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If you ever wondered what the love-child of Silent Hill and Heartbreak High would look like in gaming form, then Obscure: The Aftermath is assuredly the closest you're going to get. Despite its "don't mind if they die" cast of corny college kids and adherence to some unashamedly vintage survival-horror gameplay mechanics, it's rather better than it sounds.
Released in 2009, this portable sequel to ObsCure revolves around a group of students based at Fallcreek University in a fictitious US location. A mysterious flower has been doing the rounds on campus, inflicting terminally dodgy mutations upon those who've snorted it or had unprotected sex. And this being a teen-horror, means more or less everyone.
Aftermath's marquee features include unique character abilities and a cooperative element that runs throughout the game. Among others, you've got Corey whose acrobatic skills allow him to reach areas others can't; Stan picks locks; Amy is able to decipher codes and hidden information whilst Mei can hack computers. It's a mix that works well, and in instances when four or five characters meet up in a designated location, you can form different line-ups in a bid to find the duo best suited to moving things forward. The manner in which the narrative jumps from one pair to the next not only lends the game an episodic feel that's ideal for portable gaming, but is naturally conducive to creating cliff-hangers, as you're made to wait to see how certain scenarios pan out.
Having an ally at your side soon becomes second nature, and you can swap between characters instantaneously at the touch of a button, even during combat which is a plus. Choosing what weapons to hand the A.I., is important as it tends to dictate the role they play in combat. The best option is to give them a supporting role, preferably wielding a stun gun (which, like the chainsaw, has a rechargeable energy supply), allowing them to incapacitate enemies while you attack with bats and clubs. It's best to do the lion's share of the fighting yourself, as granting your partner a more hands-on role is risky as they aren't great at defending themselves. Healing characters individually is a serious drain on resources, and as there isn't an abundance of health items, you'll find yourself cursing the A.I.'s ineptitude on occasions. Ultimately, much like the game as a whole, the teammate system is neither complete success nor total failure; joining a game with a mate via WiFi is a commendable addition though there's rarely anything elaborate asked of you, beyond basic stuff like helping reach a high ledge, pushing the odd box or turning a valve. It's also a peculiar scenario in a horror game, and it inevitably loses some of its atmosphere when paired as a social experience.
You have to admire Aftermath's pandering to the golden era of survival-horror gaming, just because it embodies it so wholeheartedly. The whole thing reeks of the nineties, in ways that are both positive and detrimental in the final reckoning. It's collection of excessively vapid characters present a neat pastiche of the "ghoul fodder" common amongst the new breed of teen-horror films (Scream, Halloween H20) that emerged towards the end of the last century, whilst transferring the deposable nature of characters central to the plot is a highly gutsy and smartly executed move on the part of the developer.
Its puzzles rarely stretch the player and the combat, though perfectly competent, is nothing that will live long in the memory, but there's a bunch of good moments that help things along. Little touches such as being able to explore the dorms at the beginning, trawl Blair Witch style through murky woods, and using a wrecking ball to knock holes in buildings so as to reveal new paths forwards. The game thrives on an accumulation of neat little touches to keep the player interested, and for the most part, its endeavour is appreciated. There are a few tense sequences that ramp up the pressure, the best being challenged to quickly re-wire an elevator switch whilst a deadly black cloud bears down on your position. Similarly, having to go through the delicate procedure of picking a lock having stunned the last boss for just a few seconds is a desperate, excruciating experience. Whilst it's easy to be critical of the teamwork idea as being tacked-on to what is still very much a one-player experience, there are fleeting moments where it makes real sense, notably when one player has to manoeuvre a boat through a swamp whilst the other is tasked with fending off the beasties that amass around you.
Credit where it's due, it's quite cinematic at times, if you can overlook the shocking scripting and massively irritating voice-acting. The camera is very good; mostly following behind the player or, in a move that recounts the static backgrounds of yore, pinning itself to a corner, hiding from the player the dangers that lurk just out of shot. The ability to smash windows, cabinets and doors in order to procure new items or open up new routes adds a little something to basic exploration too. The characters themselves look excellent, and the locations which include a campus, hospital and obligatory creepy shack in the woods don't look too shabby either. The only area in in which it fares noticeably worse than the Wii version visually is in its ugly, slightly staccato video sequences.
Whilst another dose of survival-horror is welcome in an era where the genre has become less prevalent, it's important to keep things in perspective. The simple truth is, by showing such reverence to lynchpins of the past, Aftermath merely highlights its own relative shortcomings. A superbly creepy, torch-lit trek down a bloodied tunnel serves as a supremely unsettling introduction, but this flatters to deceive, as from there on in, genuine scares are thin on the ground, as the game comes nowhere close to recapturing the stifling, heavy atmosphere of Silent Hill. Similarly, it lacks the labyrinthine scope and cerebral nature of Resident Evil's location design, whilst the monster design is disappointingly non-descript.
The game isn't massive either, though there's enough in the tank to keep you playing to the end credits. Aftermath can be polished off in six or seven hours first time through and unfortunately there's only the one ending. Only on one occasion does it venture an alternative path; should you save Mei's twin sister Jun (yes, they really did call them Mei and Jun) within a set period of time, you get to play a superb level at the controls of a security monitor, whereby not only must you guide her through a claustrophobic basement of beasties unarmed, but are periodically required to tune the picture so you can still see what's going on - it's a really classy touch. Replay value is pretty limited as virtually all of the other bonuses and extras (the usual artwork) can be unlocked without much hassle first time through. A harder difficulty setting, the incentive of new weapons, costumes or scenarios might have enticed players back.
Obscure: The Aftermath won't win over the sceptics, but nevertheless will present survival-horror fans with an adventure that will keep you engaged (though not necessarily scared) through to the end, even if the game is bare about the bones overall due to a lack of meaningful extras. Whilst the jury is still out on whether the genre can ever reach its full potential either on a handheld or in team/co-operative form, it's a well-made and diverting tale that's a welcome reminder of - though not quite a return to - the genre's glory days.