If you haven't seen the movie Blade Runner, then first we're not friends and second you're missing out on a super influential cyberpunk movie that many movies, books, and games would seek to copy for years to come. Observer is another game in this line, even grabbing Blade Runner actor Rutger Hauer to voice the main character. Is this cyberpunk murder mystery worth solving, or should you simply leave it to the professionals?
You'll play as Daniel Lazarski, an old police detective and observer. Because he's an observer, Daniel has the ability to plug into people's minds and watch their memories to learn about their crimes. During a slow day he gets a call from his son, whom he hasn't heard from in years. Worried that his son may be in trouble, Daniel drops everything he's doing and heads off to his son's apartment. Unfortunately when he gets there things just take a turn for the bad: bodies begin to pile up while a lockdown traps everyone in the apartment complex. Now Daniel needs to find who's killing people, find his son, and end the lockdown to free the other people.
The story itself is actually quite interesting. Daniel's search through the apartment complex has him moving from one strange mystery to another, trying to piece together what fits into the big picture and what doesn't. While it may ultimately end with some pretty cliche cyberpunk tropes, I did really like the journey there, and the ending wasn't bad enough to really make it feel like I invalidated my journey. The only real hitch in the story? Rutger Hauer's voice acting. The entire game he sounded like he didn't actually want to be there. I can't tell if this is because Daniel didn't want to be there, he probably doesn't after all, or because Rutger didn't. It's like a strange Schrodinger's cat of voice acting talent.
While the main story is good, I actually want to give a shout out to the side quest storylines. If you hunt around the apartment complex you'll find several strange little stories playing out that you can participate in. Some are rather detailed, like a woman who is using a complex machine to serve as a head mate for a young mentally unwell girl. Others are quite simple, like one that has you find a man who has spent years in a VR video game and now has no clue whats going on when the power goes out. These short stories are actually the most genuinely interesting part of the game, and I really loved discovering new ones. There's just not quite as many as I was hoping. Still, it's very much worth looking around to find them.
Observer isn't simply a narrative game like I thought but is actually full of some interesting puzzles. Daniel can't just simply move around the apartment like he wants, but has to find ways around. One point he needs to get out of an illegal human modification chop shop, and to do so he needs to figure out how to get a chain working, attach it to a grate on the ground, and yank it off. Another section I had to restart a generator by finding the correct fuse for it, activate all the switches, and pull some levers in the correct order at the correct time.
To assist you in solving these puzzles, Daniel has the ability to change his sight to specifically scan for biological or electrical items in the environment. When you find one of these objects you can then scan it further for more detail about the item. While that's not a bad idea, these visions don't really work very well. I often got very little information from them, and it meant I spent a lot of time pixel hunting for small objects in an effort to advance the puzzles. These sights are also limited by a strange mechanic where you need to occasionally take a drug called Synchrozine. If you don't take it enough, then your view becomes blurry and pixalated, but take it too much and you'll overdose and die. It's a strange mechanic that doesn't really work well with the game, one that seemed to waste more of my time more than anything else.
When you find a living, or dead, person you can hack into their minds, letting you relive their scrambled memories. It's at these moments when the game takes a more surreal approach. You'll relive very large chunks of these character's lives, out of order and full of symbolism for you to interpret. For example, one of the first characters you jump into is a on again off again drug addict. Many portions of his involves trying to reach showers that keep moving away from him, a metaphor for his inability to get clean. Another section sees you picking up a spoon and becoming chained to a table. If you enjoy this kind of story telling then you'll probably have some fun exploring the worlds of people's minds.
The game also shoots for some more surrealist puzzles here, ones that don't require the vision mechanics and, as such, work much better. You'll be sliding knobs around to grow trees, or wandering through strange strip clubs to try and discover codes. I actually really came to enjoy these stranger puzzles, as they were quite unique and fun to solve. On the other hand, the dream segments contain some really blasé stealth sections that tend to populate these types of horror games. You'll have to avoid monsters while hacking computers, or just avoid them while they're walking around, and it uses the same basic stealth mechanics as other horror stealth games like Outlast. They don't happen nearly often enough to really bring the game down, but every time one did come up I did groan.
Whether you're exploring the apartment complex or in people's dreams you can grab the game's collectibles. You'll be finding cards of people affected by a nanoplague, RC cars, roses, and audio interviews with a mysterious young boy. You can also access computers you find to play a goofy little puzzle mini game where you need to navigate spider-filled mazes to find all the coins and reach the princess at the end. They sometimes feel disconnected from the rest of the game, but I do appreciate the added content and it gave me more of a reason to at least look around the apartment complex a little harder.
Observer is a bit of a mixed technical package. On one hand the game is pretty, both artistically and technically. The world of Observer is fantastic to look at, with strong design helping it stand out. The way each surface in the apartment complex looks like it could be used as a screen for advertisements is a neat touch, and the few people you run into have some interesting visual designs that come with getting cybernetics. The art design also hits an all time high in the memory sequences, with clever use of abstract environments making each segment feel totally unique. On the other hand, the game has some serious slowdown issues. Every time I entered a new section of the apartment complex I would be greeted by really bad slowdowns, with the game dipping into single digit frames for minutes at a time. Worse, I would often have the game crash at this point. It meant I was resetting Observer every 30 minutes because the game would crash once again. Hopefully this can be patched out at some point at least.
Technical issues aside, I did mostly enjoy my time with Observer. While the stealth segments were pretty boring and I wish less puzzles relied on pixel hunting, I was able to excuse these issues. I found the story worth paying attention to, most of the puzzles entertaining, and a really interesting universe that is worth taking a look at. If you don't mind some issues, this may be the next cyberpunk adventure game that you should look into.
Observer was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a copy provided by the developer. The game is also available on PC and Xbox One.
Observer has some really noticeable issues, including some iffy voice acting, lame stealth segments, pixel hunt puzzles, and crashing issues. However, it's saved by better puzzles, some great imagery, and a story that is worth paying attention to.
- Interesting Story
- Mostly Great Puzzles
- Beautiful Graphics
- Iffy Voice Acting
- Pixel Hunt Puzzles
- Boring Stealth Segments
- Technical Issues