Daniel Lazarski is an Observer, a detective who works in Krakow in the year 2084 following a huge war which saw East bomb West and West bomb East, leaving the way for Poland to become the dominant world power. The half-ruined city is inhabited by people who have augmented their bodies with cybernetic enhancements and a great plague, the Nanophage, has killed thousands. However, during the game the only living person you get to meet in the flesh – or what’s left of his flesh – is Janus, the janitor for the apartment block where the majority of the game is set.
The rest of building’s resident’s stay locked behind their doors and you can only communicate with them via intercom. By interrogating the inhabitants and scanning locations using his cybernetics Daniel must piece together the clues to the whereabouts of his son. Taking it’s cues from cinematic classics such as Blade Runner, Akira, The Matrix, Alien, and Videodrome, Observer is a cyberpunk detective story with a good dose of body horror and plenty of things going bump in the night.
The game begins with Daniel – played by the excellent Rutger Hauer – receiving a call from his son asking for help which leads him to an apartment block that gets locked down as soon as he has entered, cutting it off from the outside world. Investigations lead to an apartment with what looks like a makeshift hot tub filled with blood and a man with most of his intestines hanging out. To discover how this gory scene came to be Daniel can jack in to a chip in the intestine-free NPC’s brain and relive his memories, and that’s when things start to get weird.
The memory sequences are utterly bonkers, with shadowy figures darting around, perspective changing, objects glitching and walls, corridors, and entire rooms re-configuring in the blink of an eye. Some of the sequences are very effective, as someone who works in a huge open-plan office I found the first memory, which is set in a office featuring hundreds of identical cubicles filled with workers and computers who only move when you do, very disturbing. There are walls of washing machines that suddenly turn on, tv screens that burst into life with flickering eyes, children being told bedtime stories, gravity-defying coffee mugs, and forests to navigate.
There are hints of The Matrix with hunter drones searching for you in a cornfield, shades of the brilliant SOMA in the stealth sections, and corridors filled with pipes and electrical cabling that gradually morph into organic flesh much like those in Aliens. A floating TV set cries like a baby when left alone but gurgles happily when you grab hold of it and use it to open doors, childlike characters with TV sets for heads scream and burst in to flames when you get near, the number of utterly insane sequences is impressive and for the most part, very original.
After the first memory dive you’re never quite sure what is real, Daniel has to take a drug to keep his stress levels down – represented by more glitching on the screen – but there are still things creeping in shadows and growling from behind lock doors. Also: pigeons. If you have an aversion to these sky rats then Observer is not for you, they swarm in the courtyard, nest in the attic, and a giant pigeon with glowing eyes inhabits one memory sequence. Something also takes great pleasure in murdering the flying beasts and throwing them down a shaft at you resulting in a gruesome wet splat and an ever growing pile of pigeon parts.
Whilst all the madness is going on Daniel must continue his investigation, using his two vision modes, thermal and electronic, to scan locations and follow the trail. These sequences make a welcome break from being trapped at the bottom of a game of Tetris with huge cubes crushing your head – yes, that happens as well – but don’t require much thought, you simply scan the area and discover the objects to further the plot. Later on there are a few puzzles but they are fairly simple, but most of the game is simply a case of navigating from A to B and interrogating people behind doors. There’s not much gameplay, but then that isn’t the point of the title. Like Bloober’s previous game Layers of Fear, it’s all about the story.
The main plot, the hunt for your Son, is pretty simple but the dream sequences are so glitched and twisted it will take multiple playthroughs to work out the meaning behind the imagery. Sometimes what is on screen is near impossible to decipher, at one point it looks more like you have fallen through the game map rather than an intentional effect. Why is there a cybernetic snake slithering about? Why do I have to chase a glowing deer? Why have I grown thirty feet tall and can stomp around the auditorium of a theatre making TV-headed children run in panic? Why am I suddenly in a forest? What the hell is with all the pigeons? Honestly I have no idea but it was amazing to experience it all.
Despite the world being in a half ruined state the tenement block and surrounding city are beautiful, with classical architecture mixed with huge video screens and neon signs, and the influence of Blade Runner can easily be seen. The mix of old and new runs through the whole game; surfaces glisten with holographic displays but old analogue TVs line walls, and at one point you jump in the virtual world of cyberspace represented by a huge shimmering forest.
The sound design is excellent with all manner of jump scares and thuds, and the voice work is good for the minor characters although I do wonder why so many New Yorkers are living in Krakow. Rutger Hauer is the star of the show and puts in a totally believable performance as a world weary detective, it’s one of the few times I’ve felt that casting a well known actor has not detracted from a game. Although I can’t be sure there may be some replayability in the title as some of the sequences in the trailer above, such as the pig in the VR headset, I didn’t see.
Unfortunately the PS4 version does have a very occasional problem with the frame rate, though to be honest I actually thought the off stutter and glitch was part of the game, but the developers have already said they’re putting a patch together. It only seemed to occur during the courtyard sequences so doesn’t prove much of a problem.
If you don’t like ‘walking sims’ then Observer isn’t going to change your mind, even if it does include some rudimentary detective work. However, if you like to be swept away by a story and pulled in to a world where every door has a new experience behind it, then close the curtains, turn off the lights, crank up the surround sound and immerse yourself in this great cyberpunk horror tale.
Version tested: PlayStation 4