Okay, probably enough of you know that I really do love the horror survival type of games. Silent Hill and Resident Evil are among my favorites and even Doom 3 comes to mind as a good, scary romp. There have been others as well, some of them quite clever if not immensely popular like Haunting Grounds. And going back to the early days of gaming we have Realms of the Haunting and Veil of Darkness.
But besides murder and monsters, what do all these titles have in common? Well, they are rather solitary experiences. It’s you against a dark and foreboding world. Sure there might be some other characters in there somewhere; NPCs who may actually help you along (though most likely have their own goals that run counter to yours.) For the most part though, the games require you to sit there for hours on end, delving through dungeons and abandoned cities pursuing your goals, but mostly just trying not to become lunch for horrific monsters, zombies, cultists, aliens or whatever evil has destroyed the local area if not the world.
So it was with great surprise that I read the box and press materials that arrived for Obscure: The Aftermath. Apparently this was a horror survival game made for two players. Given that horror movies are much more fun when you are watching them with someone, this made total sense to me, so I was anxious to give it a try.
When you start the game out you learn that it’s a sequel to Obscure, which was a moderately successful game that came out a few years ago. You don’t have to have played the original to enjoy The Aftermath as the story of what basically happened in the previous game is quickly revealed. Basically some kids in high school were attacked by a mad scientist type who used them as guinea pigs to try and save his brother. This has left most of them scarred mentally in some way, but they have been able to get into college nonetheless.
The school the four main characters attend is the ultimate party school it seems, with beer cans littering the hallways and all kinds of references to sex, drugs and partying. The guys from Animal House don’t seem to have anything on the kids at this school.
Right from the start you are given a choice of single or multiplayer gameplay. If you go with single play, then you control one character most of the time with another following you around and fighting for you, but can also switch to other characters from time to time. If you choose multiplayer, you pretty much always have two characters handy with each player controlling one of them. There are times in multiplayer when you can switch your characters around a bit as well, which is necessary to solve certain puzzles.
You see, each of the four kids (and a few of the supplemental characters) have special abilities. Corey can jump to high ledges and swing around like a monkey, reaching areas that others can’t. Mei is a computer gaming goddess and can hack security systems. Amy, the blonde bimbo, is actually a whiz with cryptographic type puzzles and Sven, the muscle man, can shove large boxes and crates out of the way or move them into strategic areas to grant access to higher ground. Often times using the right character at the right time is only part of the puzzle, as solving them also involves a mini-game where you need to cycle letters through a password to try and guess it or put a map together. Sometimes this is done while under attack, leaving the player not solving the puzzle to defend the other person while they work. There are also a few characters who appear only in certain scenes who also posses special abilities like lock picking.
The plot of the game of course is not all about trying to party and get high at college, though that would be an interesting game. No, there are these strange flowers growing there (with some ties to the original game I think) and they turn people into monsters. These monsters run the gamut from spider like little crawlers to floating banshees to some big titans that look like they dropped in from Silent Hill to say hello.
You can combat them with a variety of melee weapons like bats and hockey sticks, and ranged weapons like crossbows, pistols and shotguns. The ranged weapons are more effective and less dangerous to use, but there is very little ammo to find lying around, so you need to conserve it until you really need to, well, bring out the big guns. It seems every time I found shotgun ammo, a boss was right around the corner which forced me to use it. But at there should be enough ammo around for all your needs as long as you are not wasteful.
Combat also offers some great strategies to develop between players. For example, with the person controlling the second character armed with a stun gun, they are able to bring down enemies to the ground where they lie helpless for a few seconds. Then player one can come in and whack the monsters with a bat or club without fear of counterattack.
The two player angle was a ton of fun because for the first time I was able to play a horror RPG with my wife. Now instead of trying to explain to her why a game like Resident Evil is so fun and why it’s cool to get the stuffing scared out of you while you sit in a darkened room, I could show her. It’s doubtful that she would ever play a game like that on her own, but it’s fun to play together. In fact, she was able to offer insight to a lot of the puzzles, pointing out things that I would have missed.
The gameplay is a nearly perfect balance of combat and puzzle solving. You are not attacked constantly like in say, Doom 3, but enough monsters show up that you are always on your toes. And the puzzles are pretty challenging sometimes, especially the hacking ones where you have to figure out a famous person’s name from a jumbled list of letters.
The one negative in terms of gameplay is that there are no difficulty settings. Given the mix of combat and puzzle solving, some type of way to make either combat or the puzzles easier or more challenging would have been nice to find. That way combat junkies who don’t like puzzles would find it more fun while puzzle gamers could also enjoy Obscure a bit more with easier combats. If the game balance was not so great as it stands, this would have been more of a detriment.
The other annoying aspect of the gameplay is the use of save points. In places there does not seem to be enough of them, so that if you die, you are going back all the way to the point where you are playing different characters in another scene sometimes. That is highly annoying. If you are going to force us to use save points instead of the much more popular "save anytime" mode, at least scatter some extra save areas in there for us.
Graphically, the game looks great, with characters looking like real college kids, even on the somewhat aging PS2 hardware. The sound too also picks it up a notch. During one early scene when you are tying to break into a frat house party, you can hear the muffled music and it really does sound like you are outside a big party trying to sneak in. Trust me, I have done that, and it’s a good representation. Monsters of course also sound scary.
Generally, the production values of the game are extremely high and impressive. And the voice acting is nearly perfect, without a dud in the bunch to break the atmosphere. The voice crew should get special kudos for a job well done.
Adding true multiplayer to a survival horror game is a really good idea. And the fact that it happens to have been added to a really good game just makes it all the better. Now is not normally the time of year when we think about scary games, but trust me, you will be doing yourself and a friend of your choice a big favor by picking this one up. Horror is better when it’s built for two.