ObsCure: First Impressions

By Shamus
on Sep 17, 2008
Filed under:
Game Reviews

I’m beginning to realize that the game I hold up as an example of Survival Horror perfection – Silent Hill 2 – is a complete aberration. It was the first Survival Horror game I really played (aside from dabbling a bit with a couple of games for a half hour or so) and I assumed there were more like it out there. As far as I can tell, there aren’t. I can’t help but judge Survival Horror titles – games ostensibly designed to frighten the player – by the criteria I wrote about a while ago on how to scare players. That’s not really fair, since what I’m looking for is apparently very different from what the designers are trying to do. But until I become so fabulously rich that I can make my own game for other people to pick apart, I have to make do with what I find on the shelf. I buy these Survival Horror titles, each time hoping that my list of ideal features and the designer’s list of features have an area of intersection on some unidentified Venn Diagram.

ObsCure is very much a standard SH game. All the usual suspects are here: 1) Clunky combat 2) Rationed saves 3) Aggressively difficult gameplay and 4) A story that collapses like a house of baking powder if you accidentally think about it.

This is not to say it’s a bad game. In fact, if you’re a fan of old-school survival games then this is probably exactly what you’re looking for. But I’m going to pick it apart for not being the game I want it to be, because I’m petty and unfair. This nitpickery begins now:

Story

Four students get locked in the school overnight.  In defiance of horror conventions, none of them claim “everything will be just fine”, and none of them get naked.
Four students get locked in the school overnight. In defiance of horror conventions, none of them claim “everything will be just fine”, and none of them get naked.
The game takes place in Leafmore High, a (private?) school where, as they say, “strange things are going on”. Students have been disappearing. At the start of the game, several students stay late to look for one of their friends, and end up getting locked in the school.

There are a lot of rough edges on this setup, and some of it is just silly. It’s clear the goal of the writers was, “four students, locked in a spooky old school”, and they didn’t want to waste exposition explaining away any of the hundred or so objections that might arise in the mind of the player. It’s a good setting for a game, I just wish they had at least hung a lampshade on some of the more obvious narrative anomalies.

I like lampshade hanging. When a writer has something that doesn’t make sense – say, a school so fortified that you can’t escape if the gate is locked, or a town that has multiple teenagers disappear and doesn’t become a national news sensation, or the fact that the school faculty has a preposterous number of hidden guns – it creates a hole in the story that’s obvious to everyone. Was the writer stupid or lazy? Or was he smart, but he assumed the player is stupid? Or is the writer saying the characters are stupid for not noticing? Is this hole deliberate, or just carelessness?

All you need is for a student to say something like, “Another gun? This is crazy. How many guns does this school have, anyway?” This is a nice nod from the writer to the viewer: Yes, we both recognize this doesn’t make perfect sense. It’s okay. We’re going along with it for the sake of the story.

Gameplay

You can explore the school with any two students you choose.  If you need access to the special abilities of a different student, you can go back to the hub and trade off.
You can explore the school with any two students you choose. If you need access to the special abilities of a different student, you can go back to the hub and trade off.
There are four playable students in the game, plus another student in the tutorial. You can control one of them directly, and have another one follow you as you move through the school. The rest hang out in one of the hub areas of the school. Each student has a special ability. One can pick locks, another has special fighting moves, another is good at finding items, etc.

Here is the big twist of the game: The students are all expendable. If one dies, you switch to their companion. If that person dies you switch back to one of the remaining students. You don’t actually get a game over until all the students die, and no one student is central to the plot. This makes the game a bit like a teen slasher movie, with students getting picked off as the story progresses.

At first I was frustrated at how aggressively difficult the game was. There just weren’t enough healing items to go around. But eventually I realized that this was on purpose. They aren’t all supposed to survive. The students themselves are a sort of resource that you use up. As a videogame completionist, this drove me nuts at first. I don’t want to lose any! I want to keep them all! It’s possible, I’m sure, to reach the endgame with the whole group intact, but I didn’t have the patience to replay each area and practice it until I could do it “optimally”, which is what it would take to keep everyone alive.

This does force the player into some interesting choices: Who do you save and who do you sacrifice? Aside from whatever meager contributions they make to the story, there’s the question of which special abilities you value most.

Save System

Spread around the school are “save discs”, which work a bit like the resident evil typewriter tape. You collect them, and saving the game costs you a disk. No disk, no save. It binds the ability to save to an economy, although unlike in Resident Evil ObsCure allows you to save anywhere.

I realize this is a convention of the genre, but in my own view this is a wrongheaded way to approach things. From an immersion standpoint this is the absolute worst possible system, since by design it forces the player to do all sorts of meta-game thinking and worrying about the mechanics instead of the story. In a game this hard – where a surprise ambush can kill or cripple a character – you don’t have a lot of room for mistakes. You don’t know how many save discs you’ll find. (Will the game get really stingy with them later?) You don’t know what sort of challenge lies ahead. (Am I coming up on a major encounter / boss fight?) You don’t have any information except how long it’s been since you saved. This also punishes you for short play sessions (since saving to quit uses up a save) instead of sitting down and playing in one massive session.

Saving and loading becomes a sort of strategy mini-game, where sub-optimal decisions lead to the game getting increasingly (perhaps impossibly) difficult down the road, or to the player needing to replay large sections of the game. Actually, it’s a sort of tradeoff between those two, neither of which makes the game more fun.

This is great if you want to play a game of careful rationing and resource management, and abysmal if you want to just enjoy a narrative and lose yourself in the experience. In a genre that relies so heavily on immersion, it’s crazy that they are often so ridiculously mechanical and reliant on player foreknowledge.

I’ve been resorting to using a hint guide on this game, which is never a good sign. But the limited save system basically punishes you for exploration and experimentation, and using a hint guide is just the most basic level of defense against that punishment. I will also note that the old rule holds true – I’d rather have cheat codes than read a walkthrough, but cheats aren’t available here.

Despite my many gripes with the game, I still enjoy playing it. I’ll get into the good stuff in a later post.

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201434 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.

From the Archives:

  1. Kel'Thuzad says:

    Sounds like a fun game; my brother might want to give it a try. I’m not really one for survival horror games.

    Do you always post around lunch? It seems that I’ve posted first quite a few times now.

  2. MintSkittle says:

    Cheats are always an option. We call them trainers now.

    http://www.cheathappens.com/cheat_index.asp?titleID=10755

  3. lebkin says:

    I really like reviews that talk in detail about the save system. You did a great job here. The fact that you even included the lack of cheat codes to alleviate the problem was wonderful. That information turned what could be a possible buy into a no-sell for me, which is very valuable to know.

    I have always found that survival horror games attempt to be more than just adventure games in all the wrong ways. Crummy controls, unnecessary action sequences, and limited saves are all things that differentiate a survival horror game, but they are also why I don’t play them. Obscure sounds like it could be a great deal of fun if it was just a straightforward point and click adventure game. Sadly it is not, and thus I’ll never play it.

  4. Kevin says:

    My least favorite games are those where I feel like I’m playing against the game, instead of just playing it. Or maybe it would be better to say playing against the mechanics instead of the environment. I’m sure there are those for whom that would be a good time, but it abstracts the game. It’s more like chess, less like laser-tag. You could have the same experience with a list of numbers, and no “game” elements at all.

    Feh! I don’t like ’em! (/waves cane in the air)

  5. Deoxy says:

    Considering how popular teen slasher movies are (though I’ve never remotely understood why), making a game that compares to that style of movie could be a good idea.

    Unfortunately, a) I’m also a completionist who would be driven nuts by this, and b) I don’t care for teen slasher movies, so this game is probably not for me.

    Oh yeah, and c) my fourth child is due in a few more weeks, and I don’t have time for games anyway, so who cares? heh.

  6. Daniel says:

    But . . . it sounds like the “you can switch to whatever character you like when one dies” bit is actually an attempt to prevent the sort of repetitive DIAS game play you’ve previously railed against. I mean, I don’t remember where, but you have previously called for “partial failure” that imposes a real consequence for screwing up but doesn’t make the player replay sections of the game. This sounds just bout perfect for that — what am I missing?

  7. Shamus says:

    Daniel: The difference is that a true partial failure won’t incurr an ongoing penalty. The fewer characters you have, the less abilities you have and the harder the game is. You can’t “recover” a dead character. Am I losing them too fast? Am I going to get halfway through the game and hit a wall because of losses incurred in the first act?

    A partial failure would be that a character gets “knocked out” or runs away for a time, or something else that is a penalty that is paid now, but cleared later. I’m not saying that would make a better game, I’m just saying that’s what would meet my criteria for partial failure.

    The other issue was that – in my case – I didn’t want to lose any characters, and I was treating the loss of one as the full failure. Took me a while to realize this was not the developer’s intention.

  8. Illiterate says:

    Maybe all the concealed guns are a form of social commentary.

    Haven’t you heard that everybody knows all the kids carry ingrams to school these days? The teachers have to have deagles and kalashnikovs just to defend themselves.

  9. pl says:

    “I like lampshade hanging. When a writer has something that doesn’t make sense – say, a school so fortified that you can’t escape if the gate is locked”

    One of my teachers in HS went to a high school herself in Binghamton, which apparently has a reputation as a big drug town. To get in, you’d have to go through a gate surrounding the grounds, and show your ID. I’m willing to venture it was a private school, like (maybe?) the one in the story.

    Typo: “I just with they had hung a lampshade.”

  10. Stark says:

    Hah… my high school was designed by a – get this – prison architect. The whole thing is made of rough cinderblock and all of the gates ate are square steel bar that go top to bottom – there’d be no way out if you got locked in unless you fancied trying to climb over the buildings themselves.

    Needless to say that it wasn’t a very friendly learning environment.

  11. Claire says:

    Sounds a lot like the NES Friday the 13th. Do you also spend 85% of the game lost in some god-forsaken cave?

  12. Paramnesia says:

    I’ve read overall good reviews of ObsCure, although after watching some of the cutscenes the plot was pretty lacking. I think in the end you have no say in who lives or dies. You end up with the same characters regardless of what you do, but I’m not sure.

    They made a sequel. Based on what I saw, ObsCure2 was full of genuine wtf moments, like two people sharing a sudden moment of passion in the middle of spooky monster infested territory. I’m all for character development, but it was so teen slasher that I cringed. If I’m fighting for my life, I’m not going to stop to make out when monstrosities may leap out at any moment.

  13. Enix18 says:

    I’ve never played ObsCure before, but from your review it sounds like a step up from the sequel, ObsCure: The Aftermath, which I played on the Wii.

    The game is one of the worst I’ve ever played, and eerily reminded me of the monstrosity that is Bug Island. My friend and I played through as much of the game as we could bear in co-op mode, and despite how many times we were able to laugh at the utter stupidity of it, most of the time playing it was (quite literally) painful. Horrible controls aside, the game forced you to use the Wiimote to a nearly unbearable extent, and after playing for a while my arms felt like they were going to fall off. I might play this game if I wanted to get a good work out, but definitely not for entertainment.

    And don’t even get me started on the story…

    P.S. Sorry for the little rant, but this game really makes me angry

  14. Chris says:

    The main reason I had wanted to play Obscure originally was because it allowed for multiplayer in a survival horror. However, everything I’ve seen and read just makes it seem as if it’s not worth it.

    I’d love a survival horror with good multiplayer, and I imagine that’s why everyone is eager to play Left 4 Dead. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if I actually want that one or not.

  15. Heather says:

    Delete this comment:

    Have I mentioned that you need a twitter account so I can keep tabs when at work? Hmm????

  16. Clint says:

    Typo:

    “I just with they had” should probably be “I just wish they had”

  17. David says:

    I do wish that there were more survival horror games out there adopting a save strategy of rare safe locations. I think I’d be a lot happier with it if I had to go find an inconvenient “safe room”, instead of using up a limited resource.

    Though that approach would be just as bad for short play sessions as the limited-resource one, I suppose.

    Maybe save the resource system for a “hard” difficulty? On easy you can save anywhere, on normal you have to use a common resource to save (anywhere), on hard you have to use a scarce resource to save in rare safe-rooms. That would feel far more like a voluntary challenge to the player, instead of just being frustrating.

    (On a related note, I liked System Shock 1’s difficulty settings. Letting you adjust the difficulty of each aspect of the game, separately…)

  18. Werdna says:

    Interestingly enough, just today I stumbled across a review of a game that has ‘survival horror’ as a strong component, but is almost nothing like your basic Resident Evil or ObScure. Shamus, I’d suggest taking a look at the Rock Paper Shotgun dissection of the Russian-developed game Pathologic:

    http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2008/04/10/butchering-pathologic-part-1-the-body/

    Part 2 includes a link where you can get the game. If parts 1 and 2 leave you intrigued, I would strongly suggest NOT reading part 3 as that is where the true spoilers pile up.

  19. Illiterate says:

    Shamus, your wife said to get twitter. Something about tracking you.

    Oh, and delete this comment too, I guess.

    While this is being deleted, have you considered setting up a forum so we can have rambling off-topic conversations? I love the twenty-sided community and wish to extend my degree of socialization with same.

  20. Claire says:

    Seconded, Illiterate. It would be great to just troll the hell out of you guys constantly.

    On the downside, it would be another damn forum to keep track of. Of which to keep track. Damn it.

  21. Shamus says:

    Clint: Thanks! I with someone had mentioned it earlier.

  22. Shamus says:

    On the subject of a forum: I have a post in the queue that actually mentions this. I’ve been nudging it back, but maybe I’ll put it up tomorrow instead of pt 2 of the ObsCure series, which needs a little work yet.

  23. Shawn says:

    Re Dying Students:

    Crazy. That’s the exact idea I had for a horror game some years ago. I wanted to create a game that you could really “lose”, where failure wasn’t just “I haven’t won yet”.

    The idea was to have a group of people trapped in a haunted house or whatever, and when your hero died, you played someone else, and when they died you took over another character etc. Eventually you could win or you might just have everyone die, at which case the game would be over and there would be a big ending about how the bad guys were victorious.

    My game would have been more evil, as it would have auto saved whenever one of your characters died.

  24. Alexis says:

    Irrelevant to the post, but I thought you might find this interesting:

    http://www.wowinsider.com/2008/08/25/phasing-is-the-new-instancing/

  25. Danath says:

    Spoiler: None of the characters are “required” to finish.

  26. The Lone Duck says:

    I generally don’t like fear-enducing games. Of course, in a game, I’ve grown up enough to get past that. (Back in the day though, playing Friday the 13th on the NES, I’d get so freaked outwhen it got dark, and Jason appeared out of nowhere.
    Limiting saves is absurd. If you’re going to do that, just have checkpoints, and linear play. Or have a central hub where you can save, and dangerous areas where you can’t. But making data storage a commodity limits the game for people with short bursts of free time. It just adds frustration.
    I like general horror mythos, werewolves, vampires, zombies, monsters, it’s the survival part that seems badly done.
    I tried a demo of Condemned 2; I don’t know how the story goes, but the game seems to have really nice mechanics. I died a couple times, and it revives you back at a checkpoint, or something like that. The combat was really smooth; you can use all sorts of items as weapons, as well as your fists. (Your fists are actually viable weapons!) I had a little trouble figuring out where to go, but that was just because the game didn’t tell me there were ladders. I’d give that a spin.
    Fire Emblem, even though it’s a turn-based strategy game, also has that sense of expendable characters. If a character has a personality, seems to act real, than I don’t want to let them die. And if they don’t have any personality, why am I playing with them anyway.
    To me, my motivations for playing a game are plot and art direction (level design, boss design, etc.) If the character makes no impact on the plot, all that leaves is looking at the scenery and enemy design. Obviously, there’s the element of whether the game is fun, i.e. Frogger. But survival horror doesn’t seem fun the way that Frogger or Pac-man is. And while many games these days have shiny graphics, few of them have notable art design. And fewer have notable plots.
    I think a good horror game would be something like Harvest Moon, where you have a daily routine, but you create psychological disturbances. You go to feed the cows, and you see zombies attacking you. You kill the zombies, only to see you killed your beloved cow Betsie. Can you protect your wife and child? Will you inadverdently kill them? The townspeople slowly turn against you, and you don’t know who’s orchestrating it, if anyone? Perhaps you’re insane? Is there any answer or just carnage? Throw in multiple endings, to show the consequences of your actions. That’s my ideal horror game. By creating a sense of normality, you can create stronger senses of horror. Starting players out surrounded by zombie dogs and other creatures just renders them normal. Someone get Konami and Natsume together, lol.

  27. Vao Ki says:

    Have any of you played Clive Barker’s Undying?

    It’s a FPS pretending to be a SH game. It made me think of Doom, but with a better story (there’s actually a story) and several moments that made me jump.

    You play as a friend of a well to do family with a curse. You are looking for your friend and start unraveling the details behind the curse, one family member at a time.

    While it wasn’t a deep story, it did have a decent combat system, being an FPS, and as I said, a story.

    As for Obscure, it sounds like so many other games of the genre. I’ll pass on that one. Thanks Shamus for preventing me from wasting more money and even more importantly, time.

  28. Gildan Bladeborn says:

    I’ll second the suggestion of Clive Barker’s Undying, but add this caveat: That was the very first game I had to “steal” in order to play, because the blasted copy protection on the disc I legitimately purchased would prevent the game from running. But not at first! Oh no, it ran perfectly when I first installed it. Then it stopped working one day for no apparent reason, but after I’d done a metric ton of unrelated things so I figured I must have broken it somehow. Flash forward a couple of years to when I had a brand new machine and decided to fire it up: Success! It worked, yay. Now I’ll go on vacation and leave my machine untouched for a week!

    Guess what happened when I got back? That’s right, it had mysteriously decided to stop working again! That was the point where I did an exhaustive search and finally found the copy protection was wonky and caused issues with all sorts of CD drives. Stripping the protection out of the EXE rendered the game 100% playable and freed me from needing the disc in the tray to play it.

    Compared to the horrible intrusive DRM publishers foist on us these days, Undying’s was pretty tame, just a CD check. If it had WORKED I would have no reason at all to complain about any aspect of the game, as Undying is one of those rare titles that never even needed a patch. What ticked me off was that the publisher knew their copy protection software didn’t work in a not insignificant portion of existing CD-ROM drives and they included it anyways. Undying is when I started hating copy protection (and Sacrifice shipping with an invalid CD-Key further cemented that hatred).

    But the game itself is exceptionally creepy and atmospheric. I can only play it in smallish intervals before I get too creeped out to continue. The menu music is one of the spookiest compositions I’ve ever heard (I should really see if I can track down an MP3 of that or something).

    Here’s the game’s original trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emJ1nweouss I’d forgotten it came out on Valentine’s Day, heh.

  29. Danath says:

    @Vao Ki
    Obscure was also made by an indie developer and you can get it for 10 bucks, Shamus hasnt finished his review about the game, this is just a first impressions and you shouldnt quite take it as gospel on whether to avoid the game just yet.

    Bad grammar is win.

  30. Vao Ki says:

    @ Danath
    I’m more picky lately about what I’ll pay for. If the story is largely cliche with game play that really adds nothing new to the genre and isn’t a “must have” I have little interest.

    If I were going to invest in another game at this moment to burn through some serious time I’d break down and finally pick up Halflife 2.

    @ Gildan Bladeborn
    I had to use a less than legal copy of that game as well.

  31. Miral says:

    I had totally forgotten about the save disk thing. Or possibly I just used a trainer to give myself extra disks. I really hate limited saves.

    But I do remember finishing the game with everybody still alive, I think. I don’t recall it being all that difficult (and I don’t think I used a trainer for that), though. I do remember using a lot of stealth and running away from things a lot.

    Bah, it’s all a little fuzzy now. I do think I liked the game — and I have bought ObsCure2, but haven’t played it yet.

  32. Steve C says:

    On the subject of a Twentysided forum… to quote Futurama that new idea frightens and confuses me.

    Most forums suck, and suck hard. I love Twentysided’s format. I can just throw in my name and email and start posting. If there is some sort of account creation process it’s always lame and a real barrier to start posting. Many times I’ve wanted to add a comment to another site “just once” but not bothered because it required an account to be created. I did the same thing here with my very first post and now I think of myself as a regular. A 1st post I would never had made had Twentysided been a different format.

    Your entire format is a one page thread with an RSS feed with insanely good comments. That’s a rare and special thing you risk destroying by “improving” it. Back in the 1990s a university club I was involved in had a really good online message system that they wrote themselves. It worked wonders until it was replaced by a standard “My BB”. Everyone thought it was a change for the better. It was greeted by a meh and it completely destroyed the entire club community.

    If it’s a true improvement then by all means go for it. But it’s going to be extremely difficult to improve on what you have now because the bar is so high. I invoke “Prince of Persia” vs “The Warrior Within” or a thousand other crappy game sequels as proof that an “improvement” to something good has a high likelihood of destroying the reasons why it was so good in the first place.

  33. Shamus says:

    Steve C: My post – which is overlong and in need of the pruning shears – was basically about how I would never be able to run a forum.

    Lots of people are asking for it, and I understand: They want nice conversation threads like the ones we already have, only more often and on more diverse topics. It’s a laudable goal, but I barely have the social skills required to run two comment threads a day. A whole forum would overwhelm me in short order.

  34. Steve C says:

    Yay? Three cheers for the status quo?

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