TECH NOIR DYSTOPIAN BLADE RUNNER ESQUE CYBERPUNK MYSTERY
Being an Observer kind of sucks. It’s low-paid work for a domineering corporation that involves enduring invasive biotechnological augmentations, an immunosuppressive drug dependency and a mandate to pry on the sub consciousness’s of the depraved citizens of tech-noir Krakow, 2084.
For player-character Daniel Lasarski, the night that Observer takes place is particularly unpleasant. After receiving a distressing call from your estranged son and tracing the signal to a lowerclass apartment complex, you happen upon a series of grisly murders. May the investigations, hacks, scans and psychotic episodes begin.
This meticulously crafted first-person cyberpunk thriller admirably takes queues from Deus Ex, System Shock, The Cell and Blade Runner (Rutger Hauer even plays the protagonist), as crude electronics, body augmentations, neon lights, heavy rain, smokey exhaust ports and dilapidated buildings set the stage for a dark trip.
In true cyberpunk detective style you’ll sift through seedy apartments hacking terminals, reading emails, studying forensics and jacking into the minds of others (more on this below). Your hightech rummaging is assisted through the use of two scanning augmentations: one for biological data – identifying blood stains, suspicious markings and injuries – and another for electronic signals – revealing which equipment can be interacted or interfaced with.
Scanning for these points of interest is a solid mechanic and helps sell the detective aspect of the experience, though one single scanning mode for both clue types probably would have suced; switching back and forth between “bio” and “tech” scanning visions as you probe a murder scene tends to add more nuisance than nuance to the gameplay.
Polish developer Bloober clearly have a penchant for horror. Their first major release, Layers of Fear, enjoyed critical praise in 2016 for being particularly terrifying. In Observer, it’s through one of the player’s core detective abilities that these proclivities get the most exposure. As an Observer, Lasarski’s most powerful tool is the ability to jack into the minds of other augmented characters, taking the player through nightmarish sections of the game to explore the warped subconscious of traumatised subjects in search of answers.
While some impressive shader eects and tripped out visuals make these
psychonautic invasions quite interesting to look at, their emotional impact is heavily reliant on the standard horror conventions we’re all familiar with: a screech here, an audio-distorting crackle there, violent shakes, objects shifting by themselves and the odd jump-scare.
Honestly, it’s piled on a little thick. Moving through maze-like hallways that shift and play tricks on you can be more tedious than tense, and there’s only so many creepy audio cues one can hear before they wear out their welcome. I tended to rush these portions of the game, hoping around each corner for the end to the segment, which often took a little too long to arrive.
Things get more sever the deeper you travel into the night. Lasarski becomes increasingly unhinged as his mind wrestles with the situation. Granted these moments do make for a suitably dramatic arc for the character, but I don’t think Observer gives players enough time to enjoy its more subtle gameplay before going full Event Horizon on them.
I say this because the regular setting of the game is very successful at being ominous and eerie without resorting to the tacky tropes of the horror genre. Lasarski’s journey throughout the evening is grim and lonely, and walking through decrepit hallways of exposed brick and digital panels while the rain beats down evokes a cold and pensive atmosphere. Even though Lasarski does have encounters with others, gathering information from the various tenants of the apartment block, these audio-based interactions take place through crude electronic door-mounted intercom panels, and your isolation is compounded by the bizarre, paranoid and reclusive characters you interact with through closed doors.
Notwithstanding my personal reservations when it comes to the horror genre, Observer captures an authentic cyberpunk world that many will agree is worth the price of admission to explore. The presentation of this game is stunning and Bloober have crafted a captivating dystopian Krakow, through which a powerful noir atmosphere comes to life before making way for a less compelling descent into madness.
explore the warped subconscious of traumatised subjects”