Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Observer Review

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The cyberpunk genre gets tossed around a lot these days.  As with many video games, experiences can quickly devolve into power fantasies and before you know it you’re more Matrix than Blade Runner.  This is not my definition of cyberpunk.  It’s a darker concept with the emotionless merging of man and machine out of necessity, poverty, and corporate societal takeover.  It was built around the concepts of Orwell’s novel 1984, evolved by Gibson’s Neuromancer, and made whole by Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? among others.  I can understand why many don’t walk this path: games are supposed to be fun and cyberpunk is rather bleak and depressing.  That’s why it is so refreshing to play Observer and experience a game that really gets the roots of traditional cyberpunk.  It’s an internal struggle, a socioeconomic dissection, and a disturbing dive into the human subconscious.

Normally I don’t pitch trailers in a review, but the E3 2016 trailer was so compelling that I figured linking it would be beneficial as well as jog some peoples’ memories.  Observer places you in the shoes of Daniel Lazarski, who lives in Poland in the year 2084.  After a digital plague involving bad cybernetic enhancements, mega corp Chiron has taken control of Poland and created the Fifth Polish Republic. Both the plague and the new Republic brought about a class-based society, war, drug addiction, and of course oppressive martial law.  Lazarski is an “observer,” a special police unit that has the authority to hack into people’s minds and access memories in a device called, get this, the “Dream Eater.”  The game opens with Lazarski receiving a call from his estranged son seeking help and asking him to meet in one of the rougher parts of lower class living.

You’ll be walking around and exploring areas for most of the game, but I dare not use the term “walking simulator” as it doesn’t apply.  Lazarski can interact heavily with the environment by picking up and examining items, he has two forms of detective mode: one for cybernetics and one for biological, and he can speak with individuals to get clues.  All discussions are in-engine and they aren’t just dialogue, there are branching paths in the discussion that can elongate a conversation or cut it short.  I don’t think there’s any long term effects on the plot outside of the details you learn, but I found this to be much more realistic than the binary systems of many games with dialogue options.  As you can imagine, it’s possible for you to enter someone’s mind if the situation arises.  It’s during these sequences that most striking gameplay and talent of developer, Bloober Team, shine.

Previously this developer was behind Layers of Fear, which can best be summed up as a virtual haunted house.  While I enjoyed it more than most, there’s no denying how effective certain parts of that game messed with your perspective and played tricks on the player.  During the mind hacks in Observer you will see the next step of this experience and it’s excellent.  There are some gameplay elements that borrow from horror titles like Amnesia, which honestly I can take or leave, but the highlight is when things are just not as they seem.  Without delving into spoilers, the brains that Lazarski is diving into are not the most stable, so you are not going to be treated to memories or experiences that aren’t stable either.  Just like moments of dialogue everything is in-engine and interactive, no cutscenes whatsoever.  You will be frantically navigating and exploring environments that will mess with your visual sense, audio sense (use surround sound if you can), and your mind with the inclusion of puzzles.  None of the puzzles are going to take you too long, but you will have to slow your pace and take in the environment when they arrive.  Your biggest setback in this title is being in a hurry and you are given little reason to want to rush, however should you choose to play this way it may cause frustration.  This is also true – and probably a chief problem with Layers of Fear – when you are in situations with audio-sensory overload and you’re being tasked to concentrate on a complex puzzle, but those are few and far between.

None of the moments in this game would work were it not for the realistic graphical style that quite literally seems to transport you into the world first seen in Blade Runner.  While it may not have been the inspiration of the aesthetic – although I’m betting it was – this world seems to exist alongside the one in the film.  You’ll find hidden walls containing cybernetic surgical tables and intercom systems created from disposed credit card authorization machines.  Everyone plays their part well with fantastic voice acting except, sadly, main character Daniel Lazarski who is voiced by Blade Runner actor Rutger Hauer.  I don’t know if its the medium of video games or the time and effort he put in, but the performance is bland in comparison to the lively individuals that make up the rest of the cast.  At first you don’t notice it much because the game contains a fair amount of monologues, but as you begin to speak with people it becomes clear that Hauer is the weakest link.  This won’t ruin your experience, but it gives you pause, especially for such a known talent.  Additionally Observer suffers from some pacing and explanation issues.  You will find yourself in a situation or puzzle that will make you feel stuck.  I assure you the solution is there, but most of the time the environment is the entire city block that the story takes place and includes several floors of an apartment building.  When searching for a single clue, code, or person in such a wide space with no clear idea of where to go, I found myself tempted to stop playing.  The story is strong enough to keep me going, and I urge you to do the same if you get this feeling, but it’s not something anyone wants to experience while playing a video game.  Pacing does drop to a crawl in certain areas, the underground one comes to mind, and I just found myself saying, “I don’t want to do this.”  The payoff for that specific location is anticlimactic as well, further proving that I had little reason to dredge around for half an hour.  There are bumps in the road along the journey, but overall it shouldn’t stifle your overall enjoyment or ability to complete the game.

Observer is not what it initially appears to be.  I have given you some hints along the way as to what to expect, but I hardly wish to spoil your journey or reveal any of its secrets.  Many have asked why it’s marketed as cyberpunk but listed as a horror title – yes, it is definitely both – to which I say go back, watch the E3 trailer linked above, and it should explain a lot.  The world Observer lives in is cold, sinister, and has a tendency to make you feel unsettled, but in the goal to create that concept Bloober Team nailed it. I found it to be one of the most striking games I’ve played that involves no combat.  There were good decisions made here and had they focused on a more narrative driven title that relied on cutscenes, it would have undone all that is here. While the bleak atmosphere and horror roots may still make it a somewhat genre-specific title, Observer is a very digestible gateway into the world of cyberpunk.

Final Score: 4 out of 5  (review policy)

A review code was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.  Observer can be found digitally on the Playstation 4, Xbox One, and PC (Steam/GOG) for an initial price of $29.99 – links take you to each store page.  This title took just under 10 hours to complete and a total for 12 hours was played for this review.  

Written by Fred Rojas

August 24, 2017 at 11:00 am

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