Observer begins like many classic mystery stories: with a phone call. Detective Daniel Lazarski is in his patrol car when he receives a desperate distress call from his estranged son, Adam. Tracking down the signal, Lazarski races through the futuristic and corporate-controlled Fifth Polish Republic to find the call coming from a run-down apartment complex in the poor part of the city. The grizzled protagonist steps out of his car and into the building, entering a hellish labyrinth where both the sins of his past and the horrors of humanity’s technological future await him.
Observer makes the most of its fusion of cyberpunk sci-fi and terror. Where stories like Bladerunner, Snatcher, and Shadowrun usually have the urban sprawl of a futuristic city to work with, Observer trades that in for the narrow, cluttered halls of a broken-down apartment complex filled with tenants cowering in fear of a totalitarian regime (and something else that lurks in the basement). This creates an experience where the most interesting aspects of the genre – terrifying and cruel corporations, the messy politics of body augmentation, the impact technology has on one’s psyche – are all funneled into a concise and terrifying experience.
Make no mistake: Observer is about as pure horror as you can get, despite its grimy sci-fi wrapper. Along with a high number of effective jump scares, there’s a constant sense of dread that hangs over this five-hour odyssey thanks to how it uses its Cyberpunk elements, like its particularly twisted take on hacking. Lazarski is one of the eponymous Observers, which are special police units, half-human and half-machine, who can jack into the mental implants of individuals and explore their minds to recreate crimes and obtain secrets stored far away in the subject’s memories.
Memories are tricky things, especially under stressful situations, and many of the minds that Lazarski explores are traumatized and even broken. Several levels are trippy hallucinations; walls break away, and characters or settings change entirely as you jump from memory to memory. I loved these intense, terrifying sections because they make the most of the mind-jacking concept. I would be exploring a prison cell, reliving my victim’s memories from when he was a convict, and then suddenly be in his apartment years later, watching him and his wife having a violent argument – then a figure leaped out of nowhere to maul me. I never felt safe during these sections, and was always interested in what came next.
Observer has a lot more going for it than just these mind-bending sequences and jump scares. In the sections where you’re actually in the real world as Lazarski, you’re investigating crime scenes with the detective’s augmented visions, all of which are visually pleasing and useful. These vision settings also help you solve puzzles, like scanning a corpse to read their various wounds and putting together how they died with your biosensor, or tracing a locked door to its security keypad via your electronic magnetic detector and then hacking it. The fine balance struck with these puzzles’ difficulty makes them interesting but keeps them from being frustrating. While no combat exists in Observer, I never felt bored with the gameplay because it kept offering me interesting logical trials to solve as well as consistent scares and plot revelations.
A few side quests are also hidden in the complex that encourage you to make use of these skills if you want to meander away from the main storyline for a bit. I don’t want to spoil any of them because they are so scarce, but I enjoyed what I played, with most of them feeling like classic short stories from a sci-fi anthology.
The main story is exceptional. As Lazarski becomes more desperate to find his son, he takes greater risks with his augmentations and his mind, soon experiencing hallucinations in the real world so that everything starts to blend together in a horrifying way, like rooms that were once wood and metal transform into bleeding organs. Metallic snakes slither between your legs, bidding you to follow them into darker pits. Our detective’s story is a hellish one, and can be one of redemption or despair depending on your choices. Do you listen to your son when he warns you not to fiddle with dangerous technology, or do you ignore his advice in the hopes that using the tech can help you find him more quickly? Do you treat the traumatized groundskeeper with kindness or admonish him? These choices shape where Lazarski’s story goes in the end. Regardless of the outcome, Observer ends up being not only a horrifying tale, but also an emotionally resonant one about family, identity, and how we deal with our regrets.
Observer is such a compact and satisfying experience that the few things that bothered me are basically niggles that didn’t tarnish my enjoyment of the game. For example, Lazarski is voice-acted by accomplished actor Rutger Hauer, but a number of his lines are poorly delivered and occasionally distracting. A few “avoid the monster” segments that show up are not as special as the rest of Observer’s offerings and can feel like a chore, but they are all brief. However, in the grand scheme of things, the enjoyment that I derived from playing so far outweighed my annoyance with the flaws that I immediately dove back in after finishing to further explore the apartment complex.
Bloober Team’s latest is one of the scariest horror experiences I’ve played in a long time, and its strong sense of place, story, and action put it above the majority of other games in the genre. Observer is simply the best of both worlds and is a must-play for anyone who considers themselves a fan of either sci-fi or horror.