# of Players 1 (Wi-Fi: 1-2)
Rating: M (Mature)
Even if you've never played the original Obscure on the PC, PS2 or Xbox, Obscure: The Aftermath makes for a great slice of survival horror now available in portable form on the PSP. This scary single or co-op experience puts you in the shoes of a handful of college-age jock, loner and babe types who set to put an end to a deadly plague of sorts brought on by ingestion of some rather nasty black flowers. There's a lot more to the plot than that, but this is one of those games where telling too much kills a few key plot twists. Despite a few visual bumps in the code, the game both looks and plays great on the handheld and overall, it's a hellish ride well worth taking... provided you don't mind the “B” movie silliness some of the dialog provides.
In the game, things go from bad to worse at Fallcreek University after those strange black flowers all the crazy kids have been experimenting with (they were making tea with them? Really?) suddenly burst to life, transforming nearly the entire student body into some rather gnarly-looking, body-chomping monsters. Of course, this happens at the big school dance par-tay, which is where your first pair of meddling kids end up after a very creepy, effective (and thankfully, brief) opening tutorial that teaches basic movement and combat options. By the way, don't obsess much the sometimes blurry graphics in this early stage - it's an intentional effect that clears up when you find and guzzle that first energy drink.
You'll end up controlling six teens in total, sometimes a single character, often in pairs for the bulk of the adventure. Sometimes the game decides who you'll play as while other times it's up to you to pick from who's available. In either case, there are adventure game elements to tackle such as puzzle solving, lock picking, crate pushing and a few other talents. Each character has a specific skill, so you'll need to do a bit of trial and error (read their bios so you know who can do what) as well as some backtracking should you choose the wrong guy or gal for the job. There's a nicely designed mix of linear maps along with with lengthy, creature-packed sections that contain multiple pathways or in the case of buildings, a few different floors to explore and survive.
Movement is pretty fluid and the controls are intuitive, so no matter if you're a genre fan or not, the game is quite easy to hop into. When playing alone, the AI is generally very sharp, drawing weapons and aiming when and where you do. A tap of the triangle button swaps characters, which becomes important in areas where timing is key, such as places where you'll need to use one character to pull another up before they're killed by a fast-moving monster or monsters. Teamwork is also key in sequences where one character needs to operate one device while the second character, separated by some distance needs to operate or interact with another object.
Usually, flicking a switch or completing a puzzle will bring forth monsters, but you'll often get the same result from entering a new area for the first time. I loved the smashing through walls bit one pair of particularly hideous brutes hits you with in one early area as this pretty much tells you things are going to get quite unpredictable as the game goes on. They most certainly do as the creatures get weirder and the plot does its thing. However, some of the more shocking twists are a wee bit too telegraphed for their own good (i.e., you can see them coming a mile away). Still, it's great to just play along, enjoy the ride and see if your guessing is correct and besides, what's a horror flick or horror game without the occasional cliché moment or two?
One very minor quibble I had with the PSP controls is thanks to no second analog stick, precision turning and aiming up or down at creatures needs to be done with the D-Pad. It's a bit odd at first, but you'll get used to it after a very short bit of practice. Thankfully, the auto-follow camera system is well up to the task, keeping up with your targeting and turning the camera slightly to moderately as you turn corners, walk or run through the different locations. In combat, you'll be happy to have an AI partner who can hold his or her own, but monitoring the health of both teens is crucial. Should one partner die, it's an instant Game Over and a trip back to your last save. You notice more harm happening with melee than ranged weapons, so keep this in mind.
Speaking of saves, the save system has been wisely revamped for the PSP to make things a lot more bearable during tough stretches where death can come from any direction. In the console versions, those black save flowers vanished right after you used them, meaning you had to slog through some annoyingly treacherous areas with no chance to retry a different strategy if you died. Here, you can reuse the majority of those flowers as many times as you wish with multiple save slots on a Memory Stick Duo. Despite this, the game can still be brutal at times, thanks to the longer map areas and aforementioned fast-moving monsters. Combined with a lack of ammo and healing items in some areas, things can get grim until you realize that creatures always spawn in the same locations, so you just need to eradicate them as quickly as possible while keeping both your characters healthy.
Energy drinks and health kits are your standard means of healing injuries, but early on, you run into a bald doctor-type that gives you a syringe you'll need to extract "serum" from the hearts of monsters you've slain. From a medical perspective, that's all kinds of wrong. Nevertheless, it works in the case of this game which has a number of eyebrow-raising scientific corkers threaded into its storyline. Again, in a "B" movie way, it's all good, but if you're one of those folks who applies arbitrary rules of reality to your video games, you'll be scratching your head and/or laughing during some of the middle and later parts of the game.
Speaking of laughter, I know Hydravision was going for a teen horror vibe, but the scripting as well as some of the voice acting often tends to be a bit too goofy for its own good. Some of the dialog as spoken comes off as unintentionally hilarious, but then again, the game never takes itself so seriously that any line really seems out of place. I remember laughing myself off the couch while playing the PS2 version during one cut scene when a new character arrives in front of the doomed dance hall (where a couple of bloody, half-chewed corpses are lying around) and says (in by far, the understatement of the game): "Hey, your party sucks, dude!" Seeing the same scene on the PSP version still cracks me up and the game has a few more lines like that to keep you smiling from time to time.
On the presentation side of things, the game looks excellent on the PSP. Hydrovision really packed in lots of detail into the characters, the different environments are unique, heavy with detail (including destructible or movable objects) and look as realistic as possible. I love the fact that you can read signs right off walls or text off some items you'll find in the wild. As great as the graphics are, the CG cinemas could have used a bit of beefing up from the original version. At first glance, they look OK, but watching them over and over will show a few odd animations here, a weird-looking face or body part there... and that's on the playable characters!
There's also some polygon glitching here and there where you can see inside your AI companion or certain objects close to walls when the camera moves a certain way. Nevertheless, the texture work is great and the different lighting effects are perfectly executed. Picky players will note that the characters don't cast true shadows, but this is a really minor issue considering how much work went into bringing the visuals over intact from the PS2. My final problem with the game was the fact that the electrical weapons mysteriously run off the same fast-draining battery, which is a cheap way of adding extra suspense (and one way of keeping you from abusing the awesome stun gun/chainsaw combo, of course). Anyway, seeing how well this port turned out makes me hope this extremely talented developer has a PS3 or 360 dev kit somewhere in their offices...
Sound design is pretty solid throughout with lots of unsettling ambient noises, monsters that make their presence known in each area (sometimes before you get to see them) and the aforementioned voice actors. Thinking about the writing again, I think the issue is more of a language barrier (Hydrovision is based in France) than the writing being less than sensational. Some of the character bios and script could have used a bit of polishing from a good horror writer just to clean up a few things, but again, as long as you enjoy the game for what it is, you'll have no trouble with most of what you'll hear. As you play through new areas, you'll unlock cinemas and nice concept art that can be accessed in the Bonus section of the options screen. You can also listen to the soundtrack as well and it's definitely worth popping in a pair of ear buds for.
As for the fear factor, the game settles in for the long haul with mostly a mix of "jump-out" shocks using darkness and each new environment to excellent effect. Naturally, that small menagerie of creatures lurking, leaping and crawling around can kill your team of two in a few swipes or can whittle your health away in no time if you're careless. There's nice chunk of M-rated blood and gore on display as well as bit of rough language, so nope, this one isn't for the kids. There are a number of psychological horror effects added in spots (the tutorial for example, works really well at throwing you for a loop), but the game really isn't a Silent Hill type of complete freak-out, nor a straight Resident Evil clone. It manages to take ideas from both series and add more than welcome elements to the genre without coming off as too arty for its own good. In other words, it's a great PSP game for horror genre fans looking to take their scares on the road. And if a friend tags along with his or her PSP and a copy of the game, it's all the better.
Interestingly enough, I hear that Hydrovision is working on a third Obscure game, which suits me just fine if it keeps the co-op and has an even darker script with less campy stuff. If it looks as good as or better than what's here and can deliver even more of what makes this one work so well, I'd say that Playlogic might have the portable horror genre covered on the PSP until someone else cooks up a better game.
(The screenshot gallery can be found here)