Reviewed on: PC. Copy supplied by publisher.
There are few things more disappointing than a game that features some great ideas but ultimately fails to live up to any of them. Like having a combination of ice cream and jelly for dessert. I love me some ice cream, and jelly too is a wonderful concoction of deliciousness and wobble, but put them together in a bowl and all you have is a slimy, squidgy, disgusting dairy monstrosity made entirely of ingredients you like.
Okay, maybe I’m straining a little bit with that analogy. The point is that while I was playing cyberpunk horror game Observer I came across some things I liked, but the overall experience felt like I was eating ice cream and jelly.
The first ingredient I liked about Observer, the ice cream if you will, is its premise. The developers at Bloober Team, known for last year’s Layers of Fear, clearly took huge amounts of inspiration from the film Blade Runner. The game is set in a dark, rainy, dystopian cyberpunk city full of hologram billboards, involves an ominous domineering corporation and the troubling ethics of combining humanity with technology, and it even stars Rutger Hauer in the lead role.
Hauer plays Daniel Lazarski, a member of an elite police force known as Observers. Observers are cybernetically enhanced to scan and analyse crime scenes, and can enter the minds of others as a method of interrogation. One night Daniel receives a call from his estranged son, prompting him to pay him a visit at his apartment. Once there all Daniel finds is a headless corpse, and clear signs of a struggle. Determined to prove the body is not that of his son, he sets about investigating the apartment building, following clues which hint to a larger conspiracy, and serve to challenge Daniel’s very sanity.
So yeah, off to a good start so far with our choice of ice cream. My second favourite ingredient, the delectable wobbly jelly, is the world Bloober Team has built for Observer.
In Observer’s future, human augmentation has become common place, with many citizens possessing cybernetic limbs or other body parts, and microchips in their brains. These upgrades are expensive to maintain, resulting in malfunctioning parts creating a physical as well as financial class divide. If all this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s basically the plot of Deus Ex.
The game has a strong sense of place, being set almost entirely within the dilapidated apartment block Daniel’s son resides in. It’s a dank and uninviting place, filled with debris, leaking pipes, sparking cables and corridors formed via holes in walls. The building is referred to as a C-Class Residence, where the lowest of the lower class are plonked and left to rot. Exploring the building and interrogating its inhabitants presented some very eerie, tragic narratives. There’s the landlord, a dishonourably discharged war veteran who without his military salary cannot keep his parts in good order. Or the retired champion boxer, whose enhancements would have cost so much per year to keep he opted to have them removed, leaving him a shell of his former self. And then there’s the family of “pure” people, proud of their lack of augmentations, and shunning those who have them.
Both the side narratives and the primary one at hand make for some compelling ideas on paper; a kind of who-done-it mystery set in a creepy, bleak future. Unfortunately, in practice the narrative quickly descends into incoherence, which coupled with some identity issues and poor acting/writing makes playing Observer one heck of a mess.
For starters, Observer doesn’t know what kind of game it wants to be. At first it seems like a Walking Simulator, exploring the apartment building as Larzarski and piecing together the world and what happened. This involves going door knocking to talk to the residents and sifting through people’s emails. Talking to the residents means staring at the intercom on their door and going through a basic conversation tree, never actually seeing the person inside. While these encounters benefited the world-building I just praised earlier, their frequency quickly became tedious. There’s only so many flickering intercom videos I can stare at while listening to exposition delivered by some very strained, fake sounding voices.
It also didn’t help that Rutger Hauer’s performance is equally as poor, him mumbling his way through the dialogue with a grisly monotone. I like Hauer as an actor, but here he sounds like he either didn’t know what he was doing or didn’t care.
The other genre Observer tries to dabble in is horror, hence its “cyberpunk horror” billing. But aside from a general feeling of unease while exploring the apartment building, and some really bland stealth sections, Observer never really attempts to do anything I’d call scary. It isn’t until an hour or so into the game, depending on how long you spend investigating, that you encounter an enemy of any kind. And when you do, it feels incredibly out of left field, to the degree that I wasn’t sure I was facing a threat until it immediately me. Suddenly this Walking Simulator became a run-n-hide horror game.
The monster itself has hardly anything going for it in the horror department, appearing something like a bog monster mangled up in some cables. Surviving your encounters with it were more of an annoyance than an adrenaline pumping battle of wits. These aren’t games of hide-n-seek with Outlast’s Christoper Walker. All you can do is keep your head down and hide around corners until you hear its footsteps and generic growl move away from you. The monster’s AI shows no cleverness or personality, no intensely threatening behaviours, it’s just a wandering neanderthal to skirt yourself around to pad out some sections of the game.
The majority of your monster encounters occur during the other particularly egregious segments of Observer’s narrative, where Lazarski enters the minds of other victims of the killer to relive their dying memories. At first these sequences are quite captivating, allowing the developers at Bloober Team to flex their visual effects skills. Events twist, warp and repeat themselves frequently, and the environments glitch in and out of existence to simulate the eclectic nature of the human mind.
It’s hard to watch objects and textures alter themselves in such strange ways and not admit its undeniably impressive from a technological standpoint. But much like the expository door-knocking before it, the longer they drag on the more tedious these sequences become as I felt less and less like I understood what I was supposed to be discerning from them. Memories of the victims start to blend with events from Lazarski’s past, supposing to simulate him losing his grip on reality, but both timelines lacked coherence when mushed together in a such strange, abstract ways. I came out of most mind-hacks wondering what on earth I’d just witnessed, which meant by the time the final act rolled around the motivations of the various players were incredibly unclear.
It’s even worse when the glitches start to bleed into Lazarski’s reality, further discombobulating the player and muddying the narrative. Having an untrustworthy narrator can be a great storytelling device, but in this case it lacks the grounding necessary for the player to discern the truth.
Overall, I came out of my time with Observer disappointed because it tries to delve into some interesting, albeit unoriginal, sci-fi concepts but failed to captivate me with any of them. Its narrative beats are incoherent, its writing and acting struggle to hold interest, and the investigative and hide-n-seek horror sections are too tedious to make up the gaps. There are some great ideas on show here in Observer, but they’re just ones that other games have done better.