Platforms: Playstation 4, Windows, and Xbox One (reviewed)
Observer is a sci-fi horror game that takes inspiration from Bloober Team’s previous effort, Layers of Fear, and adds in the dirty, futuristic feel of Blade Runner. Its attempt to make a connection with the sci-fi classic becomes apparent as soon as you learn that the Rutger Hauer lends his voice to the game’s protagonist, Daniel Lazarski.
Daniel is an Observer, a half-human, half-machine police officer that has the ability, by switching view modes, to make more apparent traces of biological material and electronic devices that might otherwise be easily overlooked to the naked eye. Combine that with their abilities to jack into someone’s mind to see their thoughts, and you’d think Observers were the all-in-one package when it comes to solving mysteries.
Mechanically, these things never quite make you feel like a super sleuth. Initially, I was frequently switching back and forth between vision modes out of fear of missing something. The option to search for these things that might lead to a little more information about the case I was in the middle of led to a fear of me missing some vital bit of information on my investigation or some bit of information that was pertinent to world-building. This only ended up highlighting that you’re meant to find specific things and complete certain tasks, making me less and less inclined to search them out as Observer dragged on.
Mindjacking seems like a surefire way of getting to the bottom of things, but it wouldn’t be much of a mystery if you could solve it by jacking into the first schlub that the option becomes available for. Instead, it leads to segments that feel more similar to Layers of Fear. The people you’re jacking into are under some sort of serious distress, leaving their memories fragmented and a bit unreliable. This gets back to what I enjoyed about Layers of Fear – the feeling of breaking down mentally. These are largely the strongest segments of the game, only hindered by some areas that require you to sneak around and avoid detection by something you can’t fight back against. Taking you out of the apartment complex that feels sparsely populated due more to cost cutting into areas that, while more linear, feel like they have more going for them in design does make the apartment complex feel less and less interesting each time you return to it.
With it taking place in a smaller area, a run-down apartment complex with a tattoo shop that’s oddly right in the middle courtyard of the complex, had the potential to make the area feel dense with lots of tidbits of information. Instead, with only some apartment dwellers willing to talk to you, it added to the feeling of a small checklist of things to check out before being funneled onto the next story beat. Eventually, the complex turns into nearly every building in the Resident Evil series and adds areas that were not only inaccessible, but also seem to make little sense as to their existence. This is something I’m fine with normally, but it feels like Bloober Team rung all they could out of the complex and needed more to keep the story going forward.
Your interactions with the denizens are all largely the same, equating to a quick knock on the door, you asking them if they know anything, them telling you very little, and then telling you to piss off in varying degrees of politeness. The people you interact with range from the downtrodden just trying to get by without too much government interference, people with some sorts of mental illness, to outright shitheads that you’ll be glad you can move on from. This leads to a quick guessing game of which type of person you’ll be (almost always optionally) interacting with before the conversation plays out in a particularly obvious fashion.
Daniel Lazarski himself is no real winner either. I’m not sure if it’s poor direction, but Rutger Hauer’s talent feels completely squandered. Have you ever gone into work when you’re sick because you felt forced to? Welcome to Daniel’s tone. His dialogue comes across like he can scarcely believe he was made to come in to record dialogue when he was feeling ill. Adding in how little you actually get about him as a person, it makes many of the events in Observer fall flat. Suddenly adding some bits towards the end of the ride did little to make him feel fleshed out enough to feel any sort of empathy towards. The multiple choice ending that decides Daniel’s fate makes you think if you chose the other option that things would have turned out better for him, but with either choice you make nothing turns out well for him. Without any real attachment to his fate, the endings both fell flat and just dour for the sake of being dour.
The apartment complex itself feels like some sort of amalgamation of buildings strewn together. Does this make some sense when holding it up to the fiction? Sure, a bit. My issue with it is just how many “secret areas” this apartment complex has. It’s bigger than it shows itself to be, but the size of it compared to how much there is to actually to do seem to starkly contrast with how Observer is trying to make things feel claustrophobic. Cutting off some areas would help with the backtracking you end up needing to do, leading to less “where the hell is the place I’m supposed to be going to?” instances.
The soundtrack does the job of blending into the background almost too well, without a single track being particularly memorable. The sound effects, on the other hand, really made an impression, but varying wildly from a positive to a negative one. The more atmospheric ones could lead to a feeling of mystery and dread, adding a layer of tension that the other elements of Observer never quite did. The ones that bothered me leaned too heavily on uncomfortable and loud noises. They got to the point where I was turning the volume down in my headphones out of fear of damaging them, taking any feeling of immersion and genuine fear or dread out of the equation.
Observer is a lot like the apartment complex it takes place in – multiple things that seem haphazardly put together and just barely functional. Middling voice acting and a world that has some hints of being interesting without any real payoff don’t do Observer any favors. Combine that with the multiple hard crashes I experienced (the one about three minutes from the end was particularly frustrating), Observer is making me do something I never thought I would – recommend SOMA. I didn’t like SOMA either, but at least the “what does it mean to be human?” common thread was implemented well enough throughout there instead of tossed at you in the last 30 minutes of the game like it is in Observer.