Recently I finished playing a real nugget. I unearthed The Observer on the Playstation 4 last week and completed it a few days later, playing for a few short hours in the evenings. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s probably because the game has only been out for a couple weeks. Polish game developer Bloober Team released this disturbing cyberpunk horror on August 15th and it currently holds a 9/10 rating on Steam. This little game has been collecting high scores like a carcass does flies. I figured I would partake in the feast, and I’ve decided to try something a little different with my review structure. Instead of an essay, I’m going to give you a 10-step review process, in which each point addresses a different aspect of my experience with this game. I’ll order the steps as a chronology of my playthrough, so that you can get a feel for my developing opinions on the game and how I arrived at my overall conclusion. Here we go!
- How did I come to play this game? I discovered The Observer by mistaking it for something else. I saw a screenshot on social media of a game that the poster described as being a “science-fiction detective game” that was “just beautiful” to look at. Naturally I stopped everything I was doing and immediately fired up the Station. What I thought I was getting was a game I had vaguely made a note to remember called Without Memory. That title is a multiple-choice, interactive drama- an Until Dawn style thriller set in a Dystopian future- and is still in development. When I discovered that The Observer was in fact its own thing entirely, I was still sufficiently intrigued to make the 30-dollar purchase.
- So what kind of game is it? The game it reminds me of most is the fantastic Soma by Frictional Games. You can click here to get my thoughts on that. It also reminds me of Kholat, if you’ve ever tried that. The Observer at times feels like both a walking simulator and a survival horror game. There are a few sequences where you have to get your stealth on and avoid unmitigated molestation by mutant horrors, whose deformity and lumbering gait will conjure up memories of Soma. But this is no Outlast or Amnesia. The vast majority of your play time will be spent navigating puzzles, investigating crime scenes, and interviewing NPC’s. What little sneak-past-the-bogeyman moments there are in the game are pretty easy, even if you’re not a veteran of the genre. The mutants are definitely not as hard to outwit as those in Soma, which locked on to your exact location if you even so much as glanced at them. Instead the stealth elements reminded me of that one mission in Spyro 2 where you have to follow Agent Zero to his secret hideout in the Cloud Temples level. The mutant is similarly a big doofus that you can basically outwit by following just a few feet behind, and take cover from when he inexplicably stops at every corner to do the slow, none-too-subtle “I’m in a video game!” thing of checking over his shoulder. I can probably count the game’s stealth moments on one hand. Because of the blurry lines the game establishes about what is real and what is a simulation, you do get lulled into a false sense of security. The sense of immediate peril lurking behind the next corner (that you get with Soma) is not there. And that is why I agree with the developer calling it a “hidden horror” rather than a “survival horror”. Yes, there are a few scenes where you have to avoid getting violated by a cybernetic mutant- but the game’s not really about that. It’s a horror in the atmospheric sense. And this game has atmosphere down to a T. You’re walking around a dilapidated tenement block in the slums of a dystopian Krakow. It’s raining, there are ravens, and the buildings have that chilling, bleak quality that reminds me of that one horror film I watched once- Hostel 2.
- So what’s the premise? The story to me is the strongest aspect of the whole experience, along with the masterful atmosphere. Cyberpunk is defined entirely by its setting. They are stories that feature advanced technology juxtaposed with the smaller scale of a near-future Earth, focusing on urban low-life and societal decay. And The Observer is without a doubt the most quintessentially cyberpunk narrative I have ever experienced. It’s a world dominated by all-powerful, faceless, Kafkaesque corporations. Chiron is one such bureaucratic monolith- a technology corporation that uses its power to establish the Fifth Polish Republic. It’s a dystopia that’s both a corporate republic and a police state. Chiron controls its populace with a policing unit known as Observers who have unrestricted access to hack people’s minds with cybernetic augmentations called Dream Eaters. You are Daniel Lazarski, an elite Observer styled after the old, grizzled detectives of Film Noir. The game begins with you receiving a call from your estranged son who lives in the drug-infested squalor reserved for Class-C citizens. He’s in trouble, and you rush over to his apartment building to find out what’s going on. Shortly after you arrive, the building mysteriously goes into lockdown. It’s up to you to investigate a series of dead bodies and interview witnesses with the hope of finding your son. Of course, because of the lockdown, the deranged killer is trapped in the tenement building with you…
- What is the gameplay like? As I mentioned earlier, this is primarily a game of puzzle-solving and story-driven exploration. It’s a tightly-contained narrative that takes place entirely within the same claustrophobic apartment complex. Your cybernetic abilities give you two options with which to scan your surroundings with clues. These are Bio-Vision and Electromagnetic-Vision. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, the former allows you to scan biological matter such as corpses, blood stains and the like, whilst the latter allows you to hack into electronic devices. It’s a neat idea and a great way to blend the gameplay with the setting. The world of the game is one where humanity has become more and more augmented with cybernetic modifications. That’s essentially what Chiron does, is manufacture these upgrades that cater to a world that’s becoming less and less human. And as neat as these two modes are as an idea, in practice I found them to be frustrating. To put it simply, the two modes look awful. I know the game’s meant to be bleak and inhuman, but I hated switching to Bio-Vision especially because it hurt my eyes to look at it. It’s hard to make things out when the screen is covered in blinding light and I just feel this could have been done better. The doors in this game are a bit funny too. In order to open them you have to hold down the right trigger and then push the analog stick either forwards or back depending on the direction you want to go. I wasn’t a fan, especially on those doors that made you stand for ages going in circles with your thumb.
- This game is far from a smooth experience. I encountered my first glitch after about 45 minutes of gameplay. The game froze on me and I was booted back to the PS4 home screen. I found the stairwells to be most problematic- every time I entered one the game felt a little laggy and in danger of freezing again.
- The puzzles are a mixed bag. I’m not the best at puzzle games because I’m about as patient as 6-year old kid in dire need of a piss on a long car journey. I’m here for the story. The puzzles here are definitely more challenging than Soma. Most are encountered in the game’s Dream Eater sequences- the surreal episodes where you hack into a person’s memories. The developers seem fond of illogical architecture and giving the player the helpless feel of being in a nightmare, and they certainly do that. I think if puzzles are your jam then you’ll be satisfied, but personally I found that I left the Dream Eater scenes with the feeling of “Thank fuck that’s over”. My favorite puzzles were the one where you keep reentering the same room and have to pay close attention to the TV, and the one where you have to sneak through a cornfield, occasionally jumping into cover to avoid hovering sentinels with flashlights. Some of the puzzles were decidedly not my rum & coke, and those were the ones where you spend ages looking for a solution that is in no way hinted at and have to give up on and find a walkthrough online. Other puzzles are more familiar, intuitive challenges involved at getting industrial machinery to work. These usually take place outside the Dream Eater scenes and are more reminiscent of Soma.
- The Forest Puzzle can go fuck itself. Not the most nuanced or elegant criticism, I know. But this one I really struggled with, even with the help of an online walkthrough. The idea behind it was great, but it punishes you not through its logic but through its blinding visuals. Trying to find those light-green boxes in such awful conditions strained my eyes. Not a fan of the execution, but I do think the idea was good because it was a puzzle that tied in so well to the idea of becoming disconnected from reality.
- The game succeeds as a piece of visual art. Even though I think the visuals of the Bio and Electromagnetic Visions are awful (mostly because you can’t see a damn thing) the overall aesthetic style of the game is a resounding success. The game’s clever use of color brought me back to my days studying Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear in film class. There are some really interesting images that the game gives you. It is at once beautiful, vomit-inducing, surreal, dreamlike and sinister. The developers ought to be congratulated because it is so artistically imaginative. It’s a visceral experience with a suffocating atmosphere. As the game goes on you start to question your character’s sanity and the struggle he has to maintain a hold of it is very well executed. There are hallucinations, virtual reality simulations and dreams-within-dreams. Enjoy all the screenshots I have taken!
- What themes does The Observer explore? The game is very much channeling the spirit of Philip K. Dick. It’s a depressing future where people lose touch with reality by spending so much time consumed with drugs and VR. At one point I wondered if the residents of the tenement building had no idea how run-down it actually was, and were perhaps perceiving it differently through VR mods. But every now and then NPC’s would comment on what a supreme shithole it is. The dream sequences do a good job of bringing the themes to light; the one with the children with TV sets as heads being my favorite example. These disturbing kids represent not only that the people have their heads trapped in fake realities, but that they are losing their humanity through the incorporation of more and more augmentations to their bodies. These ideas are relevant to our own times and the age of technology that we live in. Chiron, too, represents a grim look at the growing power of corporations and their ability to control people.
- In conclusion, this game was worth my time and I think it’s worth yours too. The setting and atmosphere in this game are very well crafted, and that’s what really made this game for me. The character development was solid, but I wasn’t as invested in Daniel Lazarski as I was in Soma’s Simon Jarett. Some of the puzzles weren’t for me, but others were a welcome change from my usual indulgence in action-oriented of AAA games. The Observer is available on Steam, Playstation 4, and Xbox One! Give it a go!
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