Something is wrong in space. You find one of your crew members disoriented, confused, and scared. The ship is powered down, hatches don’t work like they should, and cryptic messages don’t do anything to break the deafening silence when attempting to make radio contact with other crew members. You, yourself, have lost your memory core and must attempt to rebuild your databases even to perform simple tasks such as opening hatches. However, it doesn’t take long to decipher that this space thriller developed by No Code Studio and published by Devolver Digital is anything but simple. Observation was originally released on PS4 and as an Epic Game Store exclusive on May 21st, 2019, but can now also be found in orbit around Steam as of May 21st, 2020.
Story: Lost in Space
You, the ship’s AI, boot up to find that the ship is in disarray and the crew missing, save for one person who will become your main point of contact. Emma Fisher, one of the astronauts voiced by Kezia Burrows, also known for her voice of Amanda Ripley in Alien: Isolation, becomes your helper through the process of discovering what happened. Eventually, you find that you are not where you should be in space, and paranormal anomalies are interfering with you performing optimally as the ship’s computer. You do your best to get to the bottom of what’s going on while dealing with the hazards of space and the stress it puts on the crew.
Gameplay: Space is Strange
There are many games with a first-person point of view, but this may be one of the most innovative uses of the genre. You play as S.A.M., a computer responsible for running the many functions of an orbital space station. However, S.A.M. is not an android in the way that many science-fiction stories might portray. No, your entire point of view of the crew, space station, and immediate surroundings is done exclusively using the station’s many cameras and a few probe-like orbs that you are able to control and float through the maze of tubes and hatches.
This game might not be for someone who easily gets nauseous or motion-sick. The nature of a space station and lack of gravity means that there is no true way up. There’s not a whole lot to orient yourself in the capsules other than perhaps text on the walls or panel instrumentation. I found myself spending much of my time early game trying to figure out which way I was looking. Here on Earth, that’s something that matters. In space, however, the only orientation that is important is the one that gets you to where you need to go.
Look, mom! No hands!
Controls are simple. Part of the immersion is being given access to supercomputer levels of access. Unfortunately, that also means not having a body, arms, and legs to do what you need to do. Switching between cameras can be tedious as you slowly pan your view around each pod looking for evidence and switches. The drone is simple enough to control, and movement speed doesn’t have any in-game consequences. It’s leisurely, to say the least. This is not a bad thing in of itself, as I imagine movement in space to look lethargic. However, the mere size of the space station and maze of pods means that you are exploring a lot. A quicker movement speed for the drone would lessen the lag time between objectives.
Cosmic fetch quests
Memory and schematic puzzles will fill much of your time, as will looking for obscure clues to which the game does not give waypoints or hints. Asking your crew to remind you of your current objective only gives end goals and not immediate help. I am someone who sticks with trying to figure something out, but there were several times when I looked up where an item was. A good game should feel difficult at times but remain intuitive. Observation leaves a bit too much up to guessing and chance.
Out of thin air
The part of the gameplay that shines is the exploration. Bit by bit, you acquire access to locked parts of the space station and discover new sets of secrets and looming questions. S.A.M. can connect to computers with personal files throughout the claustrophobic capsules that give tiny bits of insight into the crew’s messages. At first they seem easy-going and casual, but as you get deeper into the investigation, sinister meanings begin to show in-between the lines. The attention to detail in the station’s interior is incredible. The smothering feeling of imprisonment envelopes you as you squeeze from one cramped capsule to another.
Again, with feeling
Save points are spread just a bit too far out for my liking. Sometimes goals can take a while to accomplish, especially with the crew’s instructions to you being as vague as they are. It may take a long time to figure out what you need to do with multiple steps involved. If you must leave during that time period, you might find yourself having to repeat some tedious tasks.
Graphics: Serene and Subtle
The graphics are beautiful. You really do feel as if you are in a space station. From the padded capsule walls to the straps and bungees holding everything down, the environment feels well-researched and implemented. It had everything I could think to find in a near-future space station. The lighting presents you with an eerie, abandoned vibe. Cameras shake and sputter how they might if the connection is unstable or if they came into contact with something.
No Code knows how to impress with their visuals. The scale and dire nature of the situation is seen in several impactful cutscenes between chapters. The “Oh shoot” feeling is real when you discover that you might be dealing with anomalies that have never been approached by humans before. A small visual moment of clarity in Observation has a bigger impact than many grand triple-A title cinematics might.
The only thing a bit off were the character models on close-ups. The voice animations were wonky, and the eyes wrong – moving and jerking unnaturally. There was also a bit of clipping towards the end, as well. It wasn’t game-breaking, but it was immersion-breaking.
Sound: Alarmingly Accurate
Without a doubt, one of the highlights of the game for me. Without its brilliant sound design, this game would not have been nearly as creepy, lonely, and foreboding. The intro credits is one of the best intro pieces I have heard in a long time. You hear ambient noises of the station slowly fade away from the air pulled out of airlocks, leaving you in the solemn muteness of space. The station’s groans, alarms, and radio chatter comes through naturally as if you were there. Even S.A.M.’s synthetic computer voice is spot-on. In a game where you control a computer that requires voice prompts and cues to know what to do, Observation nails the sound that’s so important.