Observer is the latest project from developer Bloober Team, who are best known for their surreal, mind-bending horror game Layers of Fear. Whereas that game dealt with a troubled artist and his struggle to capture true beauty, Observer is set in a decidedly cyberpunk future, complete with augmented humans, dingy apartments and, of course, a series of grisly murders. You play as Dan Lazarski, an Observer, who’s able to plug himself into a murder victim’s head in order to uncover exactly how they died. After receiving a puzzling phone call from his estranged son, Dan decides to check in on him. Shortly after arriving at his son’s apartment complex however, the whole building is locked down, trapping him inside. And so the stage is set, but is Observer just a series of trippy jump scares, or is there some substance to the horror?
The game’s cyberpunk aesthetic is familiar, but fantastic nonetheless. Upon entering the apartment complex you’re greeted with projected coding all over the walls, dystopian, holographic posters and ads that flicker as you pass. There’s even a heavily graffitied service drone clunking along its predetermined route. From the side, a shape looms out at you with an abrasive “Hey!” It’s the janitor, who’s split down the middle: half man, half machine. This is how you are introduced to the world of Dan Lazarski and his son, Adam. The graphics are gorgeous and while it may be hard to believe, I actually enjoyed the game’s implementation of chromatic aberration. It fits somehow, adding to the impression that you’re looking out at this world through cybernetic eyes. All of the staple cyberpunk visual cues are here on full display: pulsing neon, old-school computers with green text, holograms, mohawks, you name it, Observer will probably have it.
Beyond its visuals, Observer marks a significant evolution of the first-person horror genre. Often these games can feel like you’re just meandering through a somewhat interactive haunted house, with no traditional narrative to glue it all together. Thankfully Observer goes all in on its story, world and characters creating a solid framework from which the horrific moments can really flourish. Rutger Hauer (of Blade Runner fame) voices Dan and he plays the grizzled old detective with a soft spot for family perfectly. It’s also a unique voice for a game like this. Normally they’re either silent or spend the whole game swearing, screaming or muttering “oh my God!” over and over again. Dan obviously reacts strongly to some of the things he sees, but it’s a calmer sort of terror, the kind that suggests this ain’t his first rodeo.
When investigating a crime scene, Dan is able to use two separate scanners, one for biological evidence like blood and hair, and one for tech like the victim’s PC or neural implants. You can also engage in conversations with the tenants – complete with dialogue options – most of which occur through the shut doors of their apartments. It’s a clever way for an indie game to build its world without blowing their budget and it also avoids the monotony of consuming endless emails and audio logs. These interactions may be brief but they offer a surprisingly deep look into the world of Observer, peeling back the curtain bit by bit. One apartment was inhabited by a sex-bot who hinted at being self-aware just before terminating the call, another belonged to a man who was convinced the VR world he was in when the lockdown happened was real and demanded he be returned to his starship at once.
When you come across a murder victim Dan is able to plug into their neural implants, transporting himself Matrix/Inception-style into a digital representation of their mind. And this is when things get really crazy. These sequences appear so random and chaotic that at times it’s hard to believe that a human made them, and not some insane computer. They’re completely disorienting and an assault on the senses but somehow it just works. You’re taken down a glitchy, static-ridden rabbit hole of the victim’s identity; their fears, hang-ups and memories, all of it leading back to the present day and the moment of their death. One low point is the handful of ‘hide from the monster’ sections that are so simple and brief that I had to wonder why they were included at all. Fair warning, these parts of the game are absolutely full of brutal jump scares. There are quiet moments too, but they are few and far between. Thankfully the far more calm time spent exploring the real world succeeds in offsetting some of the fatigue brought on by rapid-fire jumps.
As you progress through Observer the boundary between the real world and these digital mindscapes begins to blur, making it far harder to predict what lies in wait. On one hand, this is an effective way of keeping the tension fresh, but it also leads to an overall lack of cohesion. In the final hours of the game I found myself wanting to leave the craziness behind for a while and go back to something a little more grounded. Observer is similar to a lot of average horror movies in this regard in that a lot of cool premises and interesting ideas are squandered in the third act. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the ending or that it retroactively ruined the game for me, it just didn’t fully live up to its potential.
Observer deserves praise for what it brings to this relatively new genre: a solid story with definable narrative beats, a likable protagonist with decent voice acting and gameplay that goes beyond picking up letters and getting from A to B. It utilises its cyberpunk setting admirably and the lore is undoubtedly intriguing, but it never quite manages to capitalise on those gut punch moments that, for example, SOMA did so well. Sure it’s discomforting to imagine being trapped in this dilapidated hell hole, the Neurophage sounds awful (although you never really encounter it firsthand) and some of the murder victim’s bodies are horribly disfigured, but at no point does it all coalesce into that oppressive dread that cyberpunk fiction can be so effective at conveying. Just like the promise of transhumanism, Observer manages to surpass its peers in a lot of ways, but not without falling victim to a few pitfalls entirely of its own.
Observer was reviewed on PC using a Steam code provided by EvolvePR.