Observer has an original premise: a first-person cyberpunk detective experience with a side of psychological horror. It sounds like an intriguing combination but how well does it all come together? Let’s take a look.
Observer takes place in 2084 in a dingy neon world highly reminiscent of Blade Runner’s. We’re informed in an opening credit crawl that the planet has been ravaged by a digital disease known as the nanophage.
World war ensued, ending the empires of the East and West and allowing a mega-corporation known as Chiron to seize power and establish the Fifth Polish Republic (Poland being the home country of the developers, Layers of Fear creators Bloober Team).
The player takes on the role of Daniel Lazarski, an elite neural detective in the employ of Chiron who’s able to jack directly into the thoughts of suspects in order to investigate them.
Lazarski is voiced by Rutger Hauer, further strengthening the Blade Runner link although here, his performance sounds more like some kind of sub-par Duke Nukem impression. I honestly can’t tell if he’s doing a good job of being world-weary or if he’s just phoning it in.
The story begins with Lazarski taking a routine call in his cop car only to be interrupted by a rogue transmission from his long-estranged son. Intrigued, our hero traces the signal to a rundown apartment complex known as the Stacks. He isn’t there long before dead bodies start turning up and he soon realises the task of tracking down his son is going to be far more dangerous than he anticipated.
As soon as you begin Observer, you’ll notice that there has been a lot of work put into designing its environs. Each room you investigate is richly detailed with lots of unique elements to pore over and admire. This is important not just from an immersion point of view but also because much of the gameplay involves scanning your surroundings for clues. Daniel’s mechanically enhanced body comes equipped with two types of scanner: one for detecting and analysing electrical devices and one for biological stuff. These are useful for investigating crime scenes as you’ll have to examine the victims’ bodies and possible murder weapons to determine their cause of death.
You’ll also need to employ your sleuthing to look through computers for information and question the various residents of the Stacks through their low-fi video intercoms. Some of them will give useful information regarding your main quest as well as occasionally beginning a new side objective whereas others will just smart-mouth you from the safety of their locked rooms. There are a few dialogue options you can choose from during these conversations, some of which are pretty funny and help humanise Daniel’s character.
Investigating crime scenes is arguably the most interesting part of Observer. Piecing together what happened from the scattered clues then trying to work out puzzles based on environmental hints (such as realising the title of a well-known dystopian novel is actually the pass code for a door) is challenging enough not to feel handholdy. Also, if you take the time to read the various emails and newspaper articles on the computers, you’ll discover that the world of Observer is impressively fleshed out despite taking place in just a single location. I also have to mention the old-school puzzle adventure game that you can play on the computers. Even though it’s ostensibly just a throwaway mini-game, I found it addictive enough to ensure it was the first thing I went to whenever I found a new computer. I guess that makes me a pretty poor detective but oh well.
Another recurring aspect of the gameplay that’s not quite as well implemented is having to take a drug called synchrozine which reduces Daniel’s mental strain level that’s brought on by all the horrible events he’s been witnessing. If you don’t take it, the screen glitches out a bit. I assume you die if you let it deteriorate far enough although that never got close to happening to me as vials of the substance are so common that you’re never in danger of running out. As such, it seems like a rather pointless addition to the gameplay.
Unfortunately, Observer suffers from more serious problems as well such as its performance on PlayStation 4. It has some of the worst frame rate drops I’ve seen yet and they are frequent and present in almost all areas. Just slowly walking down some stairs can cause it to drop to five to ten frames per second. Needless to say, this makes the whole experience a lot less enjoyable. There are some punishing load times, too, if you want to stray from your selected path. For example, if you revisit a room that you went in a little while ago rather than proceed to the mission objective. On these occasions, when you try to open the door, a loading icon appears on its handle and you have to sit and wait until it finally lets you back in. I also encountered one hard crash when the frame rate was particularly bad.
Another problem I had with Observer is that much of its gameplay quickly becomes tedious. While I had fun investigating its crime scenes, these sections are interspersed with segments in which Daniel jacks into the minds of some of the victims in order to ascertain what happened to them. The problem here is that these parts are usually very long and far too confusing to be compelling or enjoyable. Everything’s overly chaotic, glitches are flashing up in your face, and navigation is awkward. You often only walk a couple of yards then get reset to where you just were or you’ll be repeatedly transported to an entirely new place. This happens so frequently that it just becomes irritating. It may well be an effective way to communicate a disturbed state of mind but it’s no fun to actually play.
There are some survival horror sections dotted about as well in which you have to avoid a monster or suffer a one-hit death. These offer some variety to the gameplay but given the confusing nature of your surroundings, they can sometimes result in some annoying game over screens. The plot also gets very convoluted as things go on and by the end; I was just waiting for it to be over. That sucks because Observer made a very good first impression and was enjoyable in its opening stages. Unfortunately, the weirder it got and the more it forced me through its protracted and linear mind-hacking sequences, the less interested I became.
Observer crafts an intriguing and richly detailed futuristic world but it’s let down by awful performance issues as well as some drawn-out and tedious segments.
If you’re into the cyberpunk aesthetic, it’s still worth a look just to experience its lovingly created environs. However, unless it gets a patch to fix its problems, you might be better off playing it on a high-end PC.