Genre: First-person adventure,
Developer: Bloober Team
Platform: Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Mac, Linux
Release: August 15, 2017
Observer is an unusual beast. It’s a horror game that doesn’t let you defend yourself, but there are relatively few moments of danger, unlike, say, Amnesia. It also eschews supernatural threats. Instead, it takes place in 2084 Poland, an overgrown future technoscape. The game identifies as cyberpunk, and it takes all the classic elements to hellish extremes. Forget CEOs who bribe the government; in the Fifth Polish Republic, the Chiron Corporation is the official governing body. Chiron took power in the rubble of nuclear war, and they rule with iron force, segregating humans into castes with different property and voting rights. Cybernetics are common in 2084, and not always benign. Augmented people live in fear of the Nanophage, a disease that causes their implants to destroy their organs.
You play as Daniel Lazarski, a Chiron police specialist known as an Observer. He carries a Dream Eater implant, allowing him to invade human minds and experience their memories. The Dream Eater is useful for Chiron, but the memories arrive through terrifiying, surreal visions, eroding his sanity a little each time.
Lazarski spends most of the game in a class C apartment complex, home to the lowest of the three castes. He begins searching for his son Adam, but he quickly gets tangled up trying to stop a serial killer. Observers are prone to psychosis, so he isn’t allowed to carry firearms, and the game doesn’t provide any other weapons.
The complex is brilliantly realized, a den of drug users, VR addicts, and electronic ads and holograms. The halls are dim for a place with so many electronics, a depleted atmosphere consistent through Observer’s overgrown technology. You conduct your search by scanning the bodies and possessions of each victim, from computers and credit chips to globs of blood and tissue. Your findings establish them as a disenfranchised and questionable bunch. One abused drugs; another performed illegal cybernetic operations. One particularly tenacious resident managed to wound the killer with a sword cane, leaving a trail of blood. I enjoyed uncovering the trail, although you have three different vision types, and I had to switch too often for my tastes.
The residents fear you as a symbol of corporate power, and for your ability to invade their minds. When the main power cuts out, most refuse to open their door; they fear you’ll either violate or murder 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 nightmarish vistas. Many of the visions involve human and machine traits combined in sickening ways. You’ll witness disintegrating corridors, ghostly silhouettes, walls that pulsate like heart tissue, and appliances that cry, vomit, or fly through the air. The sequences are mostly linear, with a few mind-bending puzzles, but they bring cybernetic themes to hideous, literal form. Lazarski emerges from each trip gasping for Synchrozine, vision covered with blotchy digital squares.
It’s extremely unsettling the first few times. Still, you’re rarely in danger, and Observer repeats those tricks a little more often than it should.
On several occasions, you’re forced to hack into the brain of a corpse, overriding your A.I.’s restrictions. The first scenario is terrifying, a nightmare realm that will kill you if you fail to hide. Lazarski’s brain suffers each time, leading to hallucinations in real life. Observer has a particular fondness for replacing wires and cords with intestines or other warm, slimy organic parts. The blend of metal and gore becomes almost sexual, in the most revolting, depleted form. It’s a fitting symbol for the technology addicts throughout the apartment.
Horror is most effective when it spawns depression, and the initial half of Observer delivers in spades.
You’ll make some of your most interesting discoveries by reading computers. There are numerous character logs, ranging from critical plot information to male enhancement requests. The Chiron Corporation’s logo rests watchfully on every screen, and their boot echoes through the low-caste apartment complex, whose residents receive fewer votes per person than you. One computer throws in a piece of propoganda from the nuclear conflict with China. 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 final stretch. The first chunks of memory are unsettling, but after watching similar gore effects thirty times, it becomes hard to care anymore. Even toward the end, I met few enemies, and I had little trouble avoiding them; I snuck past one without ever seeing it. Lazarski’s scanning implants don’t function in cyberspace, so aside from the small enemy count, you’re free to avert your eyes. Ninety percent of the visuals pose no real threat. It sometimes feels more like watching someone play a horror game on YouTube than playing it yourself. The developers profess to favor psychological, reflective scares over survival challenges, and it shows, for better and worse.
Despite that, it is scarier than a normal game. From mind invasion to warfare, Observer lives in perverse grounds. Many cybernetic stories involve addictive technology, but here it’s downright intimate, overrunning humans in body and mind. It’s interesting, however twisted, and the backstory is very well-written. I hope the universe receives more content in the future; it deserves exploration.
But as Observer approaches climax, it starts caring less and less about anything other than scaring you. When horror fuses with other genres, it often consumes them, reducing science, technology, government intrigue, and family conflict into mere props. Observer straddles the line admirably at first, and then it dives headfirst into a very predictable sort of scaremongering near the end. Personal conflict boxes out higher social themes, and the body count becomes progressively cheaper, like some low-budget slasher film.
It’s a personal conflict Observer isn’t equipped for. Lazarski has some good lines, but he speaks in empty, wooden tones, and the side characters are almost universally more compelling than the primary ones. There’s a treasure trove of lore, emails, and backstory to uncover, but little connection or wamth beyond Lazarski’s interrogation scenes. I suspect the alienation was intentional, but the eventual plot requires personal intimacy and depth which never appears. One of the villains comes very, very close to receiving good development, but Observer jettisons it for a cheap horror persona near the end. The result is a dissapointing finale that overwrites some of the earlier intelligence. If this was a mindless zombie shooter, I wouldn’t care much, but it’s not. It’s a first-person adventure game with no combat and fairly easy puzzles. Story is much of the reason it exists.
In the end, Observer is a unique, unsettling sci-fi experience tarnished by repetitive jump scares and horror tropes. True darkness runs deeper than cutting everyone up. The developers seem to understand this, but where the setting of 2084 Poland delivers, the human component falters. It’s a good game, but it threatens excellence, which makes the shortcomings harder to bear. Still, it’s refreshing to find a cyberpunk game where you aren’t a superhero. If you have $30 and a strong stomach, there are worse purchases.