Published by Aspyr
Available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One
Rated M for Mature
I’m getting old. There was a time when the most eratic of flashing lights and thunderous of random screams would only excite me. Bring on the visual holocaust of lights and colors, I can take it! The more your monster makes my screen shake like I took bad acid during an earthquake, the better. I don’t know when exactly I became an old man, but >Observer_ definitely showed me that I am. Along with the typical video game photosensitivity warning, the game should come with two Advil and a Dramamine.
I supposed I should tell you what the game is about before I get into how it all gave me a migraine. >Observer_ is a bit old to be reviewing at this point, initially released back in August. But with the Game of the Year list on the horizon, I’m trying to knock out all of the games that should be contenders that I happened to miss. I loved Bloober Team’s previous game Layers of Fear, so I was actually excited for >Observer_. No real good reason why I didn’t play it sooner, but here we are.
The world of >Observer_ is cyberpunk for the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. generation. All that is bright and glossy exists to cover up a thick layer of decay and filth, and only just barely. The megacorporation Chiron controls all of future Poland, enforcing their will with a team of elite police called Observers. It’s within the ranks of these titular Observers that we meet our hero, Dan Lazarski (Rutger Hauer). After receiving a call from his estranged son Adam, Dan rushes off to a decrepit tenement building populated by lowly Class C citizens.
I’ll keep this all spoiler free, but the basic premise is that you have to investigate a string of murders using your special Observer powers. Equipped with two different Detective Vision modes, you’ll scan crime scenes for both biological and electronic evidence to piece together what happened. More importantly, Observers have the power to jack into a person’s brain and explore their memories. This manifests itself as a series of surreal snippets of interconnected thoughts. Each piece is individually confusing, but woven together creates a loose picture of tragedy, misfortune, death, and sometimes even love. Think Psychonauts meets Silent Hill.
<i>>Observer_</i> has plenty of direction, but overall the four story building is open to explore from early on. Most of your interaction with the tenants will be over intercoms on their doors, as early on the plot locks the building down, trapping everyone inside. There are plenty of colorful characters to stumble across, as long as that color is somewhere between red and pitch black. Each of them is fucked up in their own way, contributing to the overall hopelessness of the world. There are a few side quests to stumble across, each confronting a different difficult question you’ll have to answer to resolve things. It’s all disturbing, but that cerebral kind that tests your morals beyond typical video game convention.
There’s a great deal of backstory and snippets of the outside that gives the overall world a much grander scale. You’ll learn about gene splicing, a mysterious plague called the Nanophage, the omnipresent Chiron corporation, vast VR networks, cults of unaugmented humans, and a number of other things that gives >Observer_ the sense of something much grander beyond the walls of the building you’re trapped in. Despite the breadth of the universe it seeks to create, the story of >Observer_ is actually very focused.
While most games would seek to tackle these grand sweeping problems—cure the Nanophage, take down Chiron, free the world from corporate oppression, wake everyone up from their VR slumber, etc.—>Observer_ is content to just solve the one little problem of Dan and his son. The murder mystery is all in service of that, and even the big plot twist at the end doesn’t go beyond the little moral struggle of Dan. Focusing on Dan and his investigation lets the game be much more personal than most cyberpunk settings would allow for. Even in this strange world (and even as a half machine mind reading thought policeman), Dan is human.
So far I’ve been pretty much all praise for >Observer_, and it deserves it. Unfortunately, the exceptional craft and artistic vision of >Observer_ makes the shortcomings all that much more abrasive. My big one I already mentioned. I seriously felt like this game was punching me in the face with its visuals. Don’t get me wrong, the game is absolutely beautiful. But the amount of times I had to pause and give my eyes a break was staggering. Some segments with silhouette figurines bouncing around like a topical YouTuber made me physically ill. It sucks, because I really wanted to take in every inch of this world. But some of it felt like staring at needles quickly and repeatedly pricking right into my pupils.
They also had a real chance here to make an interesting split between the real world and the world of memories. It does this at the start, with each being horrifying in its own way. The world of memories is erratic, surreal, and free from the constraints of physical law. It can be as horrifying as you want, as unreal as you want, and as metaphoric as you want. The real world is terrifying because of just how far humanity has fallen. People live in abject squalor, gladly accepting the eyes of less fortunate creatures to heal their own. All in service of plugging back into a virtual world while the real one dies around them.
And then Bloober Team just had to go and cock that up by making the real world turn into the same non-euclidean, surreal mess as the dream world. There were some really awesome segments—like the holo-room I had to detective vision my way through—but when the walls started bleeding and doors led to looping paths on different floors the game lost me. The game tries to explain it away by saying you were “going mad,” but I really don’t like it when going mad just means the walls turn to jam and you teleport around like a Portal challenge map.
“Hey Ted, that’s basically what Layer of Fear did, and you liked that!” Well yes voice in my head, but Layers of Fear was never meant to be taken at face value. Whether it was all metaphor, a trip through purgatory, the fever dream of a madman, or whatever, it was always supposed to exist in the realm of the unreal. >Observer_, on the other hand, needs to have one foot in the real world for the story and its consequences to be taken seriously.
That all being said, >Observer_ is a fantastic experience. The hacked together, barely functioning building reflects its residents. Even if the distant Class A cities are all shiny and chrome, here in the boonies life is horror. It’s genuinely disturbing, and frightening beyond the frequent jump scares. Never one to pass up a pun, >Observer_ is well worth… checking out.
The hacked together, barely functioning building reflects its residents. Even if the distant Class A cities are all shiny and chrome, here in the boonies life is horror. It’s genuinely disturbing, and frightening beyond the frequent jump scares. Never one to pass up a pun, >Observer_ is well worth… checking out.