While the Resident Evil series might have overstayed its welcome, you can give Capcom credit for finally realizing that enough was enough. The developer ditched the franchise's tired survival horror conventions, said good-bye to Raccoon City, and wound up with one of the best games so far this year in Resident Evil 4. This groundbreaking release set a new standard in action horror, mirroring the accomplishment registered by its classic predecessor nine years ago. Some people, however, aren't getting the hint that gaming has moved on. Judging by Obscure, a survival horror throwback best described as Resident Evil in a high school, French developer Hydravision is stuck in 1996. While this textbook copy of the Capcom classic is a competent regurgitation of the genre's clichés, your patience will be tested by déjà vu from the moment the first monster bursts out of the walls.
If you've ever played a survival horror game, you've seen all of this stuff before. The only addition to the mix is the Leafdale High School setting and a cast of five teen protagonists who are grungy versions of the kids from The OC. Hydravision has designed Obscure as a veritable reproduction of the Resident Evil series, including a "greatest hits" package of story, atmosphere, and even architecture (hmm, we've seen that double-staircase foyer before). The story, however, is more of a rip-off of Robert Rodriguez's 1998 high school horror flick, The Faculty, with tentacled monstrosities reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft's nightmarish creations and mutated human zombies replacing the movie's aliens.
At any rate, these creatures smash through walls and doors just like similar beasties did way back when. Gameplay is structured around scrounging through rooms for items that can be combined into tools and weapons, collecting keys, pushing bookshelves, and saving progress with collectible CDs (space-age technology compared to Resident Evil's typewriter ribbons). You can reach the ending in six or seven hours, depending on your survival horror experience. That experience really comes in handy, too, as some situations here precisely mimic those found in earlier Capcom games. A room with a missing lever and sliding shelves is a near-perfect copy of a chamber that puzzled Leon S. Kennedy in Resident Evil 2. Well, at least Hydravision seems to have done its homework.
A few interesting concepts liven up the same old, same old. Light is a weapon almost as potent as pistols and aluminum baseball bats. Turn a flashlight on high beam or smash away boards covering windows, and you can drive back or even kill creatures. Duct-tape a flashlight to a pistol, and you've got a great one-two punch for dealing with many of the game's nasties.
Also, you work in a two-person team for the most part. You can give orders to your buddy, switch between the two on the fly, or head back to a gathering area to pick and choose a pair from all five members of your group. This sometimes comes in handy, as you need to team up to kill many monsters, and each kid in the Scooby Gang has a special attribute. Josh, for instance, is an investigative reporter with the school paper, so he can sniff out clues and let you know if there's anything else to be done in a room or hallway. Stan is tops at forcing locks, making him a wise choice when it comes to breaking into a room. Kenny can run and punch like the varsity athlete that he is. Smart Shannon provides tips on current puzzles. And Ashley can rapid-fire a pistol.
None of these abilities are generally needed, though. Sure, Stan is more efficient at breaking locks than Josh, but the latter can still get the job done given an extra few seconds. Shannon's ability more or less duplicates Josh's, and since the game isn't going to hurt your brain anyway, you don't need their tips to solve puzzles. Only Kenny and Ashley are truly useful, because of their fighting skills. And even those two aren't indispensable, since--just like in all good teen horror movies--anyone can die at any time, and you can complete the game even if some of your pals bite the dust.
At times, you'll be tempted to thin out the ranks yourself. Each member of the gang is an irritating teen stereotype. Kenny's the jock. Josh's the adventurous nerd who always gets the girl in John Hughes movies. Ashley's the pretty, snotty cheerleader. Shannon's the bookish one who nobody notices is really sexy. Stan's the stoner, who calls everyone "dawg" and describes things he doesn't like as "wack." After a couple of hours of listening to this crew, you'll find yourself rooting for the monsters.
Co-op play enhances the team concept. Although there is no online support, Obscure plays pretty nicely with two players buddying up on one system using a pair of gamepads. Camera angles can present a problem at times, though, as the view locks tightly on the lead player. Thankfully, this isn't that big of a hassle since a leader button lets you automatically catch up to your teammate. You have to work together to defeat tougher monsters anyway, so wandering off alone isn't a good idea.
Exploring on your own is further discouraged by atmospheric visuals every bit as spine-chilling as those in recent spooktaculars like Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly and Silent Hill 4: The Room. Leafdale may look more like a run-down hospital or mental asylum than a functioning high school, but it serves its spooky purposes nicely. Much of the furniture and assorted rubbish can be moved, too, so you're not adventuring in front of static 2D backdrops. Animations are very well done, particularly when characters are swinging baseball bats or metal pipes in fight sequences. Moving shadows add eerie possibilities to every corridor, although they aren't quite as deep or as realistic in the PlayStation 2 version as they are in its Xbox cousin. Even with the shallower shadows and a few background jaggies, you still get the impression that something's always about to leap from a nearby door or locker.
Tension is further enhanced with distant roars, banging noises that can't be explained, and a hair-raising music soundtrack that features Latin chanting and a title track by Sum 41 (not nearly as scary, unless you're creeped out by boy-band metal). Audio effects overall do a great job of keeping you in suspense, but the PS2's Pro Logic II isn't quite as robust as the Dolby Digital 5.1 available in the Xbox version of the game.
In the end, Obscure lives up to its name. It's competent enough as far as blatant rip-offs of the great-granddaddy of survival horror go, and the co-op mode certainly adds appeal, but so much has been cobbled together from remnants of other games that Obscure has no distinct identity of its own.