Developer Bloober Team absolutely blew me away with their last title, Layers of Fear. The game centered around a painter who had lost his mind, and the player explored the painter’s house as the layers of reality peeled from around them. The game was incredibly trippy and interesting to play, and Bloober Team has wrapped that reality-warping aesthetic around a brand new game, Observer. Trading in the “old spooky house” for a futuristic world darkly invested in technology, the game still hammers away at your sense of safety and sanity. Is Observer a great follow up, or just another attempt and at a mind-bending mystery?
Who Observes the Observers
Observer starts up with a text scroll, getting you up to date with some background on the world and some light character exposition. The year is 2084, and the world is all but lost after a horrendous disease known as the “nanophage” breaks out. The world is more technology than human, it seems, as wires and plugs pop out of every crack. You play as an augmented detective named Daniel Lazarski. In this futuristic world, some authority figures are known as “observers”, and they do pretty much what the name implies. Taking in the world and solving its problems, Daniel is a man with a storied past and plenty of secrets.
After receiving a static filled and confusing distress call from his estranged son, Daniel heads to an apartment building in the C-class neighborhood; the poor part of town. Before long, Daniel stumbles across a dead body in one of the apartments. At the same time, the apartment building goes into lockdown mode, cutting out communications and trapping Daniel (and all the residents) inside. It’s up to Daniel to solve the murder and locate his son, all while maintaining his sanity as the world around him dissolves into madness.
To Catch a Killer
Gameplay in Observer is half exploration and half investigation. As an observer, Daniel has a few tools at his disposal that eases his detective work. Utilizing two sensors (and a night vision mode), Daniel scans his surroundings, analyzing clues and forming connections.
Using his “EM Vision”, Daniel is easily able to scan and diagnose tech, from random plugs and buttons to small brain implant chips buried in the heads of the residents. Conversely, he can use his “Bio vision” to scan organic items like blood and bodies. These scans are represented by different filters, covering your screen and lighting up the room as the scan pings across the surfaces around you. It’s an interesting mechanic, and while it’s mainly used to progressing the story in obvious parts, I enjoyed the variety of gameplay it allows.
The main feature of Daniel’s abilities is his neural linking. By plugging an invasive looking device into a person’s neck, he can enter their mind and explore their world. This leads to revelations about the characters, and the overall story, but at no small cost. Neural link sections are visceral, unrelenting, and downright horrifying.
The Seams Are Busting With Dreams
The world that Observer inhabits is exceedingly dark and depressing, and the neural link sections ramp that up to 11. There’s two distinct “realities”, the neural link sections and the sections in which you’re roaming the apartment. The lines between these start to blur, as Daniel calls his own sanity into question. It’s true that the neural link sections are absolutely crazy, but the horror contained is strengthened by the depravity of the living world around it.
Augmentation plays a bit role in Observer‘s world, and it reminded me of recent games in the Deus Ex series (in relation to tone, not gameplay). The integration of technology plays such a large role in Observer, that it seems to suffocate the residents living within it. As you explore the apartment building and interrogate its residents, the dire situation reveals itself. Most residents are holed up in their apartments, afraid to leave for fear of an outbreak of the nanophage virus. They sit inside their tiny abodes, linked into hologram displays that provide escapism.
It’s a wholly depressing world, and feels dirty to inhabit. Hypodermic needles with strong hallucinogenics litter the floor. Toy ads posted on the walls show just how deeply technology has affected the human element. One toy car ad reads, “Parents, your child can’t feel a hologram! Buy one today!” The world is cyberpunk, but it’s also a horrific combination of mechanical biology, tech horror, ominous lighting, and tangible tension.
And the Dreams Are Full of Screams
Outside of the neural link segments, the game is quite good at creating tension. A few of the jump scares were well done enough to rattle even me, a veteran of the horror genre who merely winced at Resident Evil VII. The slow rise of dread gives way to a smothering sense of discomfort. As the dread builds and builds, your sanity starts to slip, and you’ll be questioning reality constantly.
Then, you’ll link into someone’s brain, and everything goes ballistic. I cannot express just how overwhelming and stressful these sections are. Full of abrasive visuals, loud and gritting noises, and an unrelenting pace, these sections can be a bit too much. Once, I had to take a break midway through one of these sections, but that’s because it was getting to be a bit ridiculous. I understand how overloading the senses can create discomfort, but some things just don’t need to be experienced. For example, the sound of multiple children crying is rough, we can all agree on that. When this crying child goes on for upwards of 5 minutes straight, it gets a bit more annoying than scary.
Observer is an absolute wonder visually. The lighting, layering of textures, and general aesthetic is impressive and inventive. However, this doesn’t always work out so well on consoles. While I haven’t played the game on PC, I have a feeling everything runs quite a bit better on that. When playing the game on my Xbox One, technical performance was a constant issue. Ironically, the game uses glitched textures and other odd gaming glitches to create tension, so sometimes when real glitches happen, you barely notice until it’s too late.
When the game gets exceedingly trippy (I’m looking at you, neural link segments), Observer basically buckles under the pressure, sometimes producing embarrassingly low frame rates. I experienced one or two hard crashes, a soft lock (freeze), and plenty of technical issues over my 12 hour playthrough. The performance was pretty bad, and while massively frustrating, didn’t completely ruin the game. It’s noticeable enough that it dampens the experience though, and that’s an issue.
The Bottom Line on Observer
Observer is an interesting game with a philosophical and cautionary tale hidden within it. It’s depressing, feels disgusting to inhabit at times, and will make you shake with tension. The game never gets too grotesque, but that’s to its advantage, as I found Observer far creepier than recent gore-filled games like Outlast 2. The game will take you roughly 10-15 hours to complete, depending on how far you wander and how many side stories you pick up along the way.
There’s multiple endings for those looking for a reason to replay, and generally speaking, Observer is one of the most visually inventive games I’ve seen in ages. It can get annoying at times, the frame rate dips to unacceptable levels, but in the end, I found the experience well worth it. There’s some addition features that make the world interesting to inhabit (like a game within a game, played on in-game computers), and the atmosphere is expertly crafted. Due to the fragmented storytelling and constantly questioning reality, the story can get a bit confusing at times, but it neatly wraps itself up in the end. Horror junkies will definitely find plenty to love in Observer, and at the very least, it’s easy to acknowledge its fresh take on the genre and the game’s ability to terrorize its player.
Note: This game was reviewed on Xbox One with release day patches.