Game Review: >observer_
What is real?
From Bloober Team, the Polish game developers who previously brought us the “insane Victorian-era painter simulator” Layers of Fear, comes yet another spine-tingling horror game release; Observer – A mind-bending, psychedelic, cyberpunk, 80s throwback, horror, first person, haunted house, crime-solving walking simulator.
The game is, stylistically nothing less than the ultimate love letter to Ridley Scott’s cyberpunk magnum opus, Blade Runner. So much so that it not only borrows almost all of its visual direction and mood from the film, but it also borrows one of the main characters. Actor Rutger Hauer lends both his voice and likeness to the game’s protagonist, Daniel Lazarski – The titular observer. Previously playing the primary villain Roy Batty, in Blade Runner, Rutger’s performance perfectly encapsulates the disengaged, disconnected and grim cyber-noir detective archetype. His bored “I can’t believe I’m forced to be here” attitude towards his job as observer serves to make his occasional jokes and sarcastic comments far more funny and genuine than they otherwise would be. Furthermore, later in the game when he starts to freak out, the sense of panic is made all the more real by his drastic change in tone.
And panic you will…
Observer drips (sometimes quite literally) with atmosphere. Bloober has utterly committed to the 80’s noir/cyberpunk aesthetic that truly sells you on dystopian Krakow. Synth booms and drones in the soundtrack & Something horrible growls in the basement. Broken holograms flicker poorly on every surface, holes in the floor expose thick snake-like cables running everywhere, oppressive propaganda written in Polish hangs from every hallway wall, and later on when the walls turn to flesh and toilets start whispering the truth of the universe to you, It feels almost as if Cronenberg and Lynch had sat down with Scott to write the sequel to Blade Runner, but then decided to drop acid tabs and listen to Vangelis on max volume instead.
Did that Toilet just speak to me in polish?
As an observer for the KPD, a cybernetic detective with the ability to dive into the minds and dreams of others to find out their secrets, you find yourself tasked with investigating a block of flats in the slums of future Krakow in order to solve a murder and possibly find your son (That’s if you ever really had a son…). Quickly you find yourself trapped in there with the tenants, and possibly something else.
This game will make you question what is real. Progressing through the game, you will dive into the minds of the dead, and the dying. As you can imagine, diving into the mind of a person who was just brutally murdered is a far from pleasant experience. The dream worlds are horrifying places that manage to capture what it feels like to have a horrible nightmare far better than any other game I have ever experienced. One moment I am in a hellish forest of blood, listening to voices encouraging me to feed on the weak – The next I’m a small child hiding from an abusive father. The scenes can loop, twist and distort themselves in the most ingenious of ways while making use of some very powerful symbology and visual trickery. The game even managed to catch me off guard in a way that no game has done before; During a scene of utter cacophony, endless loud noises, colour and movement assaulting the screen, I shifted a little in my seat and let go of the controller thumbstick as I did so. Suddenly there was silence. Everything had stopped moving. The instantaneous nothingness caused by my real life actions gave me a genuine shock. A moment I will take with me forever, as never before has silence been the cause of a jump scare. Once I began moving, the cacophony returned, and summarily stopped again whenever I did. Ingenious.
Syncrozine is good for me, right?
Later on in the game, when the hallucinations begin to seep into the real world and the lines between “reality” and dream blur, I began to truly question what was going on. “Whose memories are these? Was that my voice just now? I swear that door was open a second ago. Wait, wasn’t that in someone else’s head?”. The true magic of the game though, is that it never becomes overwhelming. The weirder and more confusing this world became, the more I thirsted for understanding, even as I watched it crumble around me. Figuratively and literally.
While the games main strengths are obviously its story, atmosphere and controller clenching dread, that is not all there is to it. You spend quite a bit of time free to explore the open environment of the apartment complex. You can interview the kooky residents, solve side missions, engage in some light puzzle solving and most interesting of all; When you happen upon a crime, being the cyborg-detective you are, you are able to use your cool array of vision modes and other enhancements to investigate the crime scene and attempt to figure out what happened. You have two kinds of predator style vision that allow you to detect either mechanical or biological elements in the environment, and scan them for clues, but it also renders you essentially blind when doing so. During these sequences the game has a very “Condemned: Criminal Origins” feel, and I highly enjoyed it.
I would play a whole game about this.
The game, however, is not without its flaws. There are a couple of sequences in the game that requires you perform the rather tired horror game trope of “avoiding the monsters”. These are executed fairly well, and the first time it happened I was so afraid that I had to stop for a break because my hands were shaking. One and done may have been ok, in retrospect, but these sequences honestly started to bother me toward the end, as all I wanted was to continue the story. Instead, i’m getting held up cowering behind a rock, waiting for the big bad to hurry up and wander off somewhere else. Mercifully these sequences are very infrequent and short, but it still pulled me out of the experience a little.
I sadly encountered some technical issues on the Xbox One. Performance dipped occasionally, and doors sometimes took a long while to load what was on the other side. I also suffered from an issue where sound dropped out of Sync. This sound issue was frequent enough that it occurred noticeably at least once every time I played the game. In a game reliant so heavily on sound, it was highly jarring. Then again, due to the nature of >observer_ I can never really be sure if it was a real glitch, or just the game attempting to drive me insane…
Despite these small blemishes, this is quite simply, one of the best story-driven games I have ever played. It takes a mature and original look into adult science fiction. Masterful storytelling and chilling horror brought together in one of the coolest worlds I’ve seen in a long time. There has never been a game quite like >observer_ before, and I doubt we will have another like it for a very long time.
An absolute must play for people even partially interested in horror or cyberpunk.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
It took about 8 hours to complete.
A copy was provided by the developer.