STAFF REVIEW of >observer_ (Xbox One)

Friday, December 29, 2017.
by Adam Dileva

>observer_ Box art I’m usually not one for the whole cyberpunk dystopian futuristic setting, but >observer_ (simply referred to as Observer from here on) was a compelling experience essentially from the very beginning. It really kicks it into high gear once you realize what the hook of the game is, and that is experiencing some truly unique and abstract visuals that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen, not just in games, but even film. Created by Bloober Team, best known for the critically acclaimed Layers of Fear, there’s no preparing you for what you’re going to experience from a visual perspective with Observer.

You see, Observer is attempting to be a physiological horror game, and while there may only be a handful of jump scares, some of the abstract imagery could be classified as horror, and you can see the team’s progression as a game studio. Observer feels fresh, as if they were trying to do something new, and even though there’s a handful of issues, I kept having to play until the story came to a conclusion and the credits rolled.

Observer simply asks: "What would you do if your fears got hacked and used against you?" It’s an odd question, as I know what fears I have and what scares me, but what twisted things could possibly be in other people’s heads? Set in 2084, you play as Daniel Lazarski, a corporate funded ‘police’ unit whose sole function is to hack into suspects minds, and you are simply known as an Observer. This is achieved easily, as it seems nearly everyone has had some sort if cybernetic implants, making the Chrion Corporation a super power that runs nearly everything in this digital focused world.

There’s been a digital outbreak, simply known as the Nanophage, which brings the digital dependent civilization practically to its knees. Observers are meant to be used to investigate crimes, easily finding the truth, as you can’t hide information that’s in your mind when hacked; and they will use any evidence against you. It’s a scary vision of a world that could be.

Observer begins with Daniel sitting in his car, receiving a troubling call from his distant son with no real explanation before the call ends. He tracks down his son's whereabouts to rundown apartment building in the seedy part of the city. This building seems to house some nasty people, and as you investigate further, in search of your son, you’ll uncover some troubling situations, and people, who you’ll need to interact with. I don’t want to go much more into the narrative, as the story that unfolds is quite interesting, even if it only lasts around 6 hours or so.

You play in first person, and at its core I would best describe Observer as a puzzle/detective/exploration game. The majority of the gameplay in the beginning is based around searching the apartment complex for clues and investigating crime scenes. There’s the odd dialogue choices that you get to make when conversing with people, but they are minor. There’s no guns or weapons, as a good portion of your gameplay experience will be inside the minds of others.

Your overall mission is to find your missing son, but in these slums people don’t cooperate with Observers, so you won’t find much help, leaving you mostly on your own to solve the mystery, following the smallest leads and clues. There’s no overlay map in the game either, so you’ll routinely become lost, even when you find the apartment maps plastered on the wall. Luckily, you’ll eventually become accustomed to the apartment block’s layout, but it will take some time aimlessly wandering around until you feel comfortable navigating the multi-floor building. Nearly every door is locked with no means in, so if you’re lucky, you’ll have one of the neighbors answer the door via their telecom and actually talk to you. This reinforces the fear the citizens have of the Nanophage and also the feeling of isolation a world like this could become.

Eventually you’ll come across various crime scenes that need to be investigated, which brings in one of the main mechanics to Observer. To search the scene for clues, you’ll need to use your 3 different vision modes, each specializing in a function. The Right Bumper allows you to see cybernetic items, like implants, wires and anything else digital based. The Left Bumper is your Biogenic vision which allows you to examine biological material, namely blood, in search of clues.

To be honest, I got stuck in the very first room for a while, as there isn’t a lot of explanation to introduce you how to properly use your 3 vision modes. Once you get the hang of it, and know what to look for, you’ll feel like a digital version of Batman in no time, knowing what to seek out with glowing outlines of objects that can be scanned or interacted with. Using any of your different visions basically blurs everything else in your sight except the cybernetic or biogenic objects, based on which view your using. There’s also a night vision mode to navigate dimly lit areas, but there’s only one or two places throughout the campaign where you’ll need it briefly.

Scanning items, objects, clues and people is where you’ll put your case together, learning more about your objective or how to find out where to go next. There are even a few sidequests that you can partake in if you’re adept enough at finding and solving certain puzzles and clues. While this adds a little more length to the gameplay, they are completely optional. There’s even a mini retro game to play should you find all of the terminals hidden throughout.

Where things get weird is when you hack into someone’s mind. The main idea behind Observer is hacking into people’s subconscious, so you’ll experience imagery that you’ve never seen before. You’ll witness events of what’s happened in the past to that person, their fears, memories and more. Many of these sequences won’t make sense in the traditional sense, and there’s a lot of symbolism that takes place, but to say that these sections are ‘weird’ is putting it lightly.

If you’ve ever wondered what the subconscious looks like in visual form, I would suspect Observer does a great job at trying to visualize that concept. Some of it is extremely disturbing, horrifying and plain confusing, but it is one hell of an experience. There’s only a handful of these sequences, so I don’t want to spoil them, but I will say that the level design, even though mostly linear, is very memorable and unique to anything else I’ve ever experienced.

Reality can be distorted in the mind, and that’s the case here as well. Sometimes you’ll have to solve a puzzle, some of which are done in a very clever way. For example, there’s an endless hallway that seems to repeat itself every time you walk through the door, but you’ll notice a TV off to the side shows a picture of a specific doorway, so you go that way. The next time you walk through the door it shows a different doorway, which is your clue to follow this ‘path’. Do so successfully and you’ll make your way out of the never ending hallway, fail and you’re doomed to be forever wandering aimlessly in someone’s mind.

Later in the game there are some hacking sections where you’re pursued by a creature, and while I completely understand why, due to the narrative, these sections were included, they were more tiresome than enjoyable. I always dreaded knowing that I had to avoid a hulking creature trying to find me and that these stealth sections simply aren’t fun. To say that these mind hack sections can disorientate you is an understatement; remember, there are no rules in someone’s mind, and you need to let go and accept that.

Visually, Observer is very impressive, even more so when you realize how small the team that developed it is. The world is completely believable, as you see the bright cyber influences at nearly every corner counteract with the dark and dingy real world. That being said, there are some framerate issues, even on the Xbox One X, quite frequently actually. Navigating from one area to another will almost always chug down the framerate into the low single digits, completely pulling you out of the immersion.

Sound design is worth noting as well, as the background ambiance completely fits the mood and backdrop, and some of the voice acting is done quite well. I say some though with regret. Daniel is voiced by the one and only Rutger Hauer, who has quite a film pedigree, so there’s no question to his acting ability, but there were quite a few times where the delivery of some lines felt completely flat. Acting and voice acting are completely different skillsets, and I’m not sure if the was going for the whole monotone style, but it didn’t seem fitting for some of the situations his character was in. That’s not to say it’s all bad, but it’s not perfect.

The framerate issues are probably the worst offender to negatively affect the game, but I’ve also had some minor bugs that were more frustrating than critical. For example, I’ve had the game outright crash on 3 separate occasions completely randomly, though I only lost 5 minutes or so of progress each time. Also, I had times where my UI became bugged, one time locking me into one of the vision modes, unable to switch or disable it, causing me to restart the game yet once again.

>observer_ is a very unique title, as it’s heavily narrative driven and contains some of the most visceral and unique imagery I’ve ever experienced in a game. Some of the mind sequences are quite horrifying and paint a light on a future that, in all honesty, isn’t really that far off from our reality. Even though it may be wrapped in a science fiction cyberpunk package, the experience within is a very dark one.

The gameplay elements may be basic and not exciting on their own, but it’s more about the journey you undertake rather than just reaching the end point. The level design is brilliant and some of the experiences are very memorable even though it has flaws. If you’re into the cyberpunk genre and want to experience something completely unique and twisted, look no further than >observer_.

Overall: 8.0 / 10
Gameplay: 7.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 6.5 / 10


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