Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Observer is a first-person cyberpunk horror title from the minds behind the reputedly excellent Layers of Fear, Bloober Team. Stepping into the cybernetically enhanced mind of Daniel Lazarski, modeled after and voiced by cyberpunk veteran Rutger Hauer, as he investigates the disappearance of his son. Exploring a dark, retro-futuristic world full of dark secrets, “Big Brother” and mind-hacking, Observer is an interesting tale that, more often than not, is an exercise in patience more than it is a horror story.
Though I am not one to volunteer for horror titles (scary games or movies do not sit well with me, so I avoid them), when I saw what Observer was, essentially a cyberpunk puzzle game with horror/suspenseful overtones, I wanted to get in on the action. In fact Nick was a bit confused and was like “Observer… Really?” Like I said … not a big fan of the genre, so when I am drawn towards a title that is squarely within that realm it must be truly something special.
Unfortunately I am a bit conflicted with regard to Observer; not being a veteran of the genre, though admitting to being a pansy when it comes to these types of things, I was just underwhelmed by the “horror” aspects in Observer. The game has some excellent puzzles and if you are not one to pay attention to LITERALLY every detail, you are going to have a bad time (see “exercise in patience” comment above) that mostly consists of walking around the same small room or corridor flipping between your three different types of analytical vision (biological analysis, technical analysis, and regular vision) and talking to the same few NPCs as you try to find the tiny little detail that you might have missed.
Speaking of details, this game is chalk-full of them. If you are in a kitchen you can open the cupboards and see ingredients or appliances; hallways will be full of garbage, papers, and all manner of wasted technical doodads and other refuse. The small apartments that you will be wandering through as you work out where your son has run off to are full of clothes or food or televisions or laptops or any other number of regular household items. Bloober Team really outdid themselves with the dark and dingy atmosphere which is best described as the glorious lovechild of Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and Shiro Masamune’s “The Ghost in the Shell.” Smokey, wet, neon, and full of posters straight out of George Orwell’s “1984,” Observer really nails the poverty-stricken lifestyle of a world more focused on cybernetics and living on the internet.
Where 2016’s Layers of Fear had some of the most amazing audio design one can find in psychological horror games, Observer is a little less impressive. Though the audio is excellent, when combined with the intentionally-glitchy visuals (as it is supposed to appear “off” or “hacked” or “messed up” by design) that act as visual cues to “suspenseful” happenings, the impact of the audio is significantly reduced. In fact, based on JUST the visuals, playing Observer on Mute is more tense than playing it with audio turned on. The opposite of that though where you are closing your eyes and just listening to some of the sequences you will go through can be downright chilling, but combining the two lessens the effect somehow.
The roleplaying game fanatic in me is absolutely thrilled with all of the little bits of lore and world-building side stuff that Bloober Team threw in Observer, but where RPGs do it to create an overall history of the world you are playing in, Bloober Team, I am positive, puts stuff in there for misinformation purposes or to try to confound you with too much data while tucking tiny little tidbits away that you will need (such as how the password to move on from one area is found in the title of a book sitting on a shelf in a random closet). Jacking into other humans’ minds as they are slowly descending into madness is neat but feels predictable. One of the gimmicks that I believe Bloober Team was relying on was the constant moving of your head, because some sequences I would not move the right analog stick at all and something felt … missing, but if I moved and looked (needlessly) around during some of the various scenes, there would be a jarring transition to flashes of admittedly creepy things (like seeing a quick flash of something scary, or something like those creepy old black and white photos). But if you do not move much in these various sequences, the whole effect is lost.
Though there are some bits in Observer that do not quite jive if you do not fall into the atypical “scream and jump every time something flashes on screen” crowd (i.e. those ridiculously dumb Youtubers that are way overreacting to lame jump-scares). With Rutger Hauer’s stupendous voice acting, an atmosphere that is absolutely dripping with 80’s and 90’s cyberpunk appeal, and a world packed full of interesting tales, a fun little side game, and some downright messed-up folk, Observer should be far better than it is. As it stands it feels more fitting as an introduction to a world of gritty cyberpunk beginnings than the standalone adventure of a father trying to find his son.Score: 7 / 10