"...the utterly bizarre characters players encounter inspire a morbid sort of awe."
Observer is an odd game to review. An adventure title that feels like a walking simulator for much of its duration, the developers felt it necessary to add stealth puzzles during the latter half of the game, which took the otherwise engrossing and tension-laden journey down the path of Outlast, a title purely survival horror in nature. For this reason and more, Observer almost feels like two different games jammed together, which is a shame.
Daniel Lazarski is a middle-aged man who serves as an elite detective with the Krakow Police Department. His role as an Observer is to break into the minds of people related to crimes in order to find evidence. In doing so, he experiences the person's deepest fears in a dreamlike sequence that is riddled with anxiety and ever-present foreboding. This career fits right in with the cyberpunk dystopia we immediately find ourselves in at the outset. Voiced by Rutger Hauer, Lazarski's character is easy to fall in love with in tandem with the exemplary script.
Much of Observer takes place in a run-down class "C" apartment as Lazarski tracks down the reason behind a mysterious message from his son who disappeared years ago. While the various denizens, computers, and side comments from Lazarski offer insight into the world, the brief, 7-hour excursion makes it difficult to become intimately aware of what this world is all about. Some might argue that enough setting and background are offered so that players can fill in the holes, and I admit that much can be comfortably assumed, but I truly began to immerse myself into this nasty future and its oppressive commentary on corporate government gone rogue.
While traversing the unusual, maze-like hallways of the apartment, players will find themselves buzzing several doors to question tenants. The conversations often break down into simple dialogue trees with little player agency, but this is easily overlooked because the utterly bizarre characters encountered inspire a morbid sort of awe. These people are more than just shock value — the unsettling brand of mental illness they harbor makes them feel like real people who could exist in this world, even though the exchanges are fairly brief. This impression is only possible because of the fantastic writing and even better voice acting all-around.
As Lazarki learns more about what's going on with his son and the criminal in pursuit, the game's focus shifts from traditional detective work to a wild chase, sometimes of the cat-and-mouse variety. In terms of typical narrative structure, this escalation certainly makes sense, especially in relation to the tools the developers have thrown at us, but I sort of wish the game was more grounded. The last third especially felt abstract to the point of confusion. I found myself finishing the game more out of a desire to know what is happening and less because of the storytelling. If I'm to be honest, I just wanted it to be over at a certain point. This may likely be due to my previous comment regarding not getting to know enough about the world — or maybe the final hours are just padding.
Style over substance. I think that about says it all. The gameplay in the first half bordered on walking simulator meets adventure title, with little in terms of challenge. Discovery and exploration marry in a savory experience until the chef leaves the delicious soup on the burner a little too long, and the hearty meal becomes something else entirely. As indicated in the opening, the latter half of the game is more game than story, which isn't what makes Observer a compelling title. At very least, this gameplay should be engrossing and unique in some way rather than simple hide-and-seek. If you sense a tinge of irritation, reader, that's because I feel just that. While I enjoy the game overall, I feel what could have been a stellar finish was bogged down in uninspired game design.
In fact, the latter half of the game has little to no use of Lazarski's various visions. While gimmicky and certainly not the best part of Observer, Lazarski can switch on a lens to detect extraordinary biological or electrical evidence. Again, this doesn't add too much to Observer in terms of gameplay, but it does accentuate the flavor of this cyberpunk world, further characterizing Lazarski's profession. If nothing else, it's certainly better than crawling around vents and looking both ways before running for the next checkpoint.
I don't typically emphasize presentation in titles I review, but this is an absolute highlight and chief draw of Observer. The graphics are akin to that of Layers of Fear, the developers' previous title. With this level of detail, realism, and technical ability, a sci-fi world just makes sense. Sure, the game is lacking in terms of character models, but the environments supplement the exceptional script and voice acting. What's more, when Lazarski jacks into a person's brain and experiences their fears, the visions feel more dreamlike than any other title I've ever experienced. Somehow, Bloober Team nailed what nightmares look like. I wouldn't call these invasions outright horror, but tense, to be sure.
One final note about Rutger Hauer's performance — wow. Hands down, some of the best voice acting I've ever heard in a video game. While Observer doesn't call for a variety of emotions in Lazarski, Hauer's performance has more personality in how the subtle, dry sense of humor is conveyed. Lazarski feels like a cheeky old man with an intelligent wit. I believe his character is real beyond the writing precisely because of the acting. Phenomenally performed.
I have a hard time recommending games like Observer that are truly incredible at the outset, but somehow take a disappointing turn somewhere in between beginning and end. If only it knew what it should have been throughout. For those looking for atmosphere, a unique take on psychological horror, or just can't get enough of rainy dystopian futures, I think this is worth a buy on sale. Unfortunately, I think the story got a little away from the developers, though I have to say I'm not disappointed to have experienced future Poland.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.