Written by Beckett Van Stralen
The best way to describe Bloober Team’s new cyberpunk mystery, Observer, would be something similar to an acid trip. It packs an incredibly original story that paints a disturbingly bleak future where humanity relies on augmentations to extend lifespans and make living easier; however, at a great cost. With technological advancements there are always consequences, and Observer explores them in vivid detail. It is one of the best-produced cyberpunk narrative-driven adventures I’ve ever played, and right from the opening sequences, I was glued to its story and setting. However, what could’ve been a phenomenal experience was hampered by a lack of gameplay variety, long periods with no story beats, and potentially game-breaking technical issues. Yet, despite its shortcomings, it’s hard not to recommend Observer to fans of the science fiction and cyberpunk genres, as it weaves a tale ripe with the downfalls of human augmentation, genetic manipulation, and living under the watchful, domineering eye of a mega corporation.
The story of Observer takes place in the year 2084 in Krakow, Poland, where human augmentations are the new norm and modern society is controlled by a powerful Polish mega corporation known as Chiron. These advancements come at a great cost in the form of a plague known as the nanophage, which causes nanomachines from the augmentations to attack their host. Traumatized by the nanophage and the Great War which allowed Chiron to take control, the lower class has been forced to live in tenement buildings, where some are addicted to drugs, and others are addicted to living in virtual reality.
The player takes control of Daniel Lazarski, who is a titular Observer - a neural detective who has the ability to connect his mind with any person of interest, and experience their feelings, thoughts, and memories to aid in solving criminal cases. In Observer’s opening moments, Lazarski receives a call from his estranged son Adam who begs him for help, but they are quickly disconnected from each other. Concerned for Adam’s well-being, Lazarski decides to trace the call, which leads him to an old tenement building. Soon after he arrives, Lazarski uncovers a murderous conspiracy involving his son, and takes it upon himself to investigate.
Throughout the six to eight hour campaign, most of the gameplay involves investigating crime scenes, interviewing apartment residents, and exploring people’s memories via Lazarski’s Dream Eater device attached to his arm. Investigating crime scenes involves the use of Lazarski's augmented visions - Bio Vision and Electromagnetic Vision. Using Bio Vision enables Lazarski to scan organic targets, while Electromagnetic Vision is used on computers and electronics, including installed human augments. Scanning is achieved by aiming at the desired object and holding the L trigger. That is all that is done while investigating crime scenes for six to eight hours. At first, this was fascinating, aided by mostly fantastic voice acting and observations by Blade Runner alumni Rutger Hauer, but as time went on, it became mundane and repetitive, to the point where I’d be rushing through the scans to begin the next part of my objective.
When Lazarski isn’t scanning crime scenes, he’s jacking into the minds of apartment residents and persons of interest. This is where Observer becomes more like an acid trip than a video game. Some of these sequences are genuinely disturbing with explicit imagery, and are an absolute delight to experience. Observer seems to draw inspiration from games like Silent Hill and The Evil Within to create these virtual worlds within the Dream Eater. You will encounter long hallways filled with computer monitors displaying eyes, crowds of people with TV monitors for heads, and blood-stained walls with organic matter growing over them. These sequences succeed in portraying the fractured mind of someone who lost most of their humanity by augmenting their bodies, and the fears they experience living under the complete domination of Chiron. The game’s narrative also explores the neural side effects of using the Dream Eater, with Lazarski sometimes unable to discern what is reality and what is a fabrication. While most of the Dream Eater sequences are very enjoyable, there were some where I felt the narrative was dragging, which had me running to its conclusion as I became uninterested in what was happening around me. During these sequences, a mechanic is introduced that was very engaging, with Lazarski encountering an entity within the mind of someone connected to his Dream Eater. He is forced to hide and navigate around the entity without alerting it to his presence. To avoid spoilers I won’t go into further detail, but these are tense, adrenaline-pumping moments that change the dynamic of the game and left me wishing for more of them to experience.
The graphical presentation in Observer is excellent and mirrors a very similar visual aesthetic seen in science fiction films like Blade Runner, even down to small details such as the opening credits scroll. The filth of the tenement buildings, the darkness of the Dream Eater, and the sky obscured by futuristic flying machines and glowing electronic billboards are beautifully rendered. It is worth mentioning that during my longest stint of play (which was about three or four hours straight), I suffered minor motion sickness due to the extreme visuals in the Dream Eater sequences. I can honestly say I have never experienced motion sickness from a game like this before, but it’s a testament as to how intense those sequences are.
In some instances, the path of progression in Observer allows the player to complete objectives in any chosen order. Giving players the freedom to pursue objectives in the order they see fit encourages substantial replay value. A moment where I was given the opportunity to choose my path was when I was presented with a severed head to mind jack into. Before making a decision, a voice piped through Lazarski’s communicator and advised me I would regret commencing a neural link, and to meet him first. In my playthrough I followed the instructions of the voice, and after watching the end of the game, I seriously questioned how my narrative might’ve been different, had I made the alternative choice.
Unfortunately during my time with Observer, I experienced some noticeable bugs and glitches. During my first playthrough, I had used the Dream Eater on a person of interest, navigated my way through the sequence, and at its conclusion, I saved and exited my game. Upon returning later, I found that I was no longer able to press triangle to bring up my status to use stabilizers or view my log, indicating where my next objective was. I deleted and reinstalled the game, restarted my Playstation 4 Pro multiple times, but nothing seemed to work. Finally, I gave in and restarted my entire playthrough with a fresh save file, which solved the problem and I did not encounter it again. At the time of writing this review, the game still has not been patched since I downloaded it, so this is an error that may still be experienced. Observer also frequently suffers from severe dips in framerate. This is particularly noticeable when there is action playing out in front of you, or even when you start sprinting.
Observer is a flawed but fantastic exploration of a world in the not-so-distant future. It illustrates the gruesome reality of the consequences of human augmentation in the form of extending life spans and technological advancement of the human race. While it is steered by a mostly terrific voice acting performance by Rutger Hauer and supported by breathtaking graphics, it is hampered by long periods of play without exciting narrative beats ,and lacks variety in gameplay mechanics. Despite these downfalls, I feel fans of science fiction or cyberpunk themed games will feel right at home in the shoes of Daniel Lazarski, and will enjoy the story Observer has to tell.