The inspiration for >observer_ is not easily missed. From the rainy opening in a new, yet familiar setting, to the choice of actor for the protagonist’s voice, it’s clear that Blade Runner fans are being served here. If I were to crib a quote from that movie to sum up my experience with it, I would take from the iconic ending: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…”
>observer_ comes from Bloober Team, the developers who brought you the much-lauded Layers of Fear – a game that captured attention and awards from around the industry. A game that I also completely failed to get into. It had all the right ingredients, but not the right recipe, and if you are expecting another Layers of Fear – you may want to pass.
>observer_ is one part murder mystery, one part horror-stealth game, and eight parts walking simulator. As much as I hate the term walking simulator, it aptly describes the game’s genre, however there is much more contained within. The atmosphere largely makes up for the lack of gameplay mechanics, and the sheer strangeness of the game is an enveloping experience.
Story is the primary mechanic in this type of game, and this one is not easy to parse. The primary thread involves simply solving a murder case; the ‘how’ is where things get twisted. Taking place for the most part in a single building, the game follows protagonist Daniel Lazarski (you) as you unravel the mystery and follow the blood trail to its source. Along the way, bodies keep piling up, but instead of this being a dead end (rim shot), Daniel has technology on his side.
In the traditional cyberpunk fashion, you get to ‘jack in’ to the victim’s neural hardware and explore what brought them to their demise. This is where the twist starts.
Exploring another mind can’t be a simple affair, of course. It needs to have abstract themes and neurotic overtones, coupled with fast cuts and a lot of flashing to truly get its point across (epileptic players beware). The imagery on display here will be disturbing to some; a strong stomach is suggested.
Another cyberpunk trope used here is the ‘pure’ population’s fear and hatred of any augmented human. This conceit plays into the story as well as a reoccurring game mechanic. Daniel’s body will begin to reject his implants and he will require Synchrozine to combat this. It’s available throughout the game, but you need to collect and use it manually. Failing to do so will cause the screen to pixelate, making the game increasingly harder to see and play. Escalating heart rate due to stress and, say, running for your life will exacerbate this. In short, don’t forget to look for it.
The actual investigation of crime scenes is accomplished via Daniel’s implants. The first implant will scan for biological traces, the other for electronics. Crucial areas require you to use them in combination to solve puzzles and locate clues to move the story forward. The building is also full of tenants. Speaking to them is mostly optional, but some sections of the plot require it.
You will spend stretches of the game just finding your way through the building and its small surrounding area. This can become tedious as you wander through and around obstacles that seem to exist only to slow your progress, but the Unreal Engine, the fittingly synthesized music, and the immersive attention to detail help alleviate this. Some of the nonessential rooms and characters you meet can also be entertaining; taking the time to interact with them will expand the story for you. If you are in a hurry, or just an impatient person, you will likely be frustrated by >observer_’s cavalier attitude with your time.
The few stealth parts of the game come from the ‘jacked in’ portions where you are exploring another mind. They are not particularly hard, but they do exist, and you will have to repeat them until you succeed. Most come as a minor annoyance, but one close to the end is a properly tense escape sequence. Thankfully, they are spaced out enough to avoid becoming tiresome.
I have specifically avoided talking about the story to avoid spoiling anything. Your enjoyment of >observer_ is largely based around knowing nothing about the game when you start playing. It’s meant to be a discovery of setting, of story, and of gameplay. I will say that you will likely predict the climax before it arrives, but how it plays out is still entertaining. There are a few cringe-worthy subplots, but there are also some great twists waiting to play with your perceptions.
A word of warning: The ending is binary, and your save is deleted on completion. If you don’t want to go through the entire game a second time to see both, I suggest you back up your save. The ‘when’ will be obvious.
One thing I do need to address is the voice acting. Now, I love me some Rutger Hauer. He can make some truly terrible movies nevertheless worth watching (see: Hobo With A Shotgun), but he is painfully mumbly here. It could be the director, it could be the mixing, or it could be the actor’s unfamiliarity with the medium, but damn, he can be hard to understand in places. It gets better as the game moves on, but you may want to enable subtitles all the same.
The game at $29.99 may be a bit steep for casual fans but at the current 33% winter-sale discount, it’s an easy buy. At the credits, your enjoyment of >observer_ will stem from your own personality. Walking simulators are a misunderstood genre: you are meant to soak things in at a leisurely pace. Fast action or heavy puzzle fans will come away disappointed. However, if you are a fan of movies such as Beyond The Black Rainbow, The Void, or Under the Skin, then sink into the game and enjoy the ride.
- Atmosphere is heavy and enveloping
- Bizarre imagery keeps things interesting
- Concepts can be cerebral and stimulating
- Rutger Hauer
- Weak gameplay mechanics
- Too much wandering around
- Imagery may be too graphic for some
- Stealth sections are mostly window dressing