Observer is the name of a little known unreleased prequel track to Snow’s ’90s hit, Informer. >Observer_ on the other hand, is Bloober Team’s latest horror game. First of all, see that extraneous punctuation? We’re going to ignore that and call the game Observer for the rest of the review. Try not to confuse it with reggae. Bloober Team previously created another horror title, Layers of Fear, that met with a mixed reaction. Taking the consensus and averaging it out, their previous title was so close to greatness, but landed short, with words like “derivative” being thrown around. The developer took this feedback on the chin, and proceeded to work on their next title that builds a deep world with an interesting lore and more than a few moments of tension that culminated in truly startling moments. With Observer, the Polish developer has begun to hit their stride and comes highly recommended.
The planet has seen better days. It started off with advancements in technology, with people able to meld their flesh with machines in order to perform the increasingly complicated tasks demanded by the employers of the time. Things were already a bit messed up when the Nanophage struck, a plague-like disease that affects those with augmentations. To combat this, quarantines were instated, and “Clean Up Crews” were sent out to, well, “stem the spread.” Alongside this crisis, an immense war breaks out across the globe. Nobody won it, with the exception of the megacorporation, Chiron, that pretty much takes over the role of the government. This grim take on the future is told through myriad found documents peppering the world, and is doled out at enough of a quick clip that just piecing it together would make for an entertaining game in its own right.
Players take the role of Daniel Lazarski, a specialized officer that pretty much all of the populace fears based on what he does. He is the eponymous Observer, an officer equipped with a “Dream Eater” that allows him to delve into the minds of suspects to gather evidence based on their fears and memories. One evening, he receives a mysterious call from his son that simply didn’t make sense. His quest to figure out what happened leads him to a decapitated body and more questions than answers.
Observer is a game that thrives because it embraces its self created universe, intertwining it with the mechanics effortlessly. A major part of the gameplay revolves around using Lazarski’s ability to gather evidence. Scanning the environments with an electromagnetic or a bio sensor, he builds a list of more and more clues to solve the riddles surrounding him. There are numerous witnesses to interrogate. With these tools on hand, solutions are easy enough to someone paying attention, while clever enough to make the player feel like a danged genius. This is one of those rare games that succeeds in cultivating that elusive sense of truly solving a mystery, as opposed to simply following a preset path. To be fair, there is a path that players must follow to progress, but it’s paced in a way where the player doesn’t feel like they’re being shunted down a path.
This is before getting into the truly disturbing stuff. There are numerous sequences where the player dives into someone’s mind, resulting in surreal aspects. Now, this concept could have just been an excuse for the developer to just throw some random “spooky” imagery together and call it a day. Instead, Bloober Team ran with it, melding reality and dream together. It’s oppressive and dire, with madness creeping at the borders only to throw an occasional tendril across the proceedings. Some might come for the jump scares, and that’s alright. This does them really well. However, the real horror of this title comes in the madness that the players experience through the eyes of the detective.
Much of the credit goes towards the incredible art design. The constant slums that the protagonist explores are expertly put together. Each stain on the floor, each blasted wall, every malfunctioning piece of equipment brings to life a world that saw its own economic boom unexpectedly crash. This is a city in disrepair and the people that can afford to do something about it would rather not. The artists and designers took the Unreal 4 engine and used it to pull off some impressive things. That doesn’t come without a cost. At least on the PlayStation 4, the framerate randomly drops at to at least the teens at times. Sometimes even lower. This is fine during the bulk of the game, as it doesn’t affect the challenge level, but there are some moments where the frame drop causes a fail state and game reload.
The other fly in the ointment comes in the form of the voice acting. To put it succinctly, it fluctuates from abysmal to passible. This variable level of quality is seen in just the protagonist’s actor, Rutger Hauer. This type of work, with the subject matter and setting, should have been a natural fit for him. He’s done dystopian science fiction before and excelled. It’s almost like he had a contract rider forbidding more than two takes per line. The cadence is off, pronunciation continually flubbed and even some dramatic moments are undersold worse than a sandbox salesman in the Sahara. Other characters tend to do better on average, but some are distractingly bad. To suspend disbelief, I told myself that’s just how people will talk in the future.
Despite the fact that there are some technical and acting issues, Observer absolutely excels. Not only is it a great genre entry, but a fine example of interactive entertainment as a whole. The world that Bloober Team has created is one that is wide open for more exploration. I wouldn’t mind prequels exploring the fall of modern society or alternate perspective takes on the tale. Heck, even a Chiron management sim, where the company needs to keep the people just happy enough to accept their oppression would be interesting. This is not reggae, but it deserves to be as popular.