Review: >Observer_ (PC)
Dan Lazarski, a worn down detective who sounds like he’s nursing a hangover and talks like he’s had a lifetime of eating cigarettes, has never given up on tracking down his long estranged son Adam. An unexpected call from his son sends him rushing to a run down Kraków apartment block filled with peculiar residents, as he arrives he stumbles on the scene of a crime and finds himself embroiled in a string of murders in a claustrophobic building which is almost immediately sealed up by the over-vigilance of a ruling class. While >Observer_’s story seems like it could be anywhere, the game’s visuals, characters, and a few story mechanics deliver this detective story from any place in time to a glum, hopeless cyberpunk future, and it does it with a memorable quality and style.
Of all the places I expected a credible, cyberpunk detective game to come from, Bloober Team was one of the last. Their Layers of Fear series is exactly the kind of game that I tend to avoid, mainly because it employs a lot of practices used in exactly the kind of movies I avoid. For those unaware of the series, I mean jump scares, perspective tricks, and an impressive level of thick atmosphere in order to keep the audience on edge. It wasn’t so much that I see no value in such things, it’s more so that the interactive medium of games is vastly more engaging once it has got its claws in — and I’m a sucker for getting absorbed in a setting. Fool me then, for almost missing >Observer_. The horror element is definitely present, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t spent most of the early game creeping around the hallways, but that was worth it for the setting, and it was also shaken off later at a point which I’ll discuss heavily later.
Kraków as a setting is an interesting choice; the city in the future of >Observer_ is one overshadowed by a deadly war outside of the cities boundaries, the city straddles a space between life and death – residents living behind sturdy metal doors embedded into the walls of former abodes —pre-war, pre-plague bathrooms and living rooms now the claustrophobic hallways and walkways between the cramped apartments which house the strange remains of humanity. As a choice for setting it may simply come down to the fact that the city is where the studio is based, but it also has an undeniable history which is easily one of the most storied in Eastern Europe and one dominated by surviving against the odds, rebuilding after near destruction, and an inability at times to trust your own neighbours.
The hallways are both intriguing and horrifying, layers of code and digital text flowing like fluid over torn up rubble and collapsing walls, each doorway playing host to a small monitor which can be used to communicate with the residents, when they’re not suddenly yelling out to you. Although there are multiple maps on each of the block’s floors it’s easy to get turned around, and the smashed through or blockaded hallways are hard to memorise — especially when you’re occasionally startled by a robot, device or set of shadows moving just (as deliberately programmed) out of the corner of your eye.
Lazarski’s skill set presents itself as useful as soon as a door gives way and swings open —be that through the game’s unnecessary keypad puzzles or general discovery. As an Observer, a futuristic detective, one which has been cybernetically enhanced to best sleuth crime scenes, he’s equipped with both an ocular implant able to analyse biological matter, electronics and interaction points, and a strange, snaking coil device which allows him to mentally bind with another’s neural connection.
That first enhancement, the bionic eye, is an extremely well implemented way of ensuring that the player is functioning on the same level as the detective; stare at the severed stump of a neck and he’ll state his assumptions, find a discarded syringe and you’ll get a quick run down on the narcotics which haunt >Observer_’s world. It’s also a very good way of leading the player’s view around each of the many crime scenes which litter the rooms along the twisted corridors.
It is, like most of the rest of the game, mentally jarring. In activating these views you reveal more, but also isolate yourself — the protagonist’s vision blurs and jars, and many of the ‘non essential’ parts of the scene become blocked out due to the visual filter.
There’s joy to be found in the mutterings of Lazarski, his voice work performed by prestigious actor Rutger Hauer — known for his cold, gravelly tones, and drawing a (no doubt desirable) link between >Observer_ and Blade Runner. But, though his remarks offer a lot of detail to the present day, and also insight into the mind of a character hardened by the unforgiving journey through other’s minds, the world is shallow. Offerings of a genophage —a computer virus turned physical— of a war at the cities doorstep, and of a crime-wave mysteriously fallen silent… but, the game, like its protagonist’s physical form, never leaves the cramped halls.
Well, we do leave those halls —kind of. In using the other tool of the Observers, a strange worm-like device which plugs into the subject’s head. Once connected it links the subject’s subconscious direct to the detective where they can then pick through the clues floating around and out of order.
It’s in those wanders through subconscious that the game really takes on the style of horror which Bloober Team are known for; walls run away from you, shadows spring to life, objects flick in and out of reality. What’s really different is that the whole fear gig is a lot more plausible here due to the fact it takes place in the mind — if that makes any sense? It maintains the tenseness of the apartment because you know that the rules are out the window as physicality has been shirked.
There’s several highlight moments while existing in mindspace; a running theme of hulking werewolves, a scene where you must lead a screen through a hallway, or a room where you have to adjust a dial to move a character. The worse the state of the subject’s mind, be that drug-addled or dead, then the more erratic and unwelcoming the drudging of their mind is.
It’s all done well, however, as I said, there’s never any real depth to the world outside of the apartment. Sure, there’s a few thin threads of the world around, the group of people who avoid implants, the missing residents, corporate espionage, but it’s a world barely explored.
There is, however, a flaw in the game’s tense horror, or at least a flaw which shatters the tension. Around a third of the way into the game the game introduces an enemy which must be carefully crept around, avoided. Unlike the rest of the game, where things fly at you but narrowly miss, or the world falls away but you blink safely into existence, confused and startled, this enemy can see you, grab you and kill you.
And, when it kills you all fear is shattered.
For me this ruined the tension of the game, I’d been creeping carefully through hallways and rooms, deliberately angling my viewpoint at strange, unnatural points in order to avoid jump-scares while passing through doorways, I’d been deliberately walking at different speeds in the game —creeping when I felt I should rush, rushing when I felt I should creep— and all because the game had been threatening to kill me. But, once it did it, grabbed me by the throat and ran me through like some Frankenstein’s Monster take on Bioshock’s Big Daddies, the illusion was shattered and the atmosphere was shaken away. After that the game never recovered it’s tension as I knew that I could run and rush and even if I felt or faltered I’d be right back at a very recent checkpoint.
Where other games are pitting you against an enemy or deadline in a race to solve a puzzle, >Observer_ is only ever (in these sequences) asking you to move forward, and so the part which is almost certainly meant to inspire the most fear is actually the weakest part of the game.
So it is, then, that Bloober Team have made a middling horror game, but an amazing detective game. The scouring of crime-scenes with the main character’s narration and abilities is a perfect rendition of the classic movie detective finding a hidden clue that we’d have never found, and it does so with perfect style and deployment, putting recent efforts at ‘sense’ and ‘instinct’ in games to shame.
>Observer_, come for the scenery, stay for the detective-work.