Developer: Bloober Team
Publisher: Aspyr Media
Reviewed on: PS4
Release date: August 15, 2017
Price: $29.99 USD
Bite-sized Reviews differ from our more traditional, full-length reviews in that they’re restricted to smaller titles and, as the name implies, trims the fat in favor of getting straight to the point. What is this game and why should you care? Let’s get to that below!
So, what is Observer?
A first-person sci-fi, cyberpunk, horror hybrid developed by the minds behind the psychological horror delight Layers of Fear. You play as Daniel Lazarski, a hardened detective voiced by Bladerunner’s Rutger Hauer, who just so happens to be what the game refers to as an “observer.” Using the “Dream Eater,” a cyberpunk doo-dad attached to his hand, Lazarski can jack into a person’s brain (living or dead) in order to observe their memories. In addition to the Dream Eater, you can toggle two different vision enhancements to scan evidence and locate interactive objects in order to assist in his investigations.
At the start of the game, Lazarski wakes up in his car and receives a cryptic call from his estranged son. Using a futuristic laptop seemingly ripped straight out of the movie Hackers, you trace his location back to the game’s equivalent of the slums. However, what greets you inside of Adam’s apartment isn’t a warm welcome — it’s a decapitated corpse. You spend the entirety of the game investigating this murder (and the accompanied murders linked to it) using a combination of Lazarski’s enhanced vision, elementary environmental puzzle solving, and jacking into the memories of the recently deceased (which play out like bite-sized portions of Bloober Team’s aformentioned horror title, Layers of Fear, and unfortunately introduce some rather awful stealth/chase scenarios).
Why should you care?
If atmospheric horror is your jam, Observer delivers it in spades. It may not have been the deep cyberpunk detective story I wanted — mostly due in part to the more horror-focused mind-jack segments — but the narrative is intriguing (though ultimately unsatisfying in its conclusions). I really enjoyed Layers of Fear and the folks at Bloober Team used that experience to craft some genuinely unsettling backdrops to wander around in. Observer’s aesthetic blends traditional realism with an almost Lovecraftian level of mind-fuckery in the latter third of the experience, which leads to plenty of delicious screenshot opportunities for the morbidly curious. I’m talking tentacles and living, breathing buildings, which caused me to pause on more than one occasion just to soak it all in. In terms of visuals, Observer is downright stellar.
Jacking into a suspect or victim sends Lazarski into a nightmarish rendition of their memories and fears. This is reflected in the gameplay as well, as you become hunted by lurking monsters or reach an otherwise dead end that greets you with a whole new path the moment you turn around. It was like being stuck in a world that was equal parts A Nightmare on Elm Street and Blade Runner, though not always for the better.
Where does it go wrong?
For starters, the game runs pretty poorly on the PS4. The framerate is consistently choppy and there’s frequent slowdown that’s noticeable throughout the entire experience. Observer was clearly optimized for PC and just wasn’t given proper tuning during its console transition phase. I can’t speak on how the game runs on the PS4 Pro, or even the Xbox One, but on the standard model PS4 it’s definitely messy and concerning.
Interacting with the environment felt hit or miss as well. Sometimes doors would take a second or third attempt to open, and holding R2 to “drag” an object with the right analog stick often sent the camera floating along faster than said object would move (an unfixable cursor sensitivity issue, even after tinkering with the settings).
As I mentioned earlier, the Dream Eater segments provided some really intense moments and stellar atmosphere, but their accompanied stealth segments were poorly designed and mostly felt out of place. The A.I. is abysmal and can be followed directly behind without fear of drawing their attention, while most of the stealth encounters can be avoided entirely due to a single monster being placed in a large enough map to never worry about getting caught. The end of the game had a particular scenario that wanted me to stealthily maneuver around two monsters, but each one followed a rectangular pattern that just allowed me to creep behind them the entire time. There’s a story reveal in the game’s final moments where it all comes together and the creatures you encounter make sense, but that didn’t make it any more enjoyable.
And finally, something that pains me to admit, Rutger Hauer’s voice-over wasn’t very good. I like Blade Runner as much as the next guy, and his raspy voice certainly fit the “aging, hard-boiled detective who has definitely seen some shit,” but something about his delivery felt off; as if he was reading his lines without being given any sort of emotional context.
Okay, so what’s the verdict? Worth a shot?
Observer is a tough game to recommend, especially at $29.99 USD, but I can freely admit that I enjoyed my time with it. I’m big into these first-person narrative adventures and I’m a sucker for cyberpunk, sci-fi, horror, and detective stories. However, the game ran poorly on my standard PS4 and the narrative did nothing for me when all was said and done. When the story and gameplay experience falls flat, all that’s left is a fantastically designed world that oozes atmosphere. That only gets you so far.
If you’re curious, I’d either wait for a sale or catch a Let’s Play on YouTube. Christopher Odd has a full run over at his channel.
We don’t use a scoring system here at Cheap Boss Attack, so hopefully you found the information above far more informative than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes.
This game was purchased, not provided for the purpose of a review.