Review: Obscure: The Aftermath (Sony PSP)

Obscure: The Aftermath
Genre: Survival Horror
Developer: Hydravision
Publisher: Playlogic
Release Date: 10/13/09

Approximately four years ago, Obscure was released in the US for the PS2, Xbox and PC. Featuring an interesting concept and game mechanics that players either really loved or really hated, it generally received some solid reviews, sold poorly and more or less kind of faded into, well, obscurity. Developer Hydravision looked to be a rising star at that point, however, as Obscure, whether you liked it or not, was a pretty impressive piece of work, and seemed to indicate the company had some good ideas and might well be worth watching. Unfortunately, this proved to be a false assessment. About a year and a half ago, I sat down with the PS2 release of Obscure: The Aftermath, which I had been hoping would be a drastic improvement over the first game but was instead disappointing both as a game and as a sequel. They followed up that disappointment with the PS2 and Wii versions of Alone in the Dark, which Matt Yaeger politely described as one of the worst games he’d ever played. In other words, they were basically becoming a one-hit wonder with a string of follow-up embarrassments, and if not for the fact that the games seem (presumably) to do reasonably well in the developer’s home country of England, they would have probably dissolved years ago.

Now, I made it a point to note in my review of the PS2 version of the game that I liked the CONCEPTS of the first game, but didn’t care for the game itself. The whole The Faculty concept combined with the Maniac Mansion “every has a special ability, no one is vital to the game” design made the game interesting, and little things like the ability to save anywhere or the fact that dead characters were gone for good made the game feel like something interesting, even if the gameplay and writing couldn’t hold up their end of the deal. The sequel, on the other hand, ripped all of the good things out of the game, broke the bad things worse, and was generally an abomination in nearly all respects. The announced PSP version of the game, by all indications, wasn’t expected to be a dramatic improvement in most respects, but I really wanted to give the game a second chance to win me over. A year and a half between attempts to play the game, I figured, would be sufficient for me to maybe change my opinion of the game a bit, and since Hydravision had purportedly fixed some of the more annoying (well, THEIR idea of more annoying anyway) issues the console version of the game featured, I thought maybe the game would be a dramatic enough improvement that even if it didn’t really realize the greatness the first game had promised, it might still be a winner in its own right.

Well, the good news is that, yes, some things have indeed been fixed about the game. The bad news, however, is that between the new things which have been broken and things which are still broken, Obscure: The Aftermath is still not especially good, and still stands as a firm disappointment when compared to the prequel specifically and the genre as a whole.

The story of Obscure: The Aftermath is the same as it is in the console version: the game 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, shortly before he disappears for about half the game as we completely shift focus to Fallcreek College and the students therein. This is a tactic the first Obscure employed as well, 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, which is… not quite the same thing. The evil plot device this time around is a flower that if ingested or inhaled in some form or fashion gets the user high, which is followed by horrible nightmares, hideous deformation, and a murderous desire to take the lives of anything human, so, y’know, enjoy the trip, it’s the last one you’ll take and all that. In the beginning you’re given a cast of four characters: Kenny, the jock from the first game who’s good at moving things around; Amy, the obligatory sweater meat who’s good at decrypting, AKA “finding patterns in nonsense”, apparently; Corey, nerdy ape-man 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 with her PDA. 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 the story progresses.

On its own, this story concept isn’t bad, but in comparison to the original game, Obscure: The Aftermath isn’t as interesting. For one, the plot in this game is really morose and depressing, often to its own detriment. A good slasher flick knows how to set up annoying characters only to have them get cut down in spectacular fashion, often by the superhuman killer, but as Obscure: The Aftermath follows the concept of The Faculty, much like its predecessor, the plot actually FAILS in this respect. See, most of the characters in the game, while not awesome people or anything, are generally okay people all in all, and since they have generally acceptable motivations and you’re stuck playing as them for long periods of time, you kind of start to like them and want to see them succeed. Thus, when they die, you actually feel a little bad about it. The problem here is that A WHOLE LOT OF PEOPLE DIE in this game, completely outside of your control, which is problematic for two reasons. First, the original game DIDN’T do that, which makes the sudden inclusion of plot-important deaths annoying because they weren’t missed in the last game. Second, when the game keeps killing off your protagonists it becomes very hard to actually give a damn about the plot since you can ultimately sympathize with no one, and the only characters who do survive are utterly inhuman and really don’t seem to CARE about everything that happened.

Further (yes, we’re still on about the plot), the game lacks a sense of humor, and while that’s for very obvious reasons, it makes the story that much more joyless in comparison to the first. The story also almost entirely retreads most of the same ground as the first game, between the surprise heel turns, the hideous giant monsters, the whole plant-based monstrosities gimmick in general, and so on, without doing enough to be its own story. The game also borrows its plot points from a metric ton of horror films and recycles them practically verbatim while ignoring its own plot for no adequately explained reason. I mean, fine, you wanted to make a mutated retard monster who kills people in a shack in the woods, I guess you pretty much had to rip off Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so fair enough, but why does Shannon seems surprised at Stan’s ability to pick locks at one point, which was his ONLY TALENT in the first game? If you can’t keep your own plot straight, I can’t be expected to do so, and when I lose track of the plot it makes the blatant plot-element borrowing going on obvious. Aside from these obvious complaints, there are plenty of minor plot issues that further sink the narrative, like the ham-fisted “TO BE CONTINUED” ending, the constant Deus Ex Machina plot resolutions, frequent illogical character actions, horrendous pseudo-science, and OH YES, a really icky rape subplot that’s not handled even the tiniest bit well. Put simply: the story introduces characters, kind-of sort-of convinces you to care about them, and then either makes them evil, kills them, rapes and kills them, or makes them behave like jerks, so I guess if you’re a Joss Whedon fan you might like the plot, but everyone else will just be annoyed.

On the plus side, the presentation is mostly acceptable. The character models all look good, more so on the PSP than in their console incarnations, and they animate decently, though their clothes still look like they’re painted on. It’s no so offensive in this case that the clothes look like part of the character textures, since the PSP isn’t as powerful a console as the PS2 or Wii, but if the Monster Hunter series can avoid this I don’t think this game has any excuse. 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 still isn’t especially impressive on a technical level, however, and while it’s pretty neat that the PSP visuals look comparable to their console counterpart, the console games didn’t look all that cutting-edge, so it’s not all THAT impressive. 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 effective. 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.

Now, as I had noted when reviewing the PS2 game, for everything the presentation does right, the gameplay does wrong, though I will note that this release has actually fixed a couple of notable issues the console versions suffered, which makes the game somewhat less reprehensible of a play experience. 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 analog stick 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 (though this doesn’t happen all the time). Also, everyone shares the same inventory, most of the time, which is wholly unbelievable but makes things a whole lot easier than if they each had their own personal inventories. Nothing makes life easier than being able to access the stun gun at any time, for reasons we will discuss later. 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, meaning you can have a stun gun, a real gun, and two melee weapons, for example, depending on what you might need at the time. 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.

Aside from the obvious gameplay mechanics, every character has their own unique abilities, which the game makes you employ at various points to make progress. Stan and Sven are the only characters who can push and pull heavy objects, while Corey is the only character who can perform Prince of Persia acrobatics when needed, and these mechanics fit into the gameplay normally. Characters like Mei, Stan and Shannon have mini-game based special abilities (Stan picks locks, Mei hacks electronics, Shannon… eats magic locks… yeah), which are a little more diverse, at least, though they break up the flow of the game at times. The game will set up different scenarios where these characters will be needed, though the characters are functionally identical otherwise, so this won’t make much of a difference. The PSP version, again, also rectifies a few major issues that the console games suffered from, which make it a better version of the game overall, if nothing else. For one, the PSP version carries over the Wii version’s unlockable content, meaning you can unlock character art, cinematics and music as you play. Further, you can re-use save points multiple times in the PSP version, which was a MAJOR issue with the console games that is thankfully fixed, making the game far less frustrating than it originally was. Finally, I’m led to understand that in co-op mode, each player sees their own character instead of being forced to share one view, which is fantastic and makes the game far more playable than its console counterparts, and if the rest of the game had been stellar, these fixes alone would make the PSP release of Obscure: The Aftermath worth every penny.

Unfortunately, the game still carries over all of the other flaws of its console counterparts, as well as introducing a few PSP specific issues. The problems, as they are, come in two flavors: 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. First, in the original game, you were provided with CD’s that allowed you to save your game when you deemed appropriate, at any time, and while this is still artificial difficulty, it worked well. The fact that the PSP version of the game removes the “one save per flower” gimmick is nice, but it’s not a BETTER mechanic, and the save system of the original game would have honestly been MORE user-friendly for a handheld system than what’s in this game. Second, 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). Third, despite the dark and often confusing environments, you get no map, something the original game offered.

Fourth, 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. Fifth, in the original, most of the puzzles in the game were infrequent and generally simple enough to solve, while in Obscure: The Aftermath, 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 scientist’s name might work for the fourth 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, and they’re not even challenging so much as asinine. Sixth 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. And while we’re on the subject, 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. Finally, in the original, the five special abilities the characters 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 Obscure: The Aftermath 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 free-running mechanic is still… 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 detrimental changes were made between games. 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. Admittedly, the PSP version seems to have been toned down a bit, difficulty-wise, but it’s still a bear in several cases thanks to the aforementioned issues. Also, 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, Obscure: The Aftermath 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.

Even beyond the aforementioned issues, there’s little reason to play into the game, as the game lacks any sort of impressive weaponry or enemies, aside from one boss who you see like three times. 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 STILL couldn’t find it, and you can unlock most all of the extra content in one playthrough. The PSP version also adds in a horrid camera system that pretty much requires you to use the D-pad to move the camera around and offers NO WAY TO RESET THE CAMERA, which is just inane. The loading times of this version of the game are also more pronounced and annoying than the console versions, which only serves to annoy the player more than anything else. Also, while the two-player mechanics are improved, the idea that one needs two copies of the game just to experience this mitigates that improvement somewhat. Combine this with the 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 and somehow missed the console versions, as even if you loved the console version, THIS IS THE SAME GAME.

The bottom line is that while the PSP version of Obscure: The Aftermath is better in some respects than the console games, it’s worse in other respects and, I’m sorry, it still isn’t a terribly good game. The presentation is mostly acceptable and the gameplay is certainly manageable enough, all in all, plus the game has some acceptable pacing to it that might make it enjoyable if you can deal with all its issues. Unfortunately, the game feels dated and trite, doubly so at this point, the teen slasher concept is no longer interesting, 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. Obscure: The Aftermath ends up feeling like a game designed by either an entirely different team of people that hate you, personally, for reasons you can’t really fathom. Obscure: The Aftermath is a hollow shell of the promise the original game showed; derivative, uninspired, and 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: BAD
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: MEDIOCRE
Replayability: DREADFUL
Originality: WORTHLESS
Addictiveness: POOR
Miscellaneous: WORTHLESS

Final Score: POOR GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Obscure: The Aftermath for the PSP is a marginally improved version of its console counterparts, but while it features some good improvements, the core game is still not particularly good, and some of the changes made for the PSP version are ultimately not for the better. The game looks acceptable and sounds good, the gameplay is generally easy enough to learn and work with, and at times the concept and design manage to get on the same page long enough to make the game enjoyable. Thanks to the ability to use save points multiple times and the fact that players can now see their characters instead of the view of the first player in multiplayer games, the experience is improved overall, but not enough to overpower the negatives. The story is derivative, improperly constructed, overly morose and mostly inhuman in its execution. The game pales in comparison to its predecessor, and seemingly takes joy in doing everything wrong that the prior game did right. There’s no variety to the experience, no reason to play the game once, let alone multiple times, and thanks to the awkward changes of the camera system and the noticeable loading issues, the few positive changes in the PSP version are effectively nullified. Obscure: The Aftermath is simply not an enjoyable game; if you’ve played the first game, the sequel is a joyless endeavor that lacks any of the things that made the first game entertaining, and if you haven’t, it’s still a bland, uninspired rehash of unoriginal concepts that you’ve seen before, only better.



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