As a fan of horror films (the intelligent kind, not those that just equate enormity with buckets of tomato-sauce gore) I am often let down by the lack of decent videogames that are actually scary. It seems, the survival horror ilk in particular are not that frightening, usually because they overload the game with slow moving zombies that pose no real threat to a player. Contrast that with the much foreshadowed encounter with Piggsy on the final level of Manhunt. The point is, horror is best served up slowly, gradually ramping up the tension until the big frights. Sadly, this does not tie in well with what players of videogames require. If not balanced with interesting exploration or narrative, holding off the monster action for too long can make for a boring game.
However, a class of horror film that has come increasingly to the fore in the past decade, with the likes of the Scream films and their many contemporaries, is the teen horror. This is like a teen comedy; it typically stars half a dozen beautiful people and is set in or around a school or campus. The protagonists fool around, screw one another, talk about screwing one another ad infinitum, but, unlike a comedy, they are usually stalked one by one by some unseen evil force. While teen horror films are less about simmering atmosphere, they do have the great ability to use camera tricks and jumps to get the popcorn flying down the aisle. This is closer to what game players want.
Obscure is refreshing in that it is an attempt to make a teen horror-style video game. It ticks all the boxes in that respect: School setting, gorgeous character, the affable thief, the geek, the jock, his sister and girlfriend in skimpy clothes, and a lurking horror that could threaten the whole world. From the Sum 41-backed opening sequence this is a study in teen film, only it's not a film. So, does it work as a game?
The start is good, and without giving too much away (but remembering the plot of the game is no Chris McQuarrie screenplay), the game drops in right after the opening sequence with one of the characters, Kenny, unwilling to leave the basketball court in order to get some more practise of his favorite sport. Sadly, it is not possible for us to make him pull off a few moves (would have made a great sub-game), so soon both players and Kenny get bored of shooting the same shot over and over and head to the locker room..
Kenny never makes it out of the opening sequence. And this is one of the first things that is noticeably good about Obscure: The characters can die. Sadly, the multitude of save discs scattered around, which let you save at any point, mean that it is all too tempting to go back to a time when your favorite character was still alive and muttering clichéd lines. But played properly, the regret from seeing your character die through an act of stupidity on your part is unsettling and adds to the atmosphere. Also there are no long-winded requiems for those lost; the game's use of death is stark and barren and fits the mood perfectly. As long as one of the group remains alive the game continues, but the odds stack against the player as their numbers drop.
The setting is, of course, a deserted school and its hidden chambers therein. It is instantly recognisable, but also different enough to be unsettling. The use of light and shade is well done. The characters walk around with the player sweeping their torches from side to side ready to be set upon at any minute. The developers manage to withhold hordes of creatures for a decent length of time, which aids the tension. They do eventually come, but when they do, the fact that they can be harmed by gun or light adds to the options. The player is faced with the choice of shooting out the windows quickly, or using a combination of gun and torch to beat them. Why the school goers can't hold a gun and torch at the same time is something that I'll leave to reviewers of other similarly handicapped titles.
What differentiates each of the characters is a special ability. Josh can use his investigative powers to let the player know when they have found everything of use in a room; Stan can crack locks the others might take ages over; Shannon offers dumb advice like, "let's check out the office."; Ashley is a tough cookie with a special attack, which means she can fire twice in succession (wow!); Kenny is the super athlete. These characters can be combined into a team of two and set off to explore the school while the others wait around. The supporting AI is good in one player mode and it is easy to issue simple commands. A second player can assume the role of the other character at any time, although the camera always follows player one.
Sadly, the team-work aspect of the game isn't exploited to any amazing effect. The best part is when one character frantically tries to re-wire the cafeteria's lighting while the other stands guard in the dark. Otherwise, there is a constant feeling that more could and should have been done. The cut-scenes especially lose a group dynamic very early. It is a shame, because the early interactions are good, if inconsistent (for instance, Josh asks Ashley what she thinks of the monsters…when she may not have seen them). After this, cut scenes only cover the one active character, and annoyingly always feature the same lines, spoken in a different voice. Not only is this unrealistic (surely a guy with a hard-man image to preserve and a girl with a penchant for skimpy clothes would react differently in certain situations), it ruins a great potential for added replay value. Bad move.
So is this a scary game? Well, yes, in the way that teen horror is scary; mainly with a good number of sudden shocks and occasional use of chase mechanic (which is not to belittle its effectiveness). What really helps give the player uneasy feelings is the brilliant use of sound: the sudden clatters and distant screams add a tension especially before the novelty of the game wears off. Often you enter a room to be confronted with a strange noise and grip tight of the controller as you are not sure if it poses a real threat.
Early on, the game surpasses its objectives to be a unique horror title by achieving a consistently high level of fear where other titles only have moments. Unfortunately, the action drags on by at least a couple of hours. It wouldn't be a problem if the plot was worthy of this duration, but it isn't. There is nothing worse than padding.
Obscure is a nice tale, but it is a simple one. Whereas the first half manages to be scary through its use of jumps and mystery, once the monster has been revealed, it is a different story. Any atmosphere fades with repeated exposure, and being forced into much menial wandering and fetching. I found it a chore to get to the conclusion, although I'm glad I did because there are a number of cool extras and videos to unlock at the end, including new outfits for any players that survive.
The main problem is that there is nothing new to see. After a certain point, Obscure shows that there are two sides to maintaining interest in a successful horror game: the lack of early action must be balanced in other areas, and when the action starts it must not dull too soon. Obscure falls short because it makes no attempt to vary the use of the team mechanism, and it adds no new monsters. But hopefully Obscure's legacy will be a game that ties its horror sensibillties with the varied action of something like Resident Evil 4. Now that could be exactly what horror fans want.