I’ve always loved the concept of cyberpunk as a theme, between Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Dredd and games like Syndicate and Shadowrunner I’ve become obsessed with neon lights and wires hanging out of everything whilst rain pours down on a night-time street. Getting my fix of this genre is getting harder and harder though. Games dabble with it about once a year but never as deep as I would like it. It always just feels like a setting rather than a theme, platformers and niche simulators that could be set in any location just get dumped into Cyberpunk worlds so as to justify a soundtrack. Thankfully every so often a game like Observer comes along to scratch the deep itch so good that I’m already crying out for more.

Observer sees you take the role of Daniel Lazarski, a detective working for a corporation that basically runs the world. Set in 2084 Krakow, Lazarski is on the hunt for his estranged son who has been AWOL for a while until a phone call from him leads Lazarski to an apartment block on the wrong side of town. Upon finding an unidetifiable body in his son’s apartment he must work out where his son is and what trouble he has gotten into. On entering the less than salubrious apartment building a lockdown is triggered and shutters fall on all entrances and exits causing the inhabitants of the dive to fear another outbreak of the Neophage, a virus that has already wiped out many thousands of augmented people around the world. Just the mention of Augments in a game gets me off so Observer from the get go ticks many of my cyber punk boxes.

To progress with the case of the random dead body and your missing son you must explore every inch of the housing and speak to its inhabitants to find out what is going on. The vast majority of this is done through interacting with people’s vidcom units on their front doors. Rather than beautiful HD video chats you are instead presented unsettling close up flashes of the occupants face and static interrupts the chat. Some people are happy to talk to you and will drip feed you stories, others are upset to be pulled away from their futuristic escapist televisions. You are given snapshots of characters, from the person genuinely worried for the safety of their neighbours to others who are screaming at their children. There are basic interaction choices that normally boil down to Lazarski either being a dick of being not as much of a dick. It’s hard not to revel in the fact that Lazarski is voiced by Rutger Hauer, someone who’s career is pretty much defined by his role in Blade Runner. His voice will tremble your speakers as his deep baritone questions various people with perfect delivery.

Lazarski has a number of augments himself, as you walk into any room or corridor you are encouraged to switch on one of two special view modes he has, Electronic or Biological. With each you are presented the world in a red or green filter that highlights things of interest and when said things are scanned you get a deeper understanding of what has happened in this area. Although there is no combat in this game there is a real sense of unease about every single element. Despite knowing an apartment is empty you will still feel anxious as you explore it as the various buzzes of electronics and the heavy bass of the atmospheric soundtrack play out.

Observer’s biggest success is the design of its world. The Environments have so many little touches and beautiful design to them. It’s an old brick communist designed building as you would expect to see anywhere today, but inside, the parquet floor is covered in rubbish and the walls are lined with advertising screens and cables hang everywhere. TVs in the corners of hallways show flickering images and all of this comes together to produce an amazing thing, a fantasy world you believe.

As you move around the various locations in Observer you are sometimes required to break out Lazarski’s other augment, a jack he can rather ungracefully stab into people to see their memories and dreams. His living and dead hosts play out scenes to him in a nightmarish display of snapshots of life and false reality. The first victim you observe shows you his life up to that point, his crimes and his time in prison. As you wander through these memories you are also subjected to random crows flying at you and walkways made of glass in a world of black prisms that is just there to make the player more and more uneasy with each step. The industrial soundtrack comes into its own in these sections just cementing the world and its themes and style.

Observer is billed as a horror, and this is another one of those situations where you realise how subjective these genres are. The game thankfully doesn’t rely too heavily on jump scares and instead plays off drip feeding the concept of fear into the player through the unknown. An inhabitant of the a flat early on describes some weird sounds he heard the night before, later another mentions the sounds off handedly. It’s easy to start expecting something to happen from this and start letting your mind get away from you. The game becomes horror without the horror and more lets the player scare themselves with little touches like making doors open at the speed a player chooses to build the tension and unease. All of this is let down with a couple of insta-fail chase sequences later in the game but looking past that it maintains the tension throughout.

It’s hard not to see Bloober Team’s previous game Layers of Fear under the surface of Observer, there’s many similar mechanics at play and there are parts which feel more like an experience than game. But honestly I’m fine with that, as grim and as unforgiving the setting of 2084 Krakow is I just want to see every strewn soda can, every dangling wire and every static filled TV. Blade Runner is obviously the main inspiration here, but Observer stands on the shoulders of giants, it wears its inspirations on its sleeves and doesn’t shy away from using them. And this works to its credit, the world is familiar and distant all at once. It speaks of where we may be going as a civilisation locked away in our homes not wanting to leave virtual reality for reality and being afraid of every noise or news item. A corporation becoming a super power with espionage and manipulation is happening already. Every element of Observer speaks to a truth that we may not be dealing with now but the time is coming. If Cyberpunk doesn’t speak to you then Observer may be a tough sell, it’s a game where you walk around and open doors, pick up some stuff and then walk through another door. If you want you can read the perfectly detailed newspaper snippets on people’s computers or look at photos for further information on everything. To me though, this game’s world makes me want to experience more of it, there are some issues with pacing and set pieces later in the game but for something to digest and lose yourself to I find it harder to recommend a more immersive experience than Observer.

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Ruaidhri

Big-Boss of PixelBedlam.co.uk
Ruaidhri has been writing for a number of sites over the past few years, spewing his vitriol and love in equal measures on all topics from Video Games to Film and Board Games to Geek Culture. He started PixelBedlam in September of 2012. Follow him on Twitter!

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