Genre: First-person adventure, survival horror
Developer: Bloober Team
Platform: Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Mac, Linux
Release: August 15, 2017
Observer is an unusual beast. It belongs to the class of horror games that don’t let you defend yourself, but there are relatively few moments of danger, unlike, say, Amnesia. It also eschews true supernatural elements in favor of an oppressive dystopia, delivering the most horrifying visuals through the Dream Eater, a device that lets you invade human memories.
The game takes place in future 2084, a world of overgrown technology. Poland is run by the Chiron Corporation, a company that gained control in the aftermath of a great war between East and West. Mechanical augmentations are common, and not always benign. The population lives in fear of the Nanophage, a plague that causes your implants to attack your organs. Beyond that, your character occasionally has to inject Synchrozine to stop his mechanical parts from shattering his psyche.
You play as Daniel Lazarski, a specialist employed by their police force. Unlike Adam Jensen or Soldier G65434-2, you spend the game unarmed, and your implants weren’t built for combat. Instead, they let you project night vision, scan organic matter and technology, and view a virtual case log, in addition to the aforementioned memory invasions.
Lazarski spends the game hunting a serial killer in a class C apartment complex, home to the lowest of the three social castes segregated by Chiron. The complex is brilliantly realized, a den of drug users, hologram addicts, and blue electronic ad screens. When the main power cuts out, they fear your Dream Eater as much as they do loss of stimulation. You don’t harm them, but few trust you, and the backstory makes it hard to blame them.
You find many of the killer’s victims too injured to speak, and the Dream Eater allows you to gather evidence, recreating their darkest memories as a parade of hallucinations. You witness disintegrating corridors, silhouettes who cover ground in angular jerks, and appliances that cry, vomit, or fly through the air. The sequences are fairly linear, with a handful of puzzles and the occasional stealth section, but they bring the darkness of cyberpunk to grim, bloated exuberance. Lazarski emerges from each trip gasping for Synchrozine, vision covered with blotchy digital squares. Horror is most effective when it spawns depression, and the initial half of Observer delivers in spades.
You also scan objects near the victims, ranging from credit chips to globs of blood and tissue. Your findings establish them as disenfranchised and sometimes questionable bunch. One victim used drugs, and another performed illegal cybernetic operations. One particularly tenacious managed to wound their attacker with a sword cane, leaving a trail of blood for you to follow. It’s an effective way to convey information, although I had to switch between different vision types too often for my taste.
You’ll make some of your most interesting discoveries by reading computers. There are numerous character logs and emails throughout the different suites, ranging from critical plot information to male enhancement requests. The Chiron Corporation’s logo rests watchfully at the home screen of every system, and their footprint echoes throughout the low-caste apartment complex, whose residents receive fewer votes per person than higher citizens. One computer throws in a piece of wartime propaganda, establishing their sheer level of control. Some computers also contain a minigame where you navigate a maze full of spiders, collecting flaming swords as weaponry. The graphics are intentionally lo-fi, and each area reveals a new level or two. It’s a brief but welcome respite from the darkness.
Unfortunately, Observer loses steam in the later portions. The first chunks of memory are unsettling, but it uses similar tricks and scream effects too many times, and tolerance builds quickly. Lazarski’s scanning implants are disabled in the neural realm, and aside from the stealth sections, you’re free to avert your eyes. You aren’t forced to confront your fears like in other horror games.
Several times, you’re required to hack into the brain of a deceased person. Your onboard A.I. warns against it, and the first scenario leads to the game’s most nightmarish sequence, where Lazarski faces true danger. But the setup repeats numerous times, and it loses punch. His brain suffers from the experience, leading to hallucinations in real life. Voices accost you, and wires turn to intestinal tissue, a twisted figurehead for the fusion of metal and flesh. But even then, I rarely felt threatened. Even the few enemy sequences were too simple; I snuck past one without ever seeing it. For reference, I’m the guy who couldn’t bring himself to get past the first enemy in SOMA, so I don’t think my spine is enormously thick.
More damningly, Lazarski and the other main characters never quite live up to the depth of the setting. It’s hard to tell if his voice actor is trying to sound grave or bored, and the body count becomes increasingly cheap, as if you were watching a low-budget slasher flick. The decline is slow initially, but it dives headfirst into a very predictable sort of horror at the end, reducing the higher themes to mere window dressing. Both suffer as a result. It’s refreshing to see a game where the protagonist isn’t trying to save the world, but once you adapt to the jump scares, there has to be substance underneath.
In particular, large amounts of time are spent building one very promising character… only to jettison his development for a cheap horror persona. Many game elements remain strong, but the damage to the climax is irreparable.
When horror is fused with other genres, it tends to consume them. Technology, shadowy researchers, and government programs become rationalizations for monstrous forces, and everyday men and women are reduced to mere props for their rampage. At the beginning, Observer straddles the line well, but horror dominates by the end, wearing cyberpunk as mask instead of partner. Visions repeat too often, deaths are too easy to predict, and characters become cheap victims or aggressors. In a less story-driven game, these faults could be overlooked, but Observer reaches for higher territory, and it could have been brilliant if it stayed on task. As it stands, I’m glad I played it, but it left me wanting more.
Rating: 7/10 (Good)
Run-of-the-mill “good” game. Mostly convincing, with a few notable flaws that hold it back from greatness.