We’re just a little over a month away from revisiting the world of Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi classic feature film Blade Runner in its upcoming sequel. If you can’t even wait that long though, you’re in luck. Observer is a new cyberpunk video game title from Bloober Team that’s here to scratch that itch. Just be warned: The scratching is horrific.
I don’t mean that as a pejorative in the slightest though. What the developers have done with Observer is combine the very best cyberpunk elements of Blade Runner with an intense layer of psychological horror that will leave you dreading this frighteningly recognizable future.
A future in which both a techno-virus and a great world war has decimated most of the world, allowing the mega-corporation Chiron to rise to power and build the Fifth Polish Republic out of the ashes. Chiron’s grip is absolute, controlling every aspect of the lives of citizens who have been classified using a new caste system, with the lowest forced to live in tenements no more than hovels dug out of/built on top of the ruins of what came before.
There may be no Replicants or noodle bars, but as we’re introduced to this world the influence of Scott’s movie is abundant to the point of homage. A bruised sky, barely visible through the patchwork gaps between towering industrialized skyscrapers, claustrophobically stacked together. Inky black rain pattering down to puddle on streets strewn with detritus, both human or otherwise. Citizens using bulky and intrusive retro-futuristic technologies as they scrape out a living. Everything bathed in the endless coloured flickering of neon advertising.
The influence becomes overtly meta as we meet our protagonist, Daniel Lazarski, voiced by none other than Blade Runner’s Roy Batty himself, Rutger Hauer. Daniel is an Observer, a member of a special police unit who have been technologically augmented to use a device called a “Dream Eater” to jack into the psyches of both suspects and victims alike during an investigation, and experience their memories and darkest fears for himself.
Those fears take on a personal touch as Daniel, rousing from a drunken sleep in his retro-futuristic car, receives a distressing, jumbled up call from his estranged son. Tracing the call to a Class C tenement building, Daniel doesn’t find his son though, but instead stumbles onto a gruesome murder scene right as the building’s security system mysteriously triggers an impenetrable lockdown, trapping everybody – killer and all – inside its crumbling walls.
Playing out in first-person, Observer will have you control Daniel as you search for clues using your techno augments – you can switch between Electromagnet Vision and Bio Vision to detect and analyse clues from electronic devices and biological evidence respectively. You will also question the other tenants in the building, most of whom are trapped behind locked doors, only able to communicate through crude, distorted communication devices.
Despite not physically meeting these other tenants – with the exception of a few like the building’s war veteran janitor with his many prosthetics – Bloober Team does a fantastic job of fleshing out these people. We learn of this crumbling stratum of society, many of its inhabitants desperately trying to escape their own seemingly hopeless circumstance through drugs or holographic worlds.
It’s not their words though but rather the thoughts of these various suspects that provide Daniel with his biggest leads to unearthing this seemingly monstrous conspiracy, as he uses his Dream Eater to enter the minds of those he comes across. It is also here where Bloober Team does their finest work in scaring the crap out of you.
Thanks to the side effects of Daniel’s Dream Eater and other tech implants, you have to regular inject yourself with drugs to stay “synchronized”, with all kinds of visual artefacts and neat little graphical touches informing the player of his degrading mental state. When he enters the thoughts of others though, those visual flourishes get turned up to the max, as the world starts obeying the un-logic of dreams. Objects and people appear, disappear or morph from one moment to the next, and your sense of space and time is turned on its head – sometimes literally – allowing for creepy puzzles that will test your brain as much as they test your sphincter.
And the more Daniel uses the Dream Eater, the more the thoughts of his subjects, his own memories and the real world begin to bleed into one, creating a hellish descent into a daemonic cyber-hell. No longer able to trust what you see and hear, Observer racks you with a continuously escalating dread. There are moments where the gameplay deviates into shoehorned instant-death stealth scenarios that frustrate more than they frighten, but luckily these are clumsy exceptions rather than terrifying norms.
Bloober Team’s use of the Unreal Engine 4 also means that this nerve-racking downward spiral of techno-horror is a pretty good looking nightmare. Aiding this is a fantastic sound design that will have you jumping at every errant creak, while a moody musical score just adds to the overwhelmingly unnervingly atmosphere.
Despite the ever-present pressure to void your bowels though, you will find yourself continuously coming back for more, as Observer spins out a top notch narrative the revelations of which I won’t spoil here. It’s also a tale that respects its audience enough to not just hold your hand, but allows you to figure things out for yourself.
Unfortunately, there are a few quibbles. While Observer’s core gameplay mechanics work great, with a fantastic hands-on control scheme that allows you to explore and interact with every inch of your environment, there are a few odd choices like clicking your mouse-wheel button to exit menus. It’s very counterintuitive.
And as much as Rutger Hauer brings some star appeal to the title, there’s no getting around the fact that his voice-acting is uneven, veering from fairly okay to positively narcoleptic. Other characters’ voice acting also suffers from the same unfortunate variations in quality, while the very odd technical glitch also shows up from time to time (nothing a patch can’t fix).
These are minor stumbles though, in a game that will dig its claws into your psyche. While it will most certainly keep your pulse jack-hammering as you navigate through this nightmare, this is not an action game at all, so fans of explosive kineticism may be disappointed. However, if you’re looking for an engaging cyberpunk world with a heavy dose of horror, wrapped around an intriguing central narrative, then you should definitely be jacking into Observer.
Last Updated: September 4, 2017