>observer_ Review

Bloober Team, the Polish creators of the acclaimed horror adventure Layers of Fear, have shifted realities for their latest game. More than horror, >observer_ is a pureblood first person cyberpunk thriller. Thematically, it resembles Get Even, another Polish-developed suspense title. Both of these dark and foreboding adventures play with the idea of accessing other people’s memories, which ensures some pretty messed up trips down the memory lines. What’s really awesome about >observer_ is that it stars the cult movie icon Rutger Hauer.

It’s the year 2084. Hundreds of thousands of people have been wiped out by the nanophage, a cyber plague targeting augmented people. The rest of humanity was dealt killing blows by the great war between the East and the West, obliterating both fronts. From the ashes of death and destruction rose an all-powerful corporation Chiron, which formed a fifth Polish republic. Chiron owns everyone who matters. As for the rest, who cares? The poor rot away in a huge run-down apartment blocks, seeking to escape the reality with illegal drugs and VR.

In these less than comfortable settings in future Krakow operates also Dan Lazarski (Hauer), an observer working for Chiron. Detached from the web, observers are cybercops who can hack into victims’ minds to gather evidence against suspects. After his latest assignment, Dan has no time for overdue rest and relaxation as he gets a sudden video call from his son, whom he hasn’t heard of for years. Adam is in big trouble, but the static breaks their conversation. Dan has no other options but trace the call to an apartment block and follow the leads there. At the scene, bodies start to pile up in an alarming rate. The further Dan gets to the rotten core of the crime and closer to Adam's destiny, the reality itself is questioned.

In short >observer_ can be described as a hardcore retro sci-fi. It paints the future with the same brushes as many cyberpunk movies and novels did in the 80’s and 90’s. Everything is dimly-lit and dirty. Steam emerges from the cracks of a decaying world. Flickering CRT monitors are piled up, living their own eerie life for no apparent reason. Computers are old Commodore 64s and pizza box PCs or whatever is found from the prop storages. Flat cables crisscross all over the walls and floors. People are as much flesh as clumsy war prosthetics, made of plastic and decaying Eastern European steel. Gene splicing is the latest rave, altering the face of humanity. Unfortunately, most of the augmentations are done in underground chop shops.

The game’s sentiments, as well as its visuals, are firmly in the '90s. It’s like an adventure game from the bygone era when the extra storage capacity of CD-ROM was more likely allocated to presentation rather than sophisticated gameplay. Moving around the game world, you can almost imagine an old 2x CD-ROM drive whirring in stress as it streams hardware-heavy visuals, only now in real-time. These still screen caps can’t do justice to the rich imagery of >observer_. Heavy post-processing effects make the world organic and living, as unsettlingly real as it is dream-like unreal.

Dan walks through the apartment block, and its immediate surrounding as a lockdown has shut down the building, trapping everyone in their flats. There’s not much straying from the relatively narrow path paved with crime scenes, unless you want to, as there are some optional courses of action to take. Dan interrogates people through intercoms, but more importantly, uses his forensic visions to search for clues. Bio-view reveals traces of organic matter like blood while em-view shows mechanical and electronic apparatus Dan can inspect or interact with. It’s always a treat to turn on Dan’s visions and see the world through an interlaced and posterized lo-res image, the closest you can get having Terminator’s famous point of view. As an observer, Dan’s equipped with Dream Eater, a tool to mindjack even dead people. He plummets into memories at the expense of his own mental health. These memory trips are disjointed streams of consciousness - nightmarish visions mixed with his own experiences.

The rich visuals and sparing narrative create a thick atmosphere you could cut with a knife. People younger than me can’t possibly understand how awesome it’s to have Rutger Hauer as an inseparable part of the game’s appeal. I was a fan long before witnessing his unforgettable performance in Blade Runner. Before that, I had seen Hauer as a dashing but tragic hero in Ladyhawke, a randy mercenary leader in Flesh + Blood, a murderous psychopath in The Hitcher and a blind swordsman in Blind Fury, to name a few. Hauer, with his deep and soft baritone, brings charisma and weary life to Lazarski - not only in the voice, but as the observer in likeness too, in brief glances in mirrors and memories.

>observer_ is one of the most immersive games I have had a privilege to play in recent memory. It grabs you by the collar and pulls deep into its twisted cyber mystery. The game progresses with the beat of any good thriller and won’t let you have a dull moment, even with a lack of action as observers come unarmed. It took about 10 hours to solve the case (or did it solve me?), but I would gladly have spent twice the time in the bleak and oppressive neo Krakow. The game is worth jacking back into, though, as it has alternate paths to take and endings to see. >observer_ is like a direct-to-video B movie that never was that you can now play yourself. And it stars Rutger Hauer. Did I tell how awesome that is?

Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.