Few mediums are as capable of delivering effective psychological horror as video games and at the same time as poor at taking advantage of the genre. But Bloober Team's Observer is a rare example of the impact the medium can have on a player when exploring a setting that cultivates confusion and fear.
That setting is a future cyberpunk vision of Krakow, Poland, after twin catastrophes known as the nanophage and the Great Decimation. The former was a digital plague that killed many thousands of augmented people and is still considered a threat. The latter was a devastating war between East and West, which allowed the Chiron corporation to seize control and create the Fifth Polish Republic.
Into this dystopian world steps the player-controlled character Daniel Lazarski, a "corporate tool of oppression" and neural detective called an Observer who hacks people's fragile minds and memories for information to solve crimes or otherwise protect corporate interests. An Observer's role is a thankless job that helps maintain order and, by extension, corporate hegemony.
As is often the case in such post-apocalyptic worlds, the setting itself functions as a character in the story. And that's rarely more true than in this game, as Lazarski meets few other people in person and instead must navigate a future where a curfew keeps streets empty after dark and people cower behind high-security doors as they turn to drugs, VR, neural implants and holograms to distract from a cruel reality.
In fact, Lazarski's personal interactions are fairly impersonal, a reflection of this digital dystopia: Communications with headquarters occur over the police radio, discussions with tenants happen via intercom, and interviews/interrogations with victims and suspects take place -- without consent -- via a wired connection to a neural implant. Between the plague, war and Observers, social interaction is something to avoid.
People still have relationships, whether professional, personal or romantic, but there is a cynicism and fateful quality to them. Even Lazarski's relationship with his son (a Chiron engineer) is strained, so when he receives an urgent message from him, the detective knows something is definitely wrong and his son is in desperate need of his help. Lazarski heads to the city's seedy Class C slums to investigate.
As an Observer, Lazarski's own augmentations allow him to scan his surroundings and probe people's minds. In practical terms, his vision likewise is augmented so that surfaces sometimes can appear digitized with a layer of computer code a la the Matrix, which can begin to degrade into heavily pixelated visuals if not maintained with a drug called synchrozine that helps stabilize the operation of his augmentations.
This is an important element because it helps plant the seed in players' minds that your sight is not always reliable. It is artificially maintained and, like any computer, is subject to visual artifacts or worse. In fact, with the nanophage as a backdrop and an occupation that involves hacking into people's minds, Lazarski's visions can be dubious. This element reminds me of The Suffering, and the hallucinations that plague its death row inmate character.
Lazarski himself resembles the cold calculations of a computer thanks to the dry, near monotone delivery of Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner, The Hitcher, Ladyhawke). If reflective of his personality, it would help explain his estrangement from his son. But that might be giving too much credit to this portrayal. Regardless, while I'm an admirer of Hauer, this performance could have used more humanity, especially to create more empathy and elevate the horror.
Be that as it may, Lazarski's scanning capabilities help investigate one's surroundings and the crime scenes that are encountered. An electronic scan locates objects of interest such as computers, ID cards, machinery, equipment or augmentations including neural implants. Another scan shows organic material like blood, skin, bodies or wounds. A closer inspection with either reveals detailed information. A third option is night vision.
Initiating these scans and more detailed inspections involves relatively intuitive button presses on the Joy-Con controllers of the Nintendo Switch, the platform that I played the game on. Indeed I felt that the controls configuration worked well in general, whether scanning, moving items, opening/closing doors/drawers/cabinets, picking up items, selecting buttons/switches/dialog options or walking/sprinting/crouching.
If there are any caveats about the game's controls, it's how some objects like the small neural implants can require precise selection in order to interact with them, how some objects react inconsistently to selection (like the lever in cellar #028), how the stick and motion controls can sometimes interfere with each other when opening/closing doors/drawers/cabinets and how those have to be actively released each time.
That said, these were minor issues that didn't impact my overall enjoyment of the game or its controls. Motion controls in general worked fine, and the game played well in either docked or handheld mode, though dialog, scan details, and other visual info or cues can be more challenging to read on the smaller handheld screen, though that's not unexpected. I did end up playing most of the game in docked mode.
In fact, controls were not paramount to the experience because the player's interactions with this world are somewhat limited by design. This is not, after all, an action game. As the title suggests, Lazarski observes. From the moment he arrives at the tenement, his search for answers about his son reveals one crime scene after another, and a possible killer to contend with. His pursuit of the truth, his son and suspect(s) lead down a twisting rabbit hole.
Performing scans, as it turns out, is less about obtaining clues than it is about filling out the story. Each observation helps provide more context for what happened or is happening and therefore makes the experience deeper and more involving. It's not a police procedural like L.A. Noire, where clues you've discovered directly impact the conclusions you can draw. Injuries, weapons, recordings, emails, computer files and objects all inform more than indict.
They all tell a story of desperate people caught in an inhumane world, struggling to come to terms with issues of identity and privacy, dilemmas of health care or insurance, or problems of employment and service. These sometimes intimate details of people's lives are only hinted at in Lazarski's conversations, but his numerous interactions with the tenement's colorful characters create a living, breathing world even if hidden behind closed doors.
The dialog and voice acting is solid, effectively portraying unique personalities brought together under one roof (or two) in this Krakow neighborhood. This microcosm shows off the fragmented society as convincingly as the intermittent video feed aired on each door's intercom. Then there are the rooms themselves, some open and others needing a code or some other obstacle removed first, dilapidated hovels and more comfortable accommodations. Each with a story to tell.
Some rooms have become crime scenes, others hide varied pursuits that can disturb, and still more are simple homes of sometimes odd proclivities. But it's these secrets, behind closed doors and shuttered minds, that are the purview of the Observer and -- by extension -- the player. We become voyeurs of sorts, investigating, analyzing and documenting people's lives. That Lazarski's family becomes his obsession makes us voyeurs into his life, too.
And it's here where the experience of playing Observer really shines. In any given moment we see this world through Lazarski's eyes -- literally and figuratively -- and get a window into this society. But when he initiates a neural hack with someone we pass through the window and see from the inside out. Both his perception and the subject's. And the result is often chaotic, surreal, disturbing and, ultimately, revealing -- of both subject and Observer.
In this realm, which players will visit periodically when hacking into the minds of different subjects, there are dreamlike sequences and nightmare visions through which the subject's memories course. It is a jumble of sensory inputs that Lazarski has to navigate to get to the truth. And some settings are actual puzzles with obstacles represented by the environment, the killer or both. These can involve using or moving objects, simple observation or even stealth.
However, I did not find any frustrating, and I tend to get stuck on such attempts especially stealth. These are not Max Payne style dream sequences. There was one puzzle I looked up online after multiple attempts but still figured it out before reading the solution. And the stealth portions require patience (including baiting the killer to move in one random scenario) but they never annoy. In every case I enjoyed the challenge and felt each fit the context of the story and the situation.
These hacks in general are creative explorations of their subjects' psyches and complement well the world that Bloober Team (the studio behind Layers of Fear) has crafted through emails, articles, voice recordings, settings and Lazarski's dialog with residents. It's a setting that is one of my favorite in video games, up there with BioShock, The Last of Us and Mass Effect. A strong narrative runs through it all, and the individual stories are not only interesting but are integral to the whole.
It's telling that the thread of Lazarski's story becomes tied to the larger narrative not only via his personal investigation but in the way his perception begins to fragment with visions more commonly associated with neural hacks. His own world starts to fray around the edges in disturbing ways that lead him, and the player, to question the nature of what they are seeing or experiencing. Is it a dream, a neural hack, a drugged hallucination, the nanophage or something else?
The doubt that this scenario sows leads to some genuinely creepy and effective moments. And it's part of a narrative arc that is disturbing from beginning to end. Something is clearly amiss and the visions and other experiences that occur in and out of neural hacks creatively exploit our unease and encourage our discomfort. Besides two or three jump scares, there were several times that the game actually gave me goosebumps. And that is an unusual experience in a video game.
The issues the game raises both explicitly in the narrative and implicitly in Lazarski's (and the player's) experience are rich ground to explore where we are as a society and where we might be headed. It's the best of what science fiction provides. In this regard, Observer is a rare video game that not only challenges established norms of gameplay and entertainment but has something to say about the human condition now and in the future. I personally love this game and can highly recommend it.
(This review is based on a review code of Observer for the Nintendo Switch. The game released February 7 on this console.)
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