Bloober Team, known for their critically acclaimed horror adventure ‘Layers of Fear’, have come back with another story driven experience in the form of Observer. The cyberpunk theme is one that many console players will be familiar with, but do any of them particularly stand out? No, not really, not until now that is. Bloober’s latest foray into the mind-twisting psychological horror genre offers up a dark and atmospheric experience that will captivate you long after you put down your controller. It’s sinister, it’s interesting, and it really does beg the question that the devs have been asking for months, “What would you do if your fears were hacked?”.
You take on the role of Observer Daniel Lazarski, a cybernetic-modified agent that has the ability to plug into the minds of his subjects, and dig deep into their mindset. The game is based in the year of 2084, a time in which countless people have been taken out by war, or via a cyber-plague known as nanophage. Chiron, a mega corporation that seemingly appears to be untouchable, holds all of the cards. If you’re not of importance, they really don’t give two shits as to what happens to you or what state you’re in. Daniel (who works for this very organisation) receives a phone call from Adam, his estranged son, and it’s instantly apparent that something isn’t right. The call is littered with interference and before Daniel can get any information, the call breaks. Daniel sets off to find his son via tracing the call to its point of origin, only to stumble upon a crime scene once there, and so your journey begins.
Much like any tale that’s based in the future, the world has gone down the pan. There’s a clear divide in humanity, but what Observer manages to capture exceptionally well is an odd sense of desperation to hold onto the past. Despite the sci-fi exterior, Observer is every bit a horror game as Outlast is, and arguably more so depending on how you process the journey ahead. The game slowly feeds you all of the basics of play, such as the use of Biometric and Electromagnetic vision, which enables you to carefully examine your surroundings with details that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to witness without the aid. Before long you’ll be using the aforementioned ability (Dream Eater) to hack the mind of a man who is on his last legs, and thus unable to communicate.
It’s here that you’ll instantly realise what you’ve let yourself in for. Dream Eating can be every bit as freakishly scary as it is interesting, and thanks to the fact that you’re jacked into someones head, the veils of reality are toyed with to tremendous effects. Your surroundings will constantly alter in true Silent Hill fashion as you sink into some uncomfortably twisted scenarios for each and every memory that you bounce from. Doors will be added and removed, walls will disappear and pound, and an any sense of assurance you have can be snatched off you in the blink of an eye.
It’s not just shifting segments of the apartment block that you’ll be at the mercy of, you’re also at the mercy of the victim’s memory. This not only relates to their final moments with the killer that’s on the loose, but serves as a means to show you key moments in their life. As such you’ll be paying a trip down their memory lane, which leads you to locations such as prisons, hospitals, and more. Daniel’s own memories will often merge with the victim’s memories to some degree, giving you some insight on his persona as well as dishing up some amazingly crafted moments of play. I have to admit that I did feel somewhat sorry for Daniel, as it’s pretty clear that all of this Dream Eating is taking a toll on his sanity.
Much like Layers of Fear, Observer doesn’t rely on cheap jump scares to get you on the edge of your seat. Instead, it very slowly drags you to hell. One sequence that stands out for me was being forced to hide from a disgusting monster that was storming up and down an office. Bloober Team have absolutely outdone themselves on this front, ensuring that you’re always paying close attention to what lies ahead. Ironically, for a game that has you diving deep into the minds of your subjects, Observer manages to climb deeper into your mind as a result, and almost always catches you off-guard.
Gameplay typically consists of investigating your surroundings, which can be achieved by interrogating residents, or by using the previously mentioned Biometric and Electromagnetic vision. Biometric vision will enable you to see organic matter, such as blood. Whereas Electromagnetic vision will allow you to interact with electronic equipment that you can often engage with further. Both of these functions will gift you with clues as you make your way through, and there are some optional additions that can take your off the beaten path if you so see fit.
There’s more emphasis on puzzle solving in Observer than that of Layers of Fear, but this is balanced well with other mechanics, such as stealth sections. In fact there are parts of the game in which all of these mechanics are thrown together, forcing you to think fast on your feet as you solve a tricky puzzle, to then investigate stealthily as you do your best to avoid one of the antagonists within. With that being said, puzzle solving is a bit hit and miss at times, but for the most part, Observer manages to hit the proverbial nail on the head. The difficulty curve is also well struck, but often relies on how much attention you’ve been paying to the game. If you’re a passive sort of player that simply wants to get from A to B, you might find that you’ve bitten off more than you chew.
When you’re not talking to the residents, then chances are you’ll be manoeuvring around the apartment blocks looking for your next ‘ah-ha’ moment. You can read emails via terminals, browse through drawers, locate hidden doorways by using keypads, and so on and so forth. My only gripe here is identical to an issue I had with What Remains of Edith Finch, being that I didn’t feel as though there was enough to interact with. Sure, there’s your standard vision and augmented visions to pick up clues, but a lot of items and objects cant be interacted with which is somewhat of a let down. It would have been a good opportunity to inject some backstory to complement the current story, but that’s more of a preference and less of a complaint. One thing that is a complaint is the minor frame-rate issues that persisted at the beginning of the game. Thankfully it’s not an overly noticeable occurrence, and it does correct itself after the first hour or two, but it happened enough for me to want to note it nevertheless.
It’s important for a game with as much ambition and scope as this to house some decent visuals and voice work, which as another aspect that Observer gets right. Not only is Daniel voiced by the mesmerising Rutger Hauer, who portrays the character magnificently, but the game looks fantastic and sets the theme and atmosphere brilliantly. The power of Unreal Engine 4 brings a great level of detail to the experience, which is backed up by the solid level design that Bloober have applied. There’s roughly eight hours worth of gameplay to be had here, with added replay value thanks to the multiple endings that you can work towards. There’s no denying that you’re getting your money’s worth here, regardless as to whether you run through this once or more.
Bloober did amazing things with the acclaimed Layers of Fear, so there was naturally a lot of pressure on Observer to deliver an experience that was just as compelling. Although the theme of the game is a particular one that will only sing to a specific crowd, it’s a game that’s certainly worth your attention. The interesting mechanics and solid functions are well crafted, tethered to an interesting story that will stay with you long after you put the controller down. The voice work from Rutger Hauer really helps to set the tone, which is met by some stellar visuals and design. Unfortunately it’s ever so slightly let down by some frame-rate issues and (at times) hit and miss puzzles. With those faults to the side, Observer packs a hard punch that will toy with your fears throughout the eight hour campaign, with added replay value to be found in the multiple endings.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.