After having played Bloober Team’s premier horror title Layers of Fear back in 2015, I walked away recognizing the potential from this new Polish studio. The game, although one of several of the time hoping to evoke Kojima Production’s P.T., was inventive and clever in its scares and imagery. The team showed off an excellent attention to detail and framing, ensuring that the player’s gaze always landed on something terrifying and unusual. When Bloober announced their latest game Observer at the 2016 PC Gaming Show, I became anxious to see how their talents matured. Well, Observer is finally here, and it’s one of my favorite games this year. Period.
Set in the year 2084, Observer establishes its setting as a surprisingly lore-rich dystopian society that’s been ravaged by a great war and pieced back together in the favor of a corporation turned government named Chiron. Cybernetic augmentations are standard even among the poor, but those living in poverty remain at risk to a digital plague known as the nanophage — in addition to the usual class-based struggles. We play as a tool of the Chiron corporation’s rule, a detective named Daniel Lazarski with the ability to enter people’s minds as a form of interrogation. Law enforcement with this ability are known as observers, and public opinion of them is pretty low given their tendency to lose their sanity over time. As such, they lack the clearance to hold a side-arm.
Protagonist Lazarski, played by actor Rutger Hauer, best known for his role as Roy Batty in Blade Runner, begins his story when he receives a call from his estranged son Adam. The source of the call sends him to “the stacks” — slums that carry a social stigma in this heavily classist society. Observer primarily takes place in an apartment complex somewhere deep in the Polish city of Kraków. This setting, as bleak and downtrodden as it is, inspires awe as the art direction of Observer is simply fantastic. Walls are affixed with exposed wiring, cluttered with trash, and adorned with holographic projections. Observer instantly cements itself as one of the best-looking cyberpunk games around.
The apartment and its occupants showcase Observer’s drastically superior production values over Layers of Fear. Numerous residents can be interviewed about current events, highlighting an eclectic cast of oddballs, addicts (to vices like drugs and VR), and misfits. The voice acting is particularly good, and residents remain memorable for their personalities — from a short-tempered father to an MRA cry baby and an arrogant “immaculate” family that religiously frowns upon augmentations. Simple dialogue options allow the player to be a smart ass or empathetic to the residents’ concerns.
The central story picks up when Lazarski stumbles upon a crime scene that connects to several other occupants of the building. Our observer himself is equipped with forensic analysis tools that allow him to examine electronics and bio-organic matter of interest. Using these modes, players can look for clues pertaining to each area in need of examination and uncover information about what’s transpired. This means some simple puzzle solving on occasion to make progress. The addition of some short-lived late-game stealth segments push the title away from the unjustly stigmatized “walking sim” genre, but don’t expect combat of any sort.
Lazarski’s primary investigative tool is the dream eater device, which is affixed to his right arm and extends out into a corded probe. While Observer’s setting is unsettling as is, the true scares of the game come from Lazarski’s sub-conscious travels into the minds of criminal suspects and victims. It’s these moments that transform Observer from a cyberpunk thriller into a full blown psychologically fueled nightmare. When Lazarski is in the mind of another, what he perceives is a mash of out of sequence events, symbolic imagery, and assumed perspectives — as the player, you’ll begin to question if what you’re seeing is part of the host’s or Lazarski’s mind.
As I moved from one mind to the next, I found myself smiling with grim satisfaction at what types of terrors Bloober imagined up. They either took direct influence — or at least pursued themes evocative thereof — of the works of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. Surreal storytelling, grotesque figures, and a side order of body horror. It’s glorious. Each mind explored takes its toll on Lazarski, making them more imaginative and chaotic than the last. Similarly to Layers of Fear, the nightmare sequences feel like a haunted house ride of masterfully executed terrors. Don’t expect jump scare, though. Instead, you’ll be bombarded by auditory and visual information, wholly unpredictable and smartly designed to elicit a steady stream of “what the fuck?”s. You’ll go through these mostly as an observer (pun intended) at first but later a participant as Lazarski struggles to maintain control in more unstable minds.
Optional story paths reside in the apartment building, offering strange glimpses of the lives of its residents, found behind locked doors or in some cases, in entirely optional subconscious travels. Documents found on computers further flesh out the world the game occupies, showing the extent of the Chiron corporation’s oppression. There’s also a very silly bonus game that can be played on the computers called WITH FIRE AND SWORD: SPIDERS; I just love saying that name out loud.
Observer only faltered as it approached its climax with respect to a handful of progress halting bugs that require checkpoint reload (though since fixed according to reviewer patch notes) and stealth sequences that just about overstay their welcome. In my opinion, one character in particular lacked an entirely satisfying conclusion, but overall the game wraps up well with two (so far that I’ve found) enjoyable endings. The journey itself will ultimately be where the most fun is had, though.
Bloober Team has constructed a world ripe for further exploration and an amazing dive through it that offers a smartly concocted horror experience. The scares here are what one might call a “thinking man or woman’s horror”, with the developer once again showing restrain — focusing on disturbing you — and knowing how and when to throw a nice boo moment at you amidst the slow burn. Hauer’s performance suffers from a couple of rocky moments usually found when screen actors do voice over, but overall he adds a grizzled “take no shit” charm to the character of Daniel Lazarski. As for the game’s cyberpunk art direction, fellow Polish developer CD Projekt RED of Witcher fame has some stiff competition for their upcoming Cyberpunk 2077.
Featuring and executing to high degree themes of psychological horror and cyberpunk dystopian fiction, Observer is an impressive leap for Bloober Team and overall entry into the horror genre as a whole. It’s everything I hoped the developer could accomplish and more, and I received about eight hours of a damn good time. Fans of sci-fi horror take note, there’s a new benchmark.
(9 / 10)
Code was provided by the developer for review purposes.
Specs: Intel i7 7700k, NVIDIA GTX 1080 ti, 32GB of 3000hz RAM.