A dark and rainy night in a gritty futuristic dystopian city. A run-down tenement building where a killer plays a deadly game of cat and mouse. Rutger Hauer. You may think I’m talking about the 1982 Sci-Fi cult classic movie Bladerunner, but you’d be wrong. I am in fact talking about Observer, the latest game from Bloober Team, the same studio that created Layers of Fear (which we reviewed here). A neo-noir cyberpunk thriller that takes place in the distant future, Observer puts you in the shoes of Daniel Lazarski as he gets pulled into investigating a series of murders in an old tenement building complex after he receives a mysterious call from his estranged son. Daniel Lazarski is modeled and voiced by Rutger Hauer aka Roy Batty, the renegade Replicant leader from Bladerunner, so if that isn’t enough for you to nerd out and buy the game; you will just have to read the rest of the review.
The world of Observer has some very interesting backstory to it. It takes place in a fictional version of Poland in the year 2084. A disease called the nanophage killed off thousands upon thousands of cybernetically augmented humans. Then came a big war between the East and the West, resulting in both sides wiping out one another. Taking advantage of the power vacuum, a giant megacorporation named Chiron formed the Fifth Polish Republic. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, that same old drum. Enter Daniel Lazarski. You are an Observer: an elite neural detective working for the KPD. You are wired with a highly advanced piece of hardware (colloquially known as a Dream Eater) that allows you to hack into a suspect’s mind to find out what they know. Of course, this ability comes with a high price. Hacking into the minds of other people, especially drug users and the mentally deranged, results in massive strain to the mind of an Observer. There are many recorded incidents of Observers cracking under the mental strain and going off like a time-bomb, which is why they are no longer allowed to bear arms. Due to this mental strain, if you don’t keep up with your doses of Synchrozine, it’s game over for you. Thankfully there are plenty of extra doses to be found around the complex. Not once did I ever have to worry about my Synchrozine supply running dry.
The game begins when you enter the tenement complex that you traced your son’s call back to. I don’t want to spoil any story so I’m going to be purposefully vague here for a second. Something happens, resulting in a total lockdown of the building, cutting off access to the outside and blocking all forms of communication. Effectively cut off from the rest of the world, Daniel has to find a way to end the lockdown while uncovering a conspiracy and avoiding the deadly monstrosities that pop up from time to time. While the crux of the gameplay is exploring and doing some light puzzle work, there is also a stealth element to it. It is safe to say that the game can be divided into two sections: the complex and the fragmented mindscapes of the people you have to hack.
Starting off with the complex, you’ll mostly be going from point A to B while investigating, keeping an eye out for the various collectibles hidden throughout, and interacting with the eccentric tenants. Most of these interactions happen through vidcoms on the apartment doors, however, due to the fact that the whole place is on lockdown. The only person you see face to face is the creepy, shoddily-augmented building caretaker and his weird little helper robot (who has a bad habit of creeping up on you at weird times). It is quite an atmospheric place and a pleasure to just roam around and explore its dark and dilapidated halls thanks to all highly detailed environments and great graphics. The biggest problem with Observer is its tendency to drop frames in certain high-detail areas and when autosaving. It isn’t severe enough to warrant avoiding this game, but it is bad enough to detract a little from the overall experience.
Every now and then you will come across a situation where you will need to jack into a person’s mind and do a little “neural investigating”. This results in Daniel journeying through a trippy, psychedelic hellscape of fear and drug-induced nightmares as he relives that person’s fractured memories looking for clues to help him progress in his investigation. It can get dangerous too, and that is where the stealth element comes into play. Inhuman things skulk through certain areas and you must remain undetected because you have no way of defending yourself. Sneaking past them isn’t too hard once you get used to the patterns, and quite often there is only one monster at a time to contend with so the stealth segments aren’t too overbearing for people who don’t like those kinds of mechanics.
For purists who like to collect all the trophies/achievements, there are oodles of collectibles to...collect. Some of them are missable too; thanks to the neural jack sections that you cannot return to once completed. To help with this, Daniel has some different sight modes. Night vision to help see in pitch-black environments is the first. Bio-Imaging allows you to detect and highlight organic materials and evidence in the area, and there is another imaging mode that does the same thing for electronic objects. Even with these handy tools at your disposal, it’s still quite a bit of work to find everything. While exploring the tenement complex you may come across events that add objectives into your case log. Completing these side jobs is not necessary, but they are interesting to do and usually test your morality with a multiple choice type of ending that ends with Dan deciding the fate of the subject. There are also two different endings depending on a choice that you make near the end of the game. If you want to get them both it will take multiple playthroughs since the game autosaves and you can’t simply reset it. What I enjoyed about playing through it a second time is that since you already know certain information, you can mess around a little bit by skipping some of the neural interrogations completely. It’s nice to see a game with a little bit of wiggle room, instead of just forcing you to do things over again just for the sake of it.
A typical playthrough of Observer takes around seven hours. Immediately after beating it, I loaded up a new game and started again. Not many games can pull me in like that but the combination of neo-noir cyberpunk, Rutger Hauer, and horror is too hard to resist. Despite Observer’s framerate issue and other small technical foibles, it is too immersive and interesting a game to pass up on. I cannot recommend Observer enough.
Final Score: 9/10
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