Observer walks a line between cyberpunk, noir and psychological horror that displays a deep love of all three genres, drawing its most obvious inspirations from films like Alphaville, Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner.
The story follows cyborg detective (or Observer) Daniel Lazarski, played by Blade Runner’s Rutger Hauer. Daniel Lazarski is your quintessential hard-boiled detective; as analytical as he is curt, Lazarski is estranged from his family and suffering the effects of the digital plague, a mysterious illness affecting humans with cybernetic implants. The game begins with Lazarski recieving a call from his estranged son and tracing it to a block of city apartments in Krakow, Poland. What begins as a check-in on his son quickly becomes a murder investigation with an unidentified corpose. The body has been beheaded, there’s few signs of a struggle and most of the neighbors claim they didn’t hear anything. So begins Lazarski’s search for clues.
I wasn’t totally sure what developer Bloober Team was going for in the early part of the game. Observer takes a while to get rolling and it isn’t always obvious what you’re supposed to do next. The early game features a lot of slowly moving around crime scenes, picking things up and turning them over. Lazarski uses a device called the Dream Eater to switch between three vision augments, giving him a fuller picture of each scene — biometric, electromagnetic and night vision. He talks to possible witnesses. He does the shoeleather work of the investigator. In many ways, it reminded me of the plodding, deliberate pace of Innocence: Ghost in the Shell 2. Despite the beautifully crafted environments and intricate world building, it was wearing out its welcome quickly, I could feel myself getting bored.
It was about this point that I found my first live witness. Connecting Lazarski’s neural link to the witness brain, the whole game makes a sharp turn into cyberpunk horror. The pace breaks into a run, throwing the player into the fragmented memories of a dying mind. The way the game portrays this is one of the most inventive, aesthetically unnerving moments of any game I’ve played in some time. I wasn’t expecting the turn at all and the shot of adrenaline the sequence provides is enough to propel the game into the next, and the next.
Lazarski moves through digital representations of memories, these fractured, half-remembered moments from another life. They tumble out of the witness connected more by raw emotion than by any chronological order and it’s up to you to make sense of them.
Then there’s the stealth sequences, in which Lazarski is persued by an unknowable monster and must sneak by without being detected. These sequences aren’t well implemented at all and add a layer of frustration the game could honestly do without.
Observer‘s slow burn isn’t for everyone, but the methodical gathering of information among beautiful cyberpunk environments, interspersed with genuinely unsettling sequences inside witness minds, creates a game with a flavour all its own. This is smart, surprising cyberpunk from a team I’m excited to hear more from.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Great environment design; Methodical detective work; Genuinely scary at times
Lowlights: Stealth sections are awful; May be too slow a burn for some
Developer: Team Bloober
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC, Mac OS, Linux
Review conducted on Nintendo Switch with a pre-release retail code provided by the publisher.