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>observer_ Review

Author: Matthew Smail

Category: Review

Ever had the feeling you're being watched? In >observer_, you'll be the one doing the watching, but all may not be as it seems! Played through the eyes of Dan Lazarski, a beleaguered Neural Cop voiced by Rutger Hauer, and set in a futuristic vision of Krakow, Poland, >observer_ might be one of the most original non-combat adventure games this year. Find out why in our review.

>observer_ Review


>observer_ pitches itself somewhere between walking simulator, narrative adventure and detective simulator, and features tense, story driven gameplay, but no combat. Made by genre veterans Bloober Team, who previously brought us Layers of Fear, >observer_ shares a similar pace and aversion to violence as the horror themed mansion crawler, but both the setting and gameplay mechanics could not be more different.

>observer_ is set in 2084 and takes place in Krakow, Poland. It demonstrates a bleak, dystopian vision of the future which borrows primarily from Blade Runner (including casting Rutger Hauer in a role reversal as the Decker-like Dan Lazarski,) as well as the likes of Strange Days and The Matrix. Despite the visual and thematic similarities with these popular movies, gameplay in >observer_ is more sedate, with much of the focus on investigating crime scenes and exploring the tenement block that most of the game takes place in.

>observer_ is available from Steam and on consoles via the respective digital outlets.

Who is observing who?


The plot is central in >observer_, as is the characterisation of Dan Lazarski. The game opens with Lazarski receiving a call that he is not expecting, from someone he has not heard from in a long time. Regardless of his surprise and the apparent disdain he has for his work, his colleagues, perhaps even his own life, this call is affecting enough to rouse him to take immediate action. 

He soon finds himself at the location where the call originated from, and it isn't long before Lazarski is both personally and professionally involved in the story of what is happening here. The main story ebbs and flows as minor distractions come into view and take centre stage. The name >observer_ really begins to make sense here, and I found myself ever more immersed in the minor details that the game offers up. From watching jumbled memories through Lazarski's cybernetic implants, to overhearing conversations in adjacent rooms, or engaging with a varied and well scripted populous through fuzzy, green intercoms; >observer_ has it all.

Whenever the main story does come back focus, it remains interesting and meaningful, and whilst the regularity and irrelevance of the many distractions can jar with the apparent urgency of the situation, this never bothered me. Weirdly I sometimes felt as if I was playing an open world RPG that had been compressed into just a few hours, with each side quest a simple conversation or sequence that resolves itself minutes rather than hours, and often, you'll just pass them by.

Deus next, anyone?


Gameplay in >observer_ is a pleasing mix of walking simulator and environmental puzzler that masquerades as a detective simulator. That probably sounds unappealing, but in actual fact it's not bad, and I quite liked the way Lazarski explores environments through his various implants. For the purpose of detecting, there are two such modes; one that enables him to see hidden technology, including everything from embedded wiring to microchips in peoples skulls, and a second that enables him to see organic matter such as blood.

Between these tools, players are able to analyse crime scenes for information and clues that progress the narrative and often, simply fluff out the surrounding lore. In the first crime scene for example, there are three or four things that you must find in order to progress, but there are perhaps four or five more that merely support the story and help fill in the world. Pick up a picture of a possible victim and his family and Lazarski will make a comment, but that might be all - or alternatively, there might be a code on it that may or may not unlock the keypad nearby...

These exploratory sequences slow the pace quite a bit, and along with several "dream sequences" that use another of Lazarski's powers to delve into the memories of various people via their own cybernetic implants, make up much of the games meaningful content. Aside from these elements, much of the game involves exploring the world, albeit that the world we see is almost entirely based around a central courtyard that is not dissimilar to a miniature version of the City Blocks depicted in the most recent version of Judge Dredd.

Whilst there are some fairly contrived jump scares in >observer_, the main bulk of any unease you might feel is likely to come from the generally chilling and otherworldy feel of the game world, which is done extremely well. I've already talked about characterisation in the game, and it is the vulnerability of some characters juxtaposed with the outward hostility of others against the neon lit, dystopian backdrop that I found most affecting. Whilst foul mouthed and world weary (and despite a lack of offensive capabilities) Lazarski at least feels like a force for good in the dark world of 2084, but >observer_ is also populated by people who seem less well prepared for the horrors that Lazarski bears witness to. That's the scary bit - it's much more a chilling thriller than a horror, at least in my opinion.

The Matrix, or The Fly?


As you can probably see from the still images in this review, >observer_ is a dark, foreboding game, but it is nonetheless beautiful. Despite the fact that it draws upon a multitude of other influences from popular culture, it also does a reasonable job of looking highly individual in many ways. We see relatively little of street level Krakow, but the skyline is featured regularly, and although the immediate comparison is Blade Runner, the tangle of neon adverts (including genre standard over the top propaganda) looks more in keeping with our modern view of technology.

Internally, the opposite is often true - with computers, monitors and servers that are oversized, outdated and basic even by current standards, let alone what could be expected by 2084. Thankfully, the game does a fantastic job of creating an all-encompassing vision that enables players to suspend disbelief entirely - I never questioned why Lazarski was using a large and ineffective videophone in his car as opposed to an iPhone with Facetime, for example, because the world of >observer_ is simply so well crafted that it leaves no gaps. Technically, the visuals are entirely competent - there were no glitches or issues that I encountered, and with the settings on full, it ran well on my GeForce 1080 powered computer, achieving a locked 60 FPS at all times.

Aurally, >observer_ sounds great, with a particularly strong performance by Rutger Hauer, who actually sounds different in game than he does in any movie I've ever heard him in. Other characters all sound good as well, and there is a broad range of emotion in the performances - from hard and aggressive to sad, scared and lonely. Incidental music and sound effects are used to great effect as well, enhancing the feeling of unease that permeates the majority.

There is more than one chilling corridor in >observer_


>observer_ is undoubtedly a good game, that offers an interesting take on the usual walking simulator. The inclusion of dream sequences in these kind of games is not unusual, but in combination with the crime scene investigation features, >observer_ has a better way of linking them to the game world in a way that makes sense. That said, there is still no action, no real horror, and not a lot of content if you find yourself rushing through any of the additional or side content.

Bloober Team have probably made a rod for their own back with Layers of Fear as well, because >observer_ is simply not scary, yet it feels like everyone (including whoever marketed it) wants you to think it is. Don't go into it expecting that, instead, approach it like a really good sci-fi story with a human element, and you'll get a lot more out of it. Once I began to play it how I think it was intended, I found it to be extremely enjoyable. 

+ Excellent story and characterisation
+ Not overly long, with little replay value
+ Fantastic world design

+ Good use of technology to link narrative and gameplay 

SCORE: 8/10

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