perfectly natural thing both for fans of the first and those who might have missed the original.

Having played my fair share of the first game, I can safely tell you that if you didn’t play it, you didn’t miss much. Sorry. The IDEA of the first Obscure was great, and no one can possibly deny that: take The Faculty, add some Resident Evil/Silent Hill sillyness, and BAM! Instant quality. But while Alex obviously disagrees with me , I have to be honest here: I found Obscure to be a neat, novel IDEA crammed into a game that plays like Don Imus looks and feels like Resident Evil: The High School Years. Doing a teen horror flick as a video games was, and still is, a very cool concept, and Obscure’s Maniac Mansion aesthetic (everyone has a special ability to contribute) combined with its adherence to the rule of the drive-in (anyone can die at any time and you’ll just have to do without), as well as a few other concepts, made it a cute, if occasionally annoying, game that didn’t do anything terribly spectacular beyond offering legitimate two-player co-op play (that honestly doesn’t work as well as one would like, hence the frustration). Hey, with some minor tweaks, a sequel could be an awesome game in its own right, and could guarantee the series a place in survival horror immortality.

So leave it to Hydravision to make a game that’s WORSE. I mean, how in the hell do you DO that? No, forget how, WHY? I’m not even trying to be funny about this; it’s literally like they read every positive review of the game, wrote down everything reviewers loved about the original, and RIPPED ALL OF THAT OUT when they started working on the sequel. Seriously; for every single thing they fixed they broke like five things for no adequately explained reason, and in most cases, these were things that the original more than a cookie-cutter rehash of its peers. I mean, who does that? Who sits down and says “Hey, a lot of people like this feature… let’s take it out of the sequel”? What motivates a company to do something like that? Is this some sort of real-life reenactment of the old Bill Hicks joke about bands trying to convince their fans to kill themselves? I seriously don’t understand it.

Alright, alright, enough. Let’s get to business.

The story of Obscure Aftermath starts out with Stan providing a very brief recap of the previous game as well as the path his life has taken in the intervening three years between then and now before completely shifting focus to Fallcreek College and the students therein. This is a tactic similar to the first Obscure, in that the game introduced you to Kenny early in the game, then locked him away for hours while you played as all of his friends… though the difference in this case is that you actually PLAYED as Kenny, whereas here you get thirty seconds of Stan driving down the road before he’s completely absent from the story for about three hours. This is… not quite the same thing. The focus of OA is a flower that if ingested or inhaled in some form or fashion gets the user high, which then leads to said students turning into evil misshapen monsters intent upon murdering anything they see.

So remember, drugs are bad kids.

Anyway, OA gives you a team of four characters initially: Kenny, the jock from the first Obscure who’s good at moving things around; Amy, the obligatory sweater meat who’s good at decrypting (IE solving puzzles); Corey, dorky free-runner type who climbs around like Lara Croft and whines a whole lot; and Mei, the stereotypical “asian who loves video games and hacking”, who hacks doors and computers as her talent. Eventually you’re joined by a couple more characters, including the aforementioned Stan and additional Obscure survivor Shannon. These characters make up your little group as you initially try to do little more than get the hell out of town (although things change as time goes on).

On its own, this story concept isn’t bad, but in comparison to the original Obscure, OA drops the ball on a couple of counts. For one, the plot is really morose and lacks the B-Movie hilarity of the first. Generally speaking, horror movies are the kings of setting up characters as meat to be slaughtered by giving them ridiculous stereotypes and making them so annoying that you can’t wait until the uber-badass killer ruins their shit. OA fails here by actually making characters with reasonably likable personalities (for the most part anyway) and by sticking you with controlling them for hours, so that when they die, you actually feel a little bad about it. And A WHOLE LOT OF PEOPLE DIE in this game, completely outside of your control; while that might certainly make sense, it’s in direct opposition to the first game, and feels lame as a result. The game also doesn’t really have very much of a sense of humor to it, and while that’s for very obvious reasons, it makes the story that much more joyless in comparison to the first. The story also retreads a lot of the same ground as the first Obscure (two surprising heel turns, except that one of them is TOTALLY ruined by the goddamn box art THANKS GUYS, huge hideous final boss(es), plant monsters, and so on) as well as ground that’s sufficiently tread by other products (Wrong Turn, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, et cetera), though it kind of ignores its own roots at the same time (Shannon seems surprised at Stan’s ability to pick locks at one point, which was his ONLY TALENT in the first game; the fate of the other two characters from Obscure is ignored entirely save for a hidden cutscene that’s about as lame as you’d expect). And while I really don’t want to spoil the ending for you, it’s not only one of those “THERE WILL BE A SEQUEL” endings that so many people despise, but the whole scene itself would’ve worked in a two-hour slasher flick, but completely fails here and really just leaves the gamer with a sour opinion of the whole experience. And these are the MAJOR complaints; the minor complaints (way too much Deus Ex Machina plot resolution, illogical character actions, horrendous pseudo-science, a really icky rape subplot that’s not handled even the tiniest bit well, etc) just contribute to making this a generally uninteresting, uninspired, insipid story in a game that, as the prequel showed, didn’t need very much storyline to begin with. So, no, it’s not very enjoyable at all.

The presentation on OA is, at least, pretty good. The character models all look acceptable and animate decently, though their clothes look like they’re painted on which is kind of primitive in this day and age. Enemies mostly look horrific, as they should, and also animate well, and the game environments all look pretty and are appropriately creepy as needed. The game isn’t really technically impressive though; had the game come out three years ago it might have impressed somewhat, but now it really just looks like they tweaked the original Obscure engine, with obvious results. The soundtrack is mostly all orchestrated ambient score with a few harder edged tracks here and there as needed, and it all sounds appropriate and well composed. The voice acting is, surprisingly, pretty damn solid here; no one’s acting itself grates or gets on your nerves, and most of the actors give the impression they know what they’re doing, as they do it well. The sound effects are also well done for the most part, as monsters sound scary and horrendous and the various weapons make satisfying smacking sounds or gunfire noise as the case dictates.

Sadly, for everything the presentation does right, the gameplay does absolutely wrong. The CORE gameplay actually isn’t all that bad insofar as it’s about what you’d expect from the genre (especially if you’ve played a Silent Hill, oh, ever), from the standard movement controls to the “hold one button to aim and another to shoot” mechanics, though it’s fundamentally derivative in most respects. There are also some solid things done within the game that make it more user-friendly than the original, if nothing else. When you change characters, for instance, whatever character you change to takes the equipment of the character you relieved, thus saving you the trouble of re-equipping a character. Also, everyone shares the same inventory, which is wholly unbelievable but makes things a whole lot easier than if they each had their own personal inventories. Also, instead of having to go through a separate menu to access different weapons, characters are now equipped with up to four weapons at one time, which you can change on the fly with a simple press of the D-pad. Overall, the controls work okay enough on their own, and even if they’re not spot-on perfect they’re often serviceable enough to get the job done.

The problems come from two points: things that the game does wrong wholly on its own, and things that it does wrong that were done right in the first place. As I’m not a fan of order, I’d like to start with what’s done wrong in comparison to the first Obscure, so that fans of the original, without having to go any further, can see exactly why they’re going to hate the sequel, sight-unseen:

– In the original, you were provided with CD’s that allowed you to save your game as you deemed appropriate, at any time, thus still providing you with limited saves, but in a way that you could use them as you see fit (which, admittedly, is a bullshit “artificial difficulty” design flaw by way of limiting how often you could save, but it worked). Here? You can save when you find a weird flower on the wall, ONCE. I shouldn’t need to explain why this is horrendous.
– In the original you were given a pseudo-open, free-roaming environment and a choice of characters at all times; here you’re essentially required to pick certain characters to make progress even when you’re OFFERED a choice and the game is so directly linear that to be any more so, it’d have to be an on-rails shooter (which would probably be more fun).
– In the original, you had a map. No such luck here.
– In the original, none of the characters had required skills, only skills that made the game easier, and anyone could die at any time. Here, all of the characters have skills that are REQUIRED to make further progress and if anyone dies it’s GAME OVER.
– In the original, there were a smattering of puzzles that were simple enough to figure out and not too ridiculous by and large. Here the puzzles are more frequent and, in many cases, obtuse; Mei’s hacking puzzles, for example, require you to spell out the names of famous scholars/artists/scientists et cetera, and in all but one case THERE IS NO CONTEXT to the solution (it’s suggested that a scientists name might work for the forth puzzle, and the letters fairly obviously make up the name Einstein). You’re not hacking into the Art building with the Picasso password, nor the Music building with the Mozart password, nor the Psych building with the Freud password; the names are arbitrary and the game makes no effort to throw you a bone to help you guess them. They’re not even DIFFICULT so much as silly and annoying.
– In the original you had a two-player option that, while not fantastic, worked for the most part. Here you have a two-player mechanic that borders on non-functional in most cases; one section, where Corey has to scale the side of the Hospital while Amy is asked to shoot the flying monsters coming after him, is astronomically easier with one player than with two simply because the computer doesn’t need to know where it is or what it’s aiming at to accomplish anything.
– In the original, flashlights were used to dispel darkness and allowed for added damage to enemies; this time, flashlights just light up rooms. Vague mentions are made that light damages these enemies as well but nothing is ever done with that. Also, in the original game lights could be taped to weapons to allow for visibility in combat; here you’re treated to the act of fighting in pitch darkness because that went over SO WELL in Doom 3.
– In the original, the five special abilities the characters had made sense in the game world and for the characters; Josh had investigation skills because he was student reporter, Stan could pick locks fast because he was a delinquent, and so on. In OA the special abilities are more questionable; Amy is able to decrypt things and find hidden patterns, but why? Corey, as a lifelong skater, is believably agile, but the whole Tomb Raider free-running activities he can perform are… odd, to say the least. And Shannon’s ability, “Black Aura”, allows her to EAT THE BLACK FOG THAT BLOCKS DOORS, which is just absurd on multiple levels.

And this doesn’t even take into consideration the flaws in the game beyond what flawed changes were made in comparison to the first. Your characters are not very hardy in battle, and between frequent enemy encounters, tight spaces and spotty collision detection you’ll find yourself smacking the crap out of your own characters while you essentially live from one health tonic to the next until you get the stun gun; once you get that it’s a matter of letting the CPU stun enemies while you club their twitching bodies. This is USEFUL but not terribly FUN. And as noted, all of your characters have special skills that allow them to solve various puzzles in the game, but most of them seem really arbitrary; Mei, Amy and Stan seem like their abilities were put into the game just to give the gamer puzzles to solve, Shannon’s is one of the MANY tired Active Time Sequence-esque events in the game, and Kenny and Sven can push heavy things, something most characters in most games can do without too much issue. Corey’s Acrobatics skill is certainly novel for this type of game, but it ultimately feels like tacked on Tomb Raider gameplay in a game that really just doesn’t need it. Honestly, about the only gameplay elements that seem like they were improved are the variety of weapons, the ability to recharge the batteries on electrical weapons (thus providing somewhat infinite ammunition) and the ability to extract elements from the leftovers of enemies and convert them into healing items, which is certainly a novel idea if nothing else. That aside, OA doesn’t play particularly well, isn’t exceptionally well balanced, and does a lot of things wrong that the prequel did right, making it ultimately feel very disappointing to play at the best of times. Those who have no experience with the genre will be frustrated with the awkward camera angles and frequent, often unavoidable combat, and those who’ve played lots of survival horror games before will find OA to be bland and unexciting.

Even assuming you get past these issues, there’s not a whole lot of reason to want to play it beyond wanting to see the entire story as the weapons never become uber-impressive and the enemies never become any more interesting or special. And once you HAVE completed it, there’s no reason to go back; if there is anything, and I mean ANYTHING, besides the hidden cutscene revealing the fates of Ashley and Josh, hidden in this game… I couldn’t find it and neither has anyone else. The closest thing you can call to hidden is that when you think the game ends, it hasn’t, and nothing special needs to be done to unlock this beyond beating the game; I walked away during the end credits and when I came back I was in control of the characters again. Of course, if you want to spend half an hour running away from everything you see until you find a gun in a game that isn’t designed anywhere NEAR as well as Clock Tower, you’re welcome to it, but I didn’t think this was a great surprise. Even if this does interest you… well, that’s all you get. Even for a budget title, that’s lazy (and it’s not even budget priced across the pond). Combine this with an also-ran presentation that apes Silent Hill and Resident Evil as much as its predecessor and the only people who are going to want to play through this are the die-hard survival horror fans and those who LOVED the first Obscure.

Look, say whatever you want about the first Obscure, call it original, call it entertaining, call it one of the best ever; this is not that game. Technical proficiency and vaguely interesting presentation are the only things Obscure Aftermath has going for it. The concept is no longer fresh and interesting and OA does nothing to make it so, and seems even MORE derivative than the first game. The gameplay is unexciting, almost all of the good elements from the first game have been stripped out of the sequel, and what you’re left with is little more than a game that would have only been above average five years ago, but as it stands now is just poor. OA ends up feeling like a game designed by either an entirely different team of people… or worse, by the same people, only they HATE YOU. Either way, Obscure Aftermath is a hollow shell of the promise the original game showed; derivative, uninspired, lacking in all of the interesting things that made the first enjoyable, it is little more than another survival horror game in a sea of superior titles.

The Scores:
Story: 4/10
Graphics: 6/10
Sound: 8/10
Control/Gameplay: 4/10
Replayability: 2/10
Balance: 5/10
Originality: 2/10
Addictiveness: 4/10
Appeal: 5/10
Miscellaneous: 1/10

Overall Score: 4.1/10
Final Score: 4.0 (POOR).

Short Attention Span Summary
Even as a budget title, Obscure Aftermath fails to deliver in any reasonable way. It feels like about a hundred other, better games, its own prequel included, and there is no reason whatsoever to play through it; you’ve already done it before and in this case have no reason to do so again. There’s nothing else to be said about it.



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