The world has been nearly ruined by mankind’s attempt to better themselves through mechanical augmentation. After a war waged in name of the countless people killed during what was called a “Digital Plague”, violence, drug addiction, and social segregation define the new world. A new police force, called Observers (for which the game is named), is created by the corporate giant Chiron. An Observer has the ability to hack into chips located in most citizen’s brains to uncover memories of recent events while simultaneously being exposed to the person’s fears. This makes for a pretty daunting experience, so it takes a very specific kind of person to be an Observer. Players take on the role of Daniel Lazarski who operates in the Fifth Polish Republic. During a late night patrol, Daniel receives a call from his missing son which leads him to a C-class slum, where the vast majority of the game takes place. Through uncovering the crime that took place, Daniel pieces together what happened to his son as well as a larger conspiracy involving Chiron.
Observer‘s world is beautifully dystopian. The world looks like its been revenged by past events, as if it will truly never heal. Buildings aren’t just run down, they are stained with graffiti and garbage, flooded and moldy, and lacking in every qualifier for having proper living conditions. Humanity have become so crowded on the tiny planet that society is forced to build taller buildings, yet after the plague and war, they sit empty as reminders of a time long lost. The ruined world is infused with all manor of technology, making it one of the best executed cyberpunk settings I have ever interacted with. The game plays close attention to keeping the setting true to cyberpunk tropes instead of dabbling partly into futuristic fantasy. The technology in the game is very retro-inspired, using things like cassettes instead of CD or thumb drives, as opposed to a wireless world filled with technological apparatus’ that are almost magical in function.
Since a large amount of the story takes place in one section of the slums, you get a chance to interact with a number of characters. Most of these interactions will take place outside their apartment door with Daniel talking into a video projector. While very few of these are important to what is currently happening in the story, all of the interactions are rewarding because they each help the player build an understanding of the current state of the world. You will also quickly discover what citizens think of the Observers, Chiron, and the world as a whole. How true the game is to the setting and how Bloober Team presents that setting to the character is, in this reviewer’s opinion, the highest accomplishment of Observer. Even if the story or gameplay don’t grab your attention, the game is worth picking up solely for the sake of experiencing the well-crafted setting.
The gameplay consists of making your way to crime scenes, using your various visual tools to investigate the area, and then plugging into the brain chip of the victim you’ve discovered to make your way through a horror-esque memory reconstruction. For the first step (finding the crime scene), speaking with the landlord of the apartment building and the various tenants will navigate you through the story in a linear fashion. Once you find the first victim, the rest of the story unfolds fairly effortlessly. When you make it to a crime scene, you have Bio-vision and Tech-Vision at your disposal. These tools will allow you to assess harm done to the victim and scan for any technology in the vicinity. Using these to investigate bodies is pretty neat since nearly everyone alive is a fusion of human and machine. When the area has been thoroughly investigated, you can hack into the victim’s memories using a device on Daniel’s wrist called a Dream Eater. These memories are the biggest draw of the game, but are also the sections that I’m less enthusiastic about.
When you dive into a memory, it is not rendered in a crisp, clean way. Instead, it is bogged by all sorts of visual distortions and illusions that create a unique suspense that I have not encountered in any other game. I wouldn’t agree with the many descriptions of Observer that call it a horror game. It has just few minor jump-scares that caught me off guard, but it’s more focused on building environments which feel unnerving to be in (a lot like Thumper) but aren’t quite terrifying or horrific. Really, it seems to trick you into feeling like something will jump out at you, but after a few hours of playing the game you’ll realize the game doesn’t throw anything like that at you. Once I realized this, the game no longer had the same suspenseful feeling that it did in the early hours. I immediately became comfortable dealing with the areas of the game which are meant to be the horror sections.
With that nit-pick aside, there is one more troubling factor to the memories: they take far too long to get through. In the story, the purpose is to hack into the memories of the person to discover your next move. This is a really compelling narrative and an awesome idea. The point of this in the game is to put players into a glitchy cyberpunk horror space for the players to traverse in. The problem is there is little variety to what you do in these memories. Your largest role in these sections is to walk to an area, interact with something, and watch the events unfold – with the occasional ‘hide from the monster’ sections that felt hardly necessary. The depth of the monster sections involves hiding behind objects and running when they turn their back. There are no tools to distract monsters nor places like lockers to hide in while they pass. To me, these sections just felt included because a ‘hide from the monster’ section has become nearly a standard in most horror or survival games, and I don’t feel they benefit the structure of the game in any way other than genre consistency.
The thing I really love about memories is their visual style, which play with your perception in interesting ways. In some form, everything experienced is symbolic of something, and sure to fuel many discussions about the game. There are areas filled with a purposefully hectic amount of activity to hinder your ability to focus on what you need to do. A favorite section of mine takes place in an office floor filled with cubicles where silhouettes of people are flailing around. You’re tasked with finding certain computers to interact with, but the constant visual strain of all the spastic silhouettes distracts you from doing this simple task. What’s more, if you stop moving, the area you’re in becomes dark and all of the silhouettes stop moving and appear to be watching you. Therefore, you are forced to continue moving, unable to stop and gather your bearings or your thoughts.
Observer is a game that struggles in some key areas, but is ultimately worth checking out, especially if you are a fan of anything cyberpunk. It might also make a great gateway for players who are looking to get into horror games, but aren’t quite ready to jump into something like Resident Evil 7. If you are looking for a game that will give you a solid scare, or emulate more of a psychological horror experience, I’d recommend looking elsewhere. You can at least pick up the game expecting an incredible setting with a solid enough story and some really cool visual trips.