As numerous clones as the survival-horror genre spawned, there is still a common denominator between each of them: the sense of solitude. Being alone in the dark is probably the best way to be terrified. The French developers from Hydravision thought differently and tried to implement something new within the well-established genre: two player cooperative gameplay. After a long and twisted production, the team finally gave birth in 2004 to ObsCure, the teen-horror video game.
The small company was created by two siblings, a long tradition in French video game industry: Denis & Francois Potentier. Before tackling video games, the company, called JudaProd at the time, mostly conceived tabletop roleplaying games. "Zombies, How to Enjoy Deadly Nights" was a short lived game presenting a strange post-nuclear world where the undead and all sorts of eerie creatures roamed at night. After this small success, the two brothers were able to catch the attention of Microids to finance a video game circa 2000. First designed as Lovecraft-esque story, the project was revamped into a more marketable setting. Heavily influenced by the movie The Faculty, ObsCure became a parody of teen-horror movies.
Set in the United States, Leafmore High is a quiet school where students mysteriously disappear from time to time. Unfortunately, one night, basketball prodigy Kenny Matthews spends too much time on campus and ends up discovering the horrible truth. If the player doesn't demonstrate enough skill in this tutorial, the prologue can end up with Kenny being killed by the evil lurking under Leafmore. That's the first innovation of ObsCure: anyone can die. The next day, Kenny's friends decide to search for their lost mate by hiding in the building after class. Like most of the French who grew up in the nineties, the writers only source of the American education system seems to come from Saved by the Bell & the Australian series Heartbreak High. The story itself is as clichéd as you expect from the prologue: monstrous plants, evil experiments, psychotic teachers and, of course, brainless teenagers. By finding notes here and there, the plot will unravel and even conclude itself in a rather satisfying way.
ObsCure plays like any classic Resident Evil-style game, except for some salutatory touches like the ability to lock-on enemies and a very loose control on camera angles. The most obvious change is the presence of five playable characters. Each possesses a special power that will prove useful depending on what you need to do. The graphics still hold up pretty well with very nice environments and good character animations.
Kenny Matthews is the jock. He can run faster than anyone and deals more damage in close combat. You spend most of the game looking for him. Try to save him in the prologue because he makes the final boss a cakewalk.
Josh Carter is the creepy geek, always with a camcorder at hand. As a wannabe journalist, he can tell if rooms contain items to pick up, and making them glow. A good replacement, if nothing else.
Stanley Jones is the stoner. Apart from smoking weed all the time, he can easily lock-pick doors and open special lockers. You might want to keep him alive just for the sake of finding stashes of ammo. For some reason, he is Josh Hartnett's dead ringer.
Ashley Thompson is the angry cheerleader, and Kenny's girlfriend. She has the capacity to fire a pistol rapidly, meaning dealing more damage but also wasting more ammo. Probably the worst character in the game.
Shannon Matthews is Kenny's smart young sister. Don't let her terrible taste in clothing fool you, she's one of the best as she is able to heal 20% more with medkits. As a bonus, she gives tips for puzzles and always know where the next objective is.
To maximize your chances of survival, ObsCure allows you to work in tandem. In solo play, the companion is AI controlled but you can swap any time you wish. In the great arcade tradition, the second player can connect his gamepad at any time, press Start and take control of the AI companion. As usual, multiplayer makes the game much more fun, but it completely kills the mood. It's really a matter of taste but ObsCure isn't scary at all when you're backed up by a friend.
From time to time, you're presented with puzzles that involve coordination and teamwork, like climbing into a vent or activating a lift. The game will never penalize you for dying. All of the characters can be swapped in any situation, but losing key members will make some tasks much harder to perform. Watch out though, you still need one character to finish the game, otherwise it's game over. After quickly mourning for your lost friends, you can loot their bodies to continue the fight.
Cooperation and sudden death aren't the only gimmicks of ObsCure. Thanks to a plot device, monsters lurking around Leafmore High love shadows and are repelled by light. Most of them are protected by a shield of darkness that you will need to dissipate before putting them out their misery. To kill an enemy, you first need to focus your flashlight's beam on them, and then just beat the crap out of them. This basic idea was later reused in Remedy's Alan Wake. Of course, bigger enemies will need more fire/lightpower, so guns and big ass maglites will be required. Perhaps making fun of Doom 3, ObsCure allows you to combine flashlight with your various range weapons to use both at the same time. Batteries have infinite juice but will require to cool down after overcharging. Since you're a real whippersnapper, you can also break a lot of things. First and foremost, you can smash through glass-windowed doors to unlock them easily, but you can also break windows to let the light in and weaken monsters without a scratch.
In terms of difficulty, ObsCure can be pretty brutal. The beginning of the game forces you to leave of your characters defenseless with only a flashlight while the other waits for monsters' shield to fade. The bosses are brutal abd ammo is scarce, but as usual, careful players will be rewarded. Still, the game can be pretty frustrating, thanks to poorly designed areas swarming with enemies. The underground lab, the final part of the game, is just painful as you walk aimlessly through dark corridors with no map whatsoever.
Atmosphere is a key element in survival-horror and ObsCure manage to go off beaten tracks with a fantastic soundtrack. Derivière is probably the best composer in French video game music since Philippe Vachey & Stephane Picq. Sung by The Paris Opera's Children Choir, the music is undoubtedly the best feature of the game. The gap between the corny teenager plot and the eerie music creates a mood of uneasiness and creeping terror. The art direction reinforces this strange dichotomy by designing the buildings as old stone 18th century-style French & English public schools with a cloister-like design for the central courtyard, for example. The game is fairly short, even in survival-horror standards. Only five hours are needed to uncover the mystery of Leafmore High. Small bonuses are present like a new game+, alternate clothing and a making of feature.
ObsCure remains an interesting take on survival-horror. While having fantastic audio, the game has a number redeeming features like two players mode, swappable characters and nice visuals. Unfortunately, it still stumbles upon the many ludicrous flaws of the genre: daft combat system, stupid puzzles and very short length.
A few years later, Microïds felt lucky and gave the green light for a second ObsCure in 2007, smartly called ObsCure II... at least in Europe, as it was retitled ObsCure: The Aftermath in the United States. And while the first game is decent, its sequel is a complete trainwreck. It was published on the PC, PlayStation 2, Wii and PSP. The PC port is probably the best version, as the higher resolution is far less fuzzy. It is also worth underlining that the PSP port is excellent and allows you to play two players mode with the ad-hoc system, while the Wii version includes some bonus animatics.
Two years after the events of Leafmore High, our brilliant protagonists made it to the nearby Fallcreek College. But surviving the plant monsters wasn't enough, as all of the heroes were infected with the plant's spores, forcing them to take a special treatment every day to avoid side effects, like, for example, turning into a giant monster. On the campus, a new drug seems to be a killer among students. Based upon strange growing plants, the drug induces nightmares-filled hallucinations. While going to a fraternity party, Kenny and the new crew discover that black spores actually transform everyone into monsters. To make things worse, Kenny quickly suffers from treatment withdrawal, turning in a huge abomination and therefore becoming the nemesis of the players.
The plot is awful, but not in a good way. It involves rape and a whole sort of gory details that you might want to avoid. Awkward as hell, the dialogue doesn't make much sense, thanks to a terrible translation, and the characters changing moods from line to line don't really help either.
The gallery of characters has changed a little bit, for the worse:
Obviously traumatized by the events of Leafmore High, Shannon still doesn't have any taste in clothing. Being accustomed to the plant disease, she can absorb "black auras", magic walls blocking certain paths.
Traumatized by school, Stan spent some time in prison and is now working as a delivery boy. He can still lock-pick doors. Unlike Shannon, he needs daily medication to survive.
Traumatized by his own stupidity, Kenny ended up in college. Unfortunately, he isn't able to cope with his disease and turns into a monster.
Corey Wilde is a skater and a full time daredevil. He can climb and reach higher grounds easily.
Mei Wang is the tech geek. As a result, she can hack keypads.
Sven Hansen is the exchange student. He replaces Kenny as the force of nature.
Amy Brookes is the smart & beautiful blonde. She can solve puzzles. It doesn't end well for her.
The first disappointment is that, for most of the game, ObsCure II doesn't allow you to choose your characters. Even when it does, you will need a specific team to progress. It also implies that no one can die, because Hydravision has telegraphed the game very carefully. Furthermore, the whole light gimmick has been stripped out, turning the game in a classic survival-horror. Strangely enough, it's much more difficult than the first one and requires even more item management, and of course, a lot of running away.
The game is streamlined and broken down into various segments, forcing you to use a specific team, but at least the inventory is transferred each time. Making the game more scripted allowed Hydravision to offer more variety in the gameplay: hacking, climbing, nice cooperative puzzles. It would have helped the game to stand up to its legacy, but unfortunately, most of the minigames must be performed while being attacked by endless waves of monsters. The last straw is probably the final boss, who must be dealt with while lock-picking an electric generator. Even though the flashlight disappeared, the arsenal itself became pretty gigantic. Though most of the weapons are locked inside cartoony huge boxes strewn through the game. To unlock them, you'll need to look for three well-hidden small keys in each zone.
The most infuriating feature of ObsCure II is probably the save system. Disguised as gigantic and grotesque purple flowers, the savepoints can only be used once. An even bigger problem is that usually you will need to perform many actions near the checkpoints, meaning that you need to choose between risking to lose your progress or risking to restart after every subsequent action. Hydravision took the criticism about the length of the first Obscure at heart, since the sequel is twice as long. The game even continues for one hour after the staff credits have rolled to offer you a final showdown with Kenny.
The only redeeming quality of ObsCure II is its music, which is still fantastic. Olivier Derivière has surpassed himself offering a even better soundtrack, with longer tracks. Even better, the two soundtracks are downloadable on his website, so you don't have to suffer through "the aftermath". He later worked on Alone in the Dark (2008) with The Mystery of Bulgerian Voices. Unfortunately, jobs are rare for good composers in France, he is now trying his luck in San Francisco.
"Now, you can play with your girlfriend" was the tagline for ObsCure II, and frankly, why would you want to do that? The only thing you will get is a break-up thanks to the creepy plot or the hardcore difficulty. Still, rumor has it that Hydravion was working upon a third installement in the series. But since Microïds stopped developing video games, we might be safe for now.