Bloober Team has created a stylish, noir, cyberpunk world with Observer. While the story and world can sometimes get lost in some of the clunky, adventure-game-like mechanics, the well crafted audio/visual environments and dark dystopian world are fighting to make up for it.
Developer: Bloober Team
Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, PS4
MonsterVine was provided with a code for review.
The strongest component of Observer has to be it’s cyberpunk-noir horror. The world is covered in a beautiful filth that just screams technology-driven dystopia. Motherboards, CPUs and cabling litter the ground. Grungy, dark apartment blocks manage to contain advanced future video doorbells, while falling apart and housing stray pigeons in the corridors.
The story puts players in control of Daniel Lazarski, a very traditional feeling noir protagonist, despite his body being a few modifications away from being more robot than human. The voice acting is a little robotic, which I think helps exemplify the role of the character, and leans into the fact that Dan is barely human. The gruff, monologuing cyborg is a detective for a special division of the Polish police force. They use their cyber augmentations to break down crime scenes and interface with potential victims and witnesses for direct information. I appreciate how Bloober Team brought these concepts into existence.
The main loop involves getting to a new crime scene, scanning the room with electromagnetic and biological vision modes to solve and unearth more of the story. Occasionally searching for a password to open a door, or an object needed to unlock a puzzle. Detective duties also involve questioning neighbors by walking door-to-door in the run-down apartment block. These detective moments do a lot to build the world and narrative, but ironically brought me out of the story. The pacing comes to a halt, tension established from previous events is lost, and horror elements take a back seat. I went back and forth on scanning everything I could find, to just searching for the objects needed to progress. I enjoy the world, the information and the tone of Observer but the adventure game style of gathering clues got in the way a lot of the time.
The horror elements come into play during the neural interrogation. When Dan needs to get information from someone he just connects his cybernetic implants, by running a dirty wire into a part of their head. This is where Observer shines. Visually trickery is something that Bloober Team is more than familiar with, their previous game Layers of Fear. They have taken what they learned and augmented it with a cyberpunk style. During these interrogations, all predictability goes out the window. Areas flicker in and out of existence. Silhouettes of people blink by at a time lapse speed as the player walks through environments. Sounds are distorted. Voices whisper from all directions. Observer is at it’s best in these moments of tension, through exploring the minds of other characters. These moments are where demons and memories from Dan’s past start to blend, and he struggles to keep a grasp on reality and humanity.
The gameplay in these scenes is mostly focused on light, environmental puzzles with the rare ‘don’t get spotted by this creature’ moments. Looking at the right part of a room, walking in the right sequence of doors and even occasionally connecting multiple objects together as imagery symbolism bombards the player in a dream like manner. This can be problematic, but the environmental design by Bloober Team does a great job at directing the player where they need to go. Audio, lighting and good level structuring shine as I rarely felt lost even when the rooms around me were a labyrinth in layout, and playing with the sense. The confusion on Observer is deliberate and intentionally there to stress out the player, and blur the lines of reality. There is a downside to the deliberate confusion: multiple times during my playthrough of the Steam version, I encountered sections where a necessary world object wouldn’t load. When these glitches pop-up it undid some of good faith I had with the world. “Is this me not understanding the puzzle, or is the game broken?” is something I had to ask myself a few times, luckily the saves are generous and the loads are quick, and the problems were limited in the review build.
The Final Word
Observer is a creepy narrative driven horror game. Some of the conversations are a bit stifled and drawn out, but the world building and setting mostly make up for the issues. The pacing is all over the place, with clunky adventure game style mechanics breaking up the tension and horror elements in a less than ideal way but it never halted my enjoyment of the story and the world. My favorite parts are when Observer leans into the horror, displaying grotesque imagery mixing with wonderful sound design in a satisfyingly unsettling way. Bloober Team has taken what they learned with Layers of Fear and delivered a more immersive world, and a equally as creepy story, even if the gameplay does get in the way of itself from time to time.
– MonsterVine Rating: 4 out of 5 – Good