Horror is a very subjective genre and one defining example is a title known as Layers of Fear. This was an indie game from Team Blooper about art, love, life, and undying fear. Many gamers loved its unnerving suspense and collection of fear educing set events. Many others got annoyed at the lack of consequences, laughable scares and a lack total of impact. Say what you will, it left an impression. But the same guys are back with a new title: something creepy, unsettling and perverse. And I’m not just talking about the awesome Rutger Hauer. Here’s Observer.
Now, from what you may have seen, this may seem like a weird mixture of Blade Runner with voyeuristic and body horror as directed by David Fincher. Observer takes us into the year 2084 when humanity is pretty much on the brink of extinction thanks to a plague, a big war and most people embracing cybernetic enhancements for their potential well-being.
You play as a rugged man known as Daniel Lazarski who serves as an “Observer”, a form of detective who dives into other people’s minds in order to recover memories that could solve important cases. Everyone fears him and his ability to tap into the human mind, uncovering their deepest, darkest secrets. But one evening, Daniel receives a message from his long lost son and locates him at a nearby rundown apartment building. Once he arrives, Daniel uncovers a murder scene and soon the building is on lock down after a possible plague outbreak. It’s now a race against the clock to uncover what’s happening at the apartment building and to find his son through any means necessary.
What does stand out in Observer is its beautiful and gripping game world. The sci-fi horror setting is paying a great homage to that of Blade Runner but adds in fresh elements to make it feel new to the cyberpunk genre. The gritty, claustrophobic world feels as though the walls are swallowing you whole. The decaying landscapes and decor will remind you every second that this world is dying. With all the technology trying to patch things up, it’s made very clear that everything has gone to shit. While the journey is centered around a decomposing apartment block, it’s the little details and visual links that helps build an engaging and immersive world.
Much like Layers of Fear, it’s easy to judge this and state there’s no gameplay, rather more like a narrative heavy, visually spectacular walking simulator. I would disagree to an extent as there are gameplay elements here that invest in player interaction but about 80% of the game will feature you walking, exploring and engaging in very minor tasks that eventually add up. But as stated before, the vastly compelling world before you will keep you invested, and the pacing of events is beautifully executed. As you explore the apartment complex, more cases will arise and thus your interest will grow. New crime scenes, murder victims and leads will develop as you explore. Solving these cases will be the main progression to the end game.
Daniel’s method of solving crimes will be his augmented vision and a device known as the Dream Eater. The device allows him to dive into the memories of suspects and victims. This is where the focus for gameplay take place. Apart from exploring, you’ll be interviewing the local residences through various video communications on their apartment doors. Diving into people’s memories is the key aspect for creating a sense of fear, tension and horror. The minds you enter are often those of people who are dying or have been dead, thus their minds are corrupted and their sense and logic for memories will be fractured. This makes it difficult for Daniel to traverse through each memory without retaliation. One key segment sees Daniel enter the mind of a dead woman who’s taken over the consciousness of another person.
These events are mostly constructed of simply following a set path and listening or viewing events that have occurred. While the events have been elegantly and masterfully put together, each memory is a collective of people’s greatest fears materialized. Daniel has to explore and understand each event to escape it. This is where the game becomes Layers of Fear again. The visual style and structuring of set pieces become more of an emotional and visual journey rather than interaction. These events are impressive and alter strange aspects that induce fear at certain stages for the player and Daniel. Glitching fragments, memories altering and changing location within a blink of an eye and distortions happening around every corner do put you on edge. Visually, Observer is great.
If you’re happy with what Layers of Fear presented with its minimalistic approach to gameplay elements then you’ll love this. While there are more interesting concepts here, such as diving into memories and a resemblance of a detective mode, Observer is limited in these fields for true interactivity. Scanning areas for evidence feels more like a dull, repetitive chore. You look around each crime scene and scan various objects for information and details that never feel important. There’s no real sense of deduction, and gathering clues never leads to anything truly compelling. You forget about the crime scene once it’s finished.
I loved the idea of searching the building, finding another crime scene and gathering information that will lead to your son. It’s a shame the deduction side of the gameplay is very thin in execution. Each crime scene is beautifully set up, and from the introduction, you’re invested and compelled to dig deeper. What remains is diving into memories. As stated, it’s a great visual journey of exploring one’s fear and deepest secrets. On the other side of things, it’s a pretty walking simulator with very few events that involve interaction. There are some segments where you have to evade a sinister looking beast that wanders these memory hacks. But these segments feel forced and often amount to you sneaking and hiding from an AI that has a pre-set path.
Overall, Observer is an interesting concept and one that begs to be explored with a bigger game. I love the idea of diving into people’s memories and clashing with their own fears while deducting a personal case within a confined space. It’s a brilliant set up to be honest; this had so much potential but feels fairly underwhelming. Observer is also not a very long game, lasting around six hours. It has decent replay value but lacks features and dynamics to truly push you back into the world.
It’s difficult to state whether it’s truly great or a major disappointment. While Observer has a great concept, gameplay elements are underwhelming. The detective mode lacks any substance to make the game worthy of investment. In fact, it ends up being more of a stutter in the pacing. There could’ve been more depth in detecting clues and piecing concepts of the crime together. While exploring is great, there’s a limited sense of the world. It’s focused solely on one building, aside from when you’re diving into memories. This was the most compelling concept the game had to offer, and while it’s the strongest, it showed a number of problems. The developers can’t design or create good scares or gameplay elements that could benefit from its strong narrative style. Seeing a strange creature hunting you at random intervals won’t cut it. There’s a total lack of fear because you know you’ll never truly die.
Observer is worthy of your attention but could’ve been so much more. This could’ve easily been the next Condemned but instead lacks any fear, scares and above all creative gameplay elements. This lets down it’s superb visual style, storytelling and interesting memory dive set pieces.
A PC review copy of Observer was provided by Bloober Team for the purpose of this review