Developed by the team behind Layers of Fear, the critically acclaimed horror game that launched on most platforms, comes >Observer_. As someone who enjoys horror in general, the game intrigued me from the start, especially with the appealing art design. In addition, mixing cyberpunk elements with a strange mind-bending survival horror storyline truly makes for some interesting gameplay.
You play as Daniel Lazarski - voiced by Rutger Hauer - a detective in a dystopian version of Krakow. The city and art design are oddly familiar, harking back to the distinct style utilized in Blade Runner. However, it does not go completely futuristic with it, mixing a sort of Fallout retro feel to the computer systems and gadgetry. It can also be compared to a game like Alien: Isolation, which emulated the 80's computer systems with their monochrome displays and contrasting colors.
Krakow was ravaged by a plague called the Necrophage, which is mentioned several times in the game when you encounter individuals affected by the outbreak. The sickness caused the 'nanites' inside the bodies of modified individuals to corrupt, attacking the host. So for the most part in the game, your only contact with other people is a small old school display with an odd close-up of one part of their face, as they have become fearful of any contact with the outer world and remain barricaded within their apartments.
You get woken up after a nap in the year 2084 - the Orwellian throwback wasn't wasted on me - by your administrator. After discussing the current state of affairs following an explosion that rocked the city, you're interrupted by a message from Adam - your son - who tells you that you should be careful when discussing specific things since everyone is being watched.
This interaction is a little jarring at first, due to the fact that it's quite disjointed from the overall premise. Since every person is retrofitted with a monitoring device that tracks and records their every move, it didn't make sense that your son would warn you about this. Wouldn't the main protagonist know this already, since he works for the company that does the surveillance?
After the short and confusing encounter, you triangulate the call and discover the source was located in 'The Stacks', a slum of sorts, and you suddenly decide you desperately need to drop everything and chase after your estranged son.
The death of two individuals and Amir's missing girlfriend deepens the mystery behind your lost son.Upon arrival, and a strange encounter with a janitor that can barely speak English - or any language for that matter - you're met with a decapitated body and claw marks all over the room. Further investigation into the surrounding apartments - and several interviews later - you discover that the only person who saw the victim in his final hours was a drug dealer named Amir. However, once you find him, he is disemboweled and can barely utter a coherent sentence.
The death of two individuals and Amir's missing girlfriend - who fled the scene according to several witnesses - deepens the mystery behind your lost son. As you dig into the pasts of each of the individuals, a tangled mess of a web becomes apparent, with things becoming even more confusing. I struggled to see where the story was heading because the game threw too many unrelated characters at me that would barely matter to the overall narrative in the end. It's like inviting you into a room for ice cream, just to drown you in the pool outside the building for no apparent reason.
As an Observer, you're equipped with a device that can hack into the aforementioned monitoring devices located inside the skulls of individuals. This is a key crutch of the plot, as you 'interrogate' victims and criminals alike, try and track down your son - in addition to trying to make sense of the plot - and, if you feel like it, solve a few mysteries along the way.
Relax, it's only ones and zeros
This is where the game reminds me of The Cell, where the protagonist enters the mind of a psychotic killer to try and reason with him. Once you enter the nightmare that is a person's mind, you're met with a maze of time loops and strange glitches as the system desperately tries to make sense of the information that is being fed to it.
I really enjoyed this part of the game because it gave me something mentally stimulating outside of the humdrum 'find the pool of blood in a room' gameplay. Individuals outside of the direct circle of the person being interrogated are but mere blackened out ghosts wandering about, which makes a lot of sense to me since I barely remember who I saw five minutes ago. This is the most intriguing aspect of the game, as it is exceptionally well envisioned and truly messes with your mind.
As you enter the nightmare that is a person's mind, you're met with a maze of time loops and strange glitches as the system desperately tries to make sense of the information fed to it. However, not all these trips within the dark corners of a person's innermost thoughts is a picnic. In one of the 'interrogations', you finally come face-to-face with the monster that has haunted your steps, during your investigations into the whereabouts of Amir's missing girlfriend.
Now, this beast - which plays an integral part of the story and something you encounter during several sequences - is a monstrosity that is too complex to describe, but I will try anyway. It is a mix between the Daddy in BioShock and the body Pyramid Head in Silent Hill. Extremely fast, it smashes through any barrier where you have to try and get past it. The only clues to its whereabouts are the heavy, deliberate footsteps and the occasional familiar grunting noise you previously heard in the hallways of the building you were investigating. If it spots you, however, it instantly kills you with no recourse on your part.
This caused me endless frustration because I hate these types of experiences. The last time my heart thumped this much was during the chase sequence in Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, where you're awakened in the middle of the night by a mob trying to kill you. That said, at the end of the game - in a really strange set of events - you realize who this unfortunately disfigured creature really is, and it was quite surprising, for me at least.
My favorite mind-hacking sequence was the one where you interrogated the 'werewolf' person that chased you down and found himself entangled in a generator - or what I thought was a generator. His past was a truly sad and emotional experience that explored what really happens when a child experiences the onslaught of bullying and negative reinforcement from the community and the family he is born into. Not that every child experiences the problem of becoming a wolf when the moon is full, but I digress.
Stay away from the avocado-colored bathroom
As discussed before, the game lends itself to the graphical and art style of Fallout 4 mixed with Blade Runner and a dash of BioShock. I played the game on my Xbox One S, and although it seemed quite crisp resolution-wise, it would stutter causing my motion sickness to act up. Beyond this, the switch between the two modes - biologic and tech - can exacerbate the queasiness. But, I understand the reasoning behind it, with the developers trying to drive home the extent of how augmentations have become part of the protagonist's life.
Even though you do not encounter many people in person; the few you do encounter have a waxy appearance to them, which can be attributed to the fact that some of these people have apparently bulletproof skin. Other than that, the game is an extremely immersive experience, with every addition to the graphical style adding to the ambience. I was hard-pressed to find anything out of place in this world.
The game attempts to draw out the use of your own imagination, adding only a few hints towards something really disturbing.Music and sound - I recommend you use decent headphones when playing this game - take the already stellar atmosphere, and bring the emotion and subtle, nuanced moments to life that you would miss otherwise. Walking down hallways, strange echoes and whispers emanate from behind apartment doors; which is even more evident during the interrogation sequences.
Voice acting, on the other hand, left me wanting. Rutger Hauer, an actor who played in the original Blade Runner, seems somewhat out of place. His voice is monotonous and dreary as he - seemingly bored with the whole idea - parrots whatever was written in the script nearly ruining the entire experience for me. This is true with every other character in the game, for the most part, except for a few rare encounters. Beyond that, the only other voices you might hear occur when interrogating a subject, and those are a short burst of key phrases that are mostly expositional.
As someone who appreciates some attempts at trying to visualize what happens inside a person's mind, >Observer_ did this extremely well. Only a few movies have managed to achieve this level of 'madness'. Blooper is known for these sorts of gameplay experiences - from what I have heard - including Layers of Fear that I still need to play myself.
With the horror genre becoming somewhat stale due to the constant jump scares and lack of imagination, seeing developers take risks is a welcome change in the industry. >Observer_ isn't a game everyone will enjoy, and some might even find it extremely limiting with it building up towards something greater instead of the usual so-called 'jump scare' around every corner. The developer attempts to draw out the use of your own imagination, adding only a few hints that push you towards something really disturbing that you will have to face in the end.
For the price of admission, this is one of the best examples of a game that pushes the boundaries and breaks from the bog standard formula for horror titles. In the end, I found myself questioning my own beliefs, with the game really challenging the idea of us reaching the so-called singularity. As for the final sequence of events, it left me quite satisfied, and I can't wait to see what Blooper gets up to next.
It has to be mentioned that, if you suffer from epilepsy, the game has several sequences of flashing lights and high contrast colors that could trigger side-effects, and could be a deal breaker for some.
>Observer_ launched on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC, and is currently available for purchase.
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