a review by the Crow.
Opening Notes: Following the news about Rutger Hauer passing away, I had been considering writing a review of the movie he’s most well-known for: 1982’s Blade Runner. However, I find Blade Runner to be a movie that there’s little point talking about. It’s excellent, and everything that there is to say about it has already been said.
Therefore, we arrive at Observer — a game which I will hereafter refer to by its stylised title. And after having said all those things earlier, Blade Runner is actually going to come up quite frequently in this review, since >observer_ takes considerable inspiration from it.
>observer_ is Mr Hauer’s first role in a videogame, and also serves as one of his final performances. Developed by the Polish Bloober Team, who are responsible for the new Blair Witch game and Layers of Fear — a game which we have previously reviewed, it is a work of both science fiction and horror, and serves as a fine starting point for our annual “Horror Month” marathon.
SPOILER LEVELS at MODERATE
>observer_ immediately calls Blade Runner to mind. Lines of white text crawl over the screen, narrated by Rutger Hauer. We are told that the year is 2084. We are told that a plague known as the nanophage, as well as a war — a big one — have decimated much of the world’s population. And finally, we are told that a company named Chiron has risen to dominate Poland — and possibly the world.
I’m not fond of being led into a story via an infodump, but seeing how this is a clear reference to Blade Runner, I’ll let it pass. The game does salt-and-pepper its world-building in and around the story — maybe a little too sparsely, for some — so it’s probably best left in.
Once we wake up in the world of the game, we are treated to a little more set up. We are playing the game through the eyes of Daniel Lazarski (Rutger Hauer) — the eponymous Observer — for the most part. Observers are police officers of high status, who are equipped with cybernetic implants which help them “observe” things. Daniel comes equipped with EM vision and a bio-scanner of sorts to help him comb the field, an enhanced mind, a hacking tool, and a machine known as the Dream Eater. Lazarski is an ageing man who requires frequent medication due to his use of the Dream Eater. Mr Hauer plays the character in a jaded fashion; so jaded, that his tiredness feels quite contagious during the early parts of the game.
And that’s all we are given to work with. There are no weapons, here, nothing else for us to use apart from what environmental aids the game hands us from time to time. And at certain parts of the game, even those tools are taken away from us. Ultimately, our best weapons are partience and intelligence as we work our way through the case we are stumble upon in the opening act.
Before I get any further into this review, I should point out that I had to play >observer_ twice. The first time I played it, I quite doggedly pursued the main quest; so much so, that I ended up ignoring a great many of the “side quests” that the game had available. When I realised what I had done, I abandoned my play-through, even though I was almost at the end, took a week off, and restarted my session.
It’s somewhat ironic, that the one thing I failed to do when playing through the game the first time was to step back, breathe a little, and observe.
And that’s the main feature of >observer_, you are on a journey that Bloober Team have set up for you, with very little actual agency. While the character of Lazarski has agency, and you do get to make choices, there’s not very much for the player to do, here. I’m fine with that — with taking >observer_ to be a sort of an interactive animated movie — but I suspect that some people would not be as pleased with the gameplay on display.
Half of the gameplay consists of Lazarski combing his way through a tenement building, after being “called to” the scene of a crime by his estranged son — who may or may not be the victim. And there’s a lot to do, here. You start by investigating a single headless body in Apartment 007, and once you’re done, you’re given quite a bit of freedom to roam, explore, and generally poke around in other people’s business. Much of this comes in the form of conversations between Lazarski and the people living in the building through their doors. There’s a lot to unpack, and I quite liked the range of characters that the game has. Over time, however, the case goes from a single murder to another, and then, there is a serial killer roaming the buildings — both hunting and evading Lazarski.
I feel the story that >observer_ tells could have been better. There’s a lot of potential in the set up. However, it seems like the game falls short of its promise. From very early in the story, there are lines foreshadowing events which do not pay off; lines such as “You’re not in control”, or text scrawled onto a floor (behind a door you can’t quite open) which reads REMOVE YOUR IMPANT put me in the mind of the story taking a darker turn than it does, especially when they drop in a flashback to Lazarski receiving his memory implant.
That’s not to say that >observer_ isn’t dark, though. >observer_ is quite dark, and explores some rather gnarly themes. I just wish the story had been more about Lazarski losing control, and “another leech” going “berserk”, like Lazarski jokes about in the beginning of the game. What we get instead is a story about a father and son that seems like it could be an episode of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.
Much of the story is delivered in Lazarski working backwards through the memories of other people. And this, is where we get to what I feel to be the best feature of the game: the Dream Eater. The Dream Eater allows Lazarski to connect to the minds of other people. Once interfaced, Lazarski is thrown into fragmented, oftentimes nightmarish landscapes of the person’s minds, from where he tries to work out information relevent to the case(s) he’s working on.
Some of these landscapes are benign, but are clearly tailored to terrify. Imagine my surprise, then, when I ran up to one of the monstrous figures which appear (to get a better look, since I’d never had a close up with any of them) and subsequently ended up being unceremoniously dispatched. Apparently, these monsters which appear in people’s minds can kill.
These sections also showcase Bloober Team’s most notable feature (to me, anyway). When I watched Layers of Fear, I was quite fond of the way every time you turned around, the landscape had changed — or every other time, at least. I’m not sure any other games feature this trick as much, with the notable exception of the Silent Hills playable teaser. It’s used much to the same effect in >observer_, and I liked these sections. There’s something about the glitchy, incomplete 3d aesthetic Bloober Team has developed which adds to the flavour of these games. That is, I liked them up until I faced my first “puzzle”.
Unknowingly, I’d wandered into a section which would simply not resolve into a new map. After walking around aimlessly for a while, it dawned on me that I was expected to do something. Not having watched a full walkthrough of Layers of Fear, I was quite unprepared for it, and the “puzzle” turned out to be one of the most aggravating experiences I’ve had in a videogame. Some of the puzzles later on in the game — such as the one involving the night time forest — played out much better, the others are simply infuriating.
I mentioned earlier how >observer_ deals with dark themes. What I failed to mention then is that >observer_ is quite dark in a literal sense, too. There were two sections where I had to turn the settings up just to be able to see what was stopping me from moving in a certain direction. For the rest of the game, however, the settings had to be turned back down for things to look normal. I feel like this is an oversight by the design team, because it certainly isn’t normal.
Overall, however, >observer_ is quite the good-looking game. Almost everything about the aesthetic design is perfect. The monsters may not be the scariest that I’ve seen (or at all), but the character models we do see are very high quality, and the environmental design knocks it out of the park both within the Dream Eater sections and without. The game’s sound is almost a thing of wonder, flipping between Blade Runner‘s motifs and screeching whenever it wants to. One could argue that the soundtrack might seem very “aggressive” on a cursory listen, but once you hear it in the context of the game, it fits in fine. Even the voice acting is top notch, by pretty much all the members of the cast. No complaints on the design front apart from the issue with the brightness.
Before I conclude this review, I should add one feather in >observer_’s cap. Playing this game is like existing in the world of Blade Runner. This game reeks of cyberpunk — specifically the world Ridley Scott and his team created back in 1982, and probably is the best cyberpunk product I’ve seen in a long time. While that might not make it original, it does make it worth taking a look at. It really does feel like you’re just another slice of life in that world. And considering that this is a mix of genres which are right up my alley, it feels like >observer_ is a sort of a present for people like me. And it’s a present I’m only happy to receive.
>observer_ may have fallen flat on one or two points, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable ride. It’s not the best game out there, but it certainly has value as an experience. It’s not for the squeamish, or for those who want instant results, but it comes highly recommended by us at The Corvid Review.
RIP, Rutger Hauer.
— Crow out.