Observer: review

  • Format: PS4 (version reviewed), Xbone, PC
  • Unleashed: Out Now
  • Publisher: Aspyr
  • Developer: Bloober Team
  • Players: 1
  • Site: http://observer-game.com/
  • Game code provided by PR

Intentionally or otherwise, Observer’s very name can be used to adjust your expectations for this game. If you’ve watched the trailer and followed the marketing, you might be expecting an unofficial Blade Runner spin-off. This never comes close to that, despite the main character being played by the legendary Rutger Hauer. Sure, it all takes place in a grubby near-future dystopia; but it’s arguably more accurate to describe this not as cyberpunk, but as cyberhorror. A cyberhorror that you’ll often watch rather than participate in.

You play as Daniel Lazarski, the eponymous Observer. In this post-war world of humans with varying degrees of augmentations, Observers are law enforcement agents with the ability to interrogate people by physically plugging in to neural chips, and accessing minds directly. Doing this to dead people is both illegal and dangerous so, of course, this is almost exclusively the kind of interrogation Danny boy will find himself conducting.

Two things give Bloober Team away as the developer. Firstly, the signs you’ll find in the world are all in Polish (translations offered for some, though oddly not all). Secondly there is, as previously mentioned, a strong horror element. Some tricks have been brought over from Layers of Fear, such as parts of the environment changing as soon as you turn your back on them. It’s a very unpredictable game, and all the better for it. It’s unpredictable not only in terms of events, but also visually. The ‘real world’ part of the game takes place in and around a run-down (but still in use) tenement block, the main source of variety in your surroundings the level of ruin. When hacking minds – or, later, hallucinating – the screen in front of you never fails to impress.

“I’m tellin ya mate, loadsa birds hang out at the tattoo place.”

Things such as visual glitches and floating furniture are just the beginning. As the minds you’re hacking are damaged, so are the memories that you explore, and it’s hard to imagine better use being made of this. At its peaks, the visual design offers the kind of wonder and imagination that you almost never see outside of the best cinematic sci-fi or fantasy work. We shan’t spoil any of it for you, but suffice to say the variety of ideas and assets is impressive indeed, a heady mixture of rich symbolism and the disturbingly surreal.

It’s a wonderful trip from start to finish, but it’s worth repeating that this isn’t the sci-fi detective game you might be expecting. The first hour or so – which sees Daniel receive a mysterious message from his estranged son, and soon stumble upon his first corpse – is misleading. The whole ‘investigate a crime scene’ thing quickly fizzles out, and when it returns a few times later on is always brief and straightforward. Observer is undoubtedly style over substance, though manages to turn this into a good thing.

That’s not to say that there’s no traditional game to be found here. The game revolves around walking and exploration, and there are many conversations to be had. There are a few enemies to be avoided, and collectibles in the form of patient photos scattered throughout the game, and a handful of puzzles that are perfectly logical. There’s even an 8-bit style game to be found on in-game computers, and you know what? It’s pretty darn good!

This chap is not your friend.

One thing we’re really not fans of is the save system. The game autosaves, and checkpoints seem to be reasonably spaced; we have no problem with that at all. It’s the lack of a chapter/save select that gets our proverbial goat. The aforementioned retro-styled game has ten levels, but you need to access several computers to play them all. After spending a long time completing nine, when the credits of the main game rolled we realised that we’d missed a single computer somewhere, with no chance of finding it without starting the main adventure over again from the beginning. Similarly, there are a few optional investigations which, if they are missed or only partially completed, can not be played without starting everything from scratch. The problem is that Observer is a purposefully slow-paced game, and none of the powerful moments will have any impact a second time, when you know exactly what’s going to happen.

There are two endings, which revolve around an interesting choice you have to make right at the end of the game. If you want to see both endings, though, you’re going to have to – yup – play the entire thing through from start to finish twice (even though the ending is dependent on a single button press in the closing minutes). Still it is, on balance, a unique and memorable experience that’s well worth playing through at least once.

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Written by Luke K

He plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He’s the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value.

He doesn’t have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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