Polish indie studio Bloober Team's first horror game, 2016's Layers of Fear, offered horror fans something special, as they filled the shoes of schizophrenic protagonist as they explored a house full of art that toyed with the mind. Despite some technical problems, the psychologically-draining experience was incredibly well-made and appreciated by many, and with a game like Layers of Fear and its amazing expansion, it should come as no surprise that fans were craving the next game from the studio.
The project in question is a psychological cyberpunk/horror story that takes place in a future version of Krakow where people live under tough conditions but are kept alive by replacing defective body parts with robot limbs. As a player, you step into the shoes of a cybernetically-enhanced "observer", a kind of special police, named Daniel Lazarski, whose job it is, in addition to enforcing the law, to collect information from people and their cybernetic implants by hacking into their artificial brains.
We soon find out that this cyborg police force was developed by a corporation called Chiron after a digital plague called "The Nanophage" ravaged and snuffed out thousands of cybernetically enhanced individuals. We also find out that a war broke out after the plague ended, and ordinary people suffered while Chiron counted their profits and built a new, elitist society. If science fiction law enforcement and cyborg corruption isn't enough to capture your interest, Daniel Lazarski's son Adam is introduced early on in an interlude, and the entire CSI-style adventure turns into a gruesome family mystery.
The story, which is captivating throughout the experience, is accompanied by a really well-crafted level and mission design. Like in Layers of Fear, you move through the same corridors throughout the adventure (apart from some psychosis sequences), and the main character's state of mind and psyche are clearly signalled, both in the spirit of Layers of Fear with intense psychoses that move the player inside the house, and with a glitch filter that covers the screen when Lazarski becomes stressed, uncomfortable, or afraid. The latter effect, which appears in the form of a blurred, broken, or partially damaged screen, is extremely effective but quickly becomes an annoyance - especially if it starts while the environments are changing or if you're trying to read some text.
Fortunately, around the residential complex, you can find medicine that calms Daniel's nerves, however, these are limited and can be overdosed, so it's not a solution to all your glitch problems. If you run out of drugs, you will have live with the headache-inducing virus that these filters induce.
The game's theme, clearly inspired by Blade Runner, is accompanied by an equally Blade Runner-inspired environment and level design. Outside the building, rain is constantly falling over a dystopian, neat, retro-futuristic Krakow, while the apartment complex where Lazarski's son Adam is said to live is worn down and decayed. The narrow corridors have been taken over by cables, television screens that illuminate the darkness, and the residents who keep their doors locked and talk only with the player through their futuristic intercoms. Your choices in the various conversations don't seem to matter that much, but it's really interesting to hear the different stories and find out why they refuse to open the door for our main character, an officer of the law.
What consumes your time as a player is, in addition to the scripted "on rails" sequences, David's detective work that - on console - is handled via the shoulder buttons. R1/RB scans for digital objects like chips, cybernetics, monitors, and general electronics, while L1/LB scans for organic objects or substances such as blood, animals, and plants. Pressing the right stick also turns on a simple flashlight, which can be useful at times.
If the theme and visual style of the game wasn't enough of a hint of Observer's greatest source of inspiration, the choice of voice actors will also help. Rutger Hauer, who (masterfully) portrayed the android antagonist Roy Batty in Blade Runner, is playing the equally worn down cybernetically enhanced Daniel in Bloober Team's psychological horror game - and he does this incredibly well.
It's noticeable in several ways that Bloober Team has borrowed a lot from its previous title, and most of the time the choices are on spot. Something that's not as positive is that the issues found in Layers of Fear at launch, particularly on console, are present in Observer. During our time in Krakow, we fell through floors (a so-called eternity loop) several times and experienced a lot of frame-rate problems. Layers of Fear, which had the same image update problem, got better only after several patches and it's incredibly frustrating when the problem actually persists throughout the game, as is the case with Observer, unfortunately.
Another problem, which has nothing to do with technical stuff, is the fact that the game's forced stealth sequences quickly become tiresome, even though they weren't very long. The sequences are not in themselves frustrating but when paired with repeatedly falling through the floor (which occurred in these sequences) and the fact that you get to see the "game over" screen if an enemy comes in proximity all adds up.
Sure, Observer suffers from a couple of real problems (at least on console - we haven't seen any major complaints on the PC), but the game's setting, action, and basic idea are all incredibly interesting. If the detective work doesn't get you excited, perhaps the Blade Runner vibes will? What was it that androids dreamt of? Observers?
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