>observer_ earned some high praise from critics when it was released on PC in 2017. Two years later, the game sees itself ported to the Nintendo Switch and based on Jukka’s review here at Darkstation, I was keen on giving it a try. It was something I really wanted to like because it stars Rutger Hauer and has the most exquisite retro-futurist cyberpunk aesthetic. This is a world where “advanced technology” is represented as large, bulky computers grafted onto pre-existing brick and mortar buildings in a nightmare of concrete and cables. I could almost smell the plastic and catch whiffs of computer ozone. Playing through the game also conjured pleasant memories of Westwood Studios’ Blade Runner, a game you really should track down and play right now, as well as the movie itself with winks and nods that are a little too on the nose for my liking.
Comparisons to my favorite movie and initial expectations aside, >observer_ just didn’t do anything for me. It presents itself as a cyberpunk mystery and to its credit, it does have the hooks needed to get the player involved with the story. Once the brain hacking conceit is introduced, it kind of goes off the rails. The story takes place in Poland, which is cool, in the distant future where a nanophage virus nearly wiped out all augmented humans, which is not cool, and triggered a massive war that left global devastation in its wake, which is decidedly uncool. Chiron, a mega corporation in the traditional sci-fi dystopian sense, has rebuilt Poland into the Fifth Polish Republic, maintaining order through the use of a parapolice force called Observers. These officers are given allowances to crack down on crime by any means, which extends to “hacking” augmented people’s minds when necessary. Daniel Lazarski is one of these Observers and given his age and general world-weariness, he’s been doing it for a long time. His life is disrupted after receiving a phone call from his estranged son Adam, warning him that things are not what they seem. So begins a journey into the computer powered heart of the Fifth Polish Empire, represented in-game as an apartment building that serves as a microcosm of a slapdash technological future.
The game is played from the first person perspective and like Westwood’s Blade Runner, there’s a strong emphasis on the investigative side of things. There are no guns or melee combat combos to perform, just open cases that need to be solved by examining clues, snooping around crime scenes, and talking with people. Daniel’s attempt to find Adam after a phone trace leads him to an apartment building that goes into lockdown, trapping him in and around the small block, severely limiting his investigation. This leads to some interesting navigation puzzles and the opportunity to talk with the quirky residents. Daniel rarely talks to people face to face because the lockdown has them trapped inside their homes but rather through two-way monitors and their patchy video feeds.
Moving around and poking at interactive objects is done with a minimal control scheme, with Daniel’s scanners mapped to the shoulder buttons on the Joy Cons that accompany crouch and action buttons. Opening doors is done by holding down a button and moving the analog stick in the appropriate direction. This is neat at first, adding a sense of dread and fear of the unknown when walking into rooms, especially as the suspense builds across the story, but I was over it fairly quickly. Observers are outfitted with special equipment to aid in their investigations, such as two scanners that allow them to track and catalog biological and technological points of interest, highlighting them against the messy clutter of apartments and businesses. The most interesting tool, however, is a cable that can connect the Observer to a person’s augmented brain, allowing them to view and interact with a their memories (at the small, probably nothing to worry about risk of both subject’s memories bleeding together).
These sequences usually follow after Daniel come face to face with a suspect in the case. By hacking their brains, Daniel can determine the events and circumstances pertinent to his case. These sequences serve as the central “horror” component of the game and were the parts I liked the least. These abstract vignettes are visually confusing and not much fun to play through. The frequent sudden bursts of cacophonous sounds like harsh digital feedback, screams, banging, and explosions were more annoying than scary. The worst noise is the loud, frantic vibration of the Joy Cons when something major happens on screen. Later hacking scenes introduce a stealth mechanic in which some sort of dream monster stalks you across the computerized memories, a gameplay mechanic that’s more than a little contrived.
I found myself struggling to maintain interest in >observer. This is because I loved the investigative portions of the game so much more than the brain hacks. I was so drawn in by the cyberpunk world that anything except for trudging through the apartment was a distraction to something I wanted to explore more of. I love the aesthetic of the game so much. I was enchanted by the ugly technology that runs (and ruins) people’s lives. We’re so used to the idea of technology making people’s lives better and easier but people in >observer_ suffer through the misguided and invasive technology. The game looks its best when played in TV mode so as to take in the gravity of its technological nightmare. Beyond the snake-like cables that lie across floors and hang from ceilings, there are some neat artifacting effects as digital displays, kiosks, and flickering green-blue visual data feedback. Rutger Hauer turns in a pretty OK performance as the world-weary Daniel Lazarski, though I thought he sounded a little tired or kind of bored reading through some of his lines. As far as star power goes, Hauer was a really good get.
>observer_ offers a glimpse in a terrifying cyberpunk future that is far more frightening than any pursuing monsters of unreasonable size. The stealth action moments of the game failed to make an impact and I usually greeted them with a “let’s get this over with” attitude. No, the game is at its best when you’re exploring the claustrophobic corridors of an old world building appropriated by corporate interests, lazily retrofitted with invasive technology that is much more of a hindrance than any sort of benefit to mankind.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.