Everything about polish studio Bloober Team’s newest psychological horror game is saturated and oozing with strange and anomalous juices that make you question your sanity. It is psychological chaos refined to its purest and most potent form, and so preternatural in its haunting that I sincerely am left wondering what’s in the water in Kraków.
Observer trades the 19th-century Victorian-era mansion setting of Bloober’s previous game, Layers of Fear, for a cyberpunk environment that wears its Blade Runner and Eastern European cultural influence on its retro-futurism sleeve.
Cyberpunk is cyberpunk, which is to say, Observer doesn’t deviate from the norms of the genre in this regard: painting a gritty, dystopian future where corporations have seized sovereignty and augmentations have seized the human experience. Opulent corporate towers paint the skyline and ominously stare down at the rest of the world, where people have taken shelter in slums from their rulers and drug-fueled neighbors.
In this disturbed world, you play as Daniel Lazarski, a grizzled aging man whose demeanor and voice (acted by the iconic Rutger Hauer of Bladerunner fame) conveys that he has, as they say, seen some shit in his day.
Lazarski is a single detective apart of a special corporate-funded police unit called Observers, who as pawns of the Chiron Corporation, find themselves regularly involved in shady and unconscionable work in the name of the “law.”
The story of Observer is broadly told as a classic mystery story. Lazarski sits in his patrol car, illuminated only by the futuristic gadgets within, as rain pounds on the windshield. But soon the normality is interrupted by a pleading distress call from his estranged son, Adam. Fatherly instincts resuscitated and pumping, Lazarski traces the signal through the Fifth Polish Republic to a crumbling tenement building in the “Class C” stacks, home of the lowest of the low, the part of a town gone to the dogs.
What you find inside is a gruesome murder scene and a palpable sense that something is amiss. The former prompts a governmental lock-down of the complex, while the later prods you to investigate further. This is where the game’s linearity opens up to a more pseudo semi-open world.
The tenant building is most equivalent to an infernal labyrinth: easy to get lost in and harrowing to explore its twist and turns. Expansive, but uncomfortably narrow, the decay of the tenant building’s halls, floors, and staircases, is only outdone by the decaying morality and quality of life of the tenants inhabiting the building.
A considerable part of the game consists of talking and lightly interrogating these tenants, who for a sundry of reasons will only talk to you from the other side of the door via an intercom. Conversation by conversation, you learn about how the in-power totalitarian corporate regime often purges the poor believed to be effected with the “digital plague” that in the past killed countless augmented human-machine hybrids, while simultaneously plunging the world into war and creating dependency on drugs. Complementing these larger themes are more personal stories that aren’t afraid to dabble in weighty topics such as domestic abuse.
Combined, these diverse set of tenants provide a window into Observer’s grim cyberpunk world in a way that left me excited whenever I would come across a new one to talk to, and further immersed in a world I increasingly wanted to know more and more about.
This isn’t your dad’s investigative game. Sherlock Holmes has traded his magnifying glass and notepad for augmentations that allow for interrogating and information gathering by hacking minds and scanning environments with situational specific perceptions.
In a sequence that never gets any less disturbing, Lazarski can physically link a connection and hack into anyone’s mind via their mental implants to see what they see and to live what they live. The problem for Lazarski is the mind is a chaotic place, turbulent on a whim. And each mind is individually unique, and thus uniquely chaotic. But within this chaos, Lazarski can trek through memories, recreate crimes, and obtain information that would otherwise be hidden.
These hacking sequences play a multifaceted role in Observer: they progress the overarching story along, while also serving up some of the game’s best and most beautifully strange moments.
It is because the human mind is a playground of unpredictability, limitless in abstraction that Bloober Team could approach horror in the aberrant manner it did. Some of the most frightening things in life are entirely fabricated within the human mind, which often usurps and distorts reality. Making matters worse for Lazarski is that the minds he finds himself hooking up to have been traumatized and shattered. Memories will alarmingly cut in and out to no pattern, and scenes will range from recognizable to otherworldly for a combination that feels uncomfortably psychedelic.
These sequences are defined by their tensing uncertainty, by the palpable looming threat of making your way through worlds that are subject to no rules.
When you aren’t mind-bendingly surfing through someone’s memories, you are touring the tenant building and investigating crime scenes in a more traditional investigative manner. The one twist is — as mentioned above — Lazarski is equipped with augmented situational specific perceptions that allow him to scan the environment to uncover clues and piece together the elaborate puzzles that murder scenes tend to be. One such augmented perspective is useful for scanning corpses and unearthing pertinent information about the cause of death by analyzing wounds with a biosensor. All of these different vision tools are neat add-ons to what otherwise is a rather mundane point-and-click experience.
And the gameplay doesn’t evolve beyond this. There is no combat and only a handful of failsafe sections that require a light level of amateurish sneaking. Which is a good thing, not only because such implementations would subtract from the experience Bloober Team has meticulously crafted, but because the game’s controls are stiff and wonky. Observer’s environments are exceptionally well-realized and begging to be cautiously explored, so it’s a shame that the controls undermine any attempt to do so. However, while wonky, said controls never titled to frustrating, partially thanks to the demand of action being so minimal.
Observer is terrifying. The beauty of its terror is that it is not earned cheaply. Jump-scares are minimal and thoughtful, and there is never a reliance on gore-porn. The horror genre is gutted with thoughtless and abundant jump-scares and self-indulgence in shock factor. And so not only was it nice to see Bloober demonstrate some restraint, it was refreshing.
The creativity of Bloober Team shines through in environmental production, audio cues, lighting, and the small details. All of these components come together in matrimony to create an atmosphere that overwhelms and grips you with uncertainty and dread. Some of the most terrifying moments of Observer are some of the quietest moments, defined with little to no action. And these moments are also some of the most transfixing, a testament to the game’s atmospheric horror.
In 2017, it’s hard to get lost in a game’s world with so many outside distractions. But Observer’s world is different. It seized my attention and never once gave it back. Not even for a quick (two hour) Twitter check. Walking around in its sordid cyberpunk world in first-person was truly a transportative experience. Observer may be peppered with some flat voice-acting (Rutger Hauer as the protagonist), stiff controls, and a story that doesn’t deviate much from classic mystery and sci-fi stories, but all of this is drowned out by the far more plentiful positives.
Observer is a strange experience, punctuated by many “what the” moments. It’s a game you have to talk to somebody about, that will make you reflect, and assault your saneness.
Bloober Team has definitely arrived.
Reviewed by Tyler Fischer, Contributor
Tyler Fischer is a contributor at DualShockers. He specializes in writing breaking news, managing assignments, and organization. Born and raised in New York, Tyler studies journalism and public relations at SUNY New Paltz.