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Observer - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • More player-driven than Bloober's other games
  • Blend of cyberpunk aesthetics and psychological horror works well
  • Optional side quests
  • Aesthetic realization of the world

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Simplistic puzzles and investigations
  • Obnoxious stealth
  • Cynical, heavy-handed approach to subject matter undercuts moral choices

Overall Impression : C+
More player-driven than Bloober's other games

Observer - cover

Developer:
Bloober Team

Publisher:
Aspyr

Platforms:
PC <, Mac (via Steam),
PlayStation 4 (via PSN digital download),
XBox One (via XBox Live digital download).
Nintendo Switch (via Nintendo Store digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $30 USD

Original release date:
15 August 2017

Genre:
Cyberpunk psychological horror walking sim

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
6-8 hours

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature, 17+) for:
Blood and Gore, Intense Violence,
Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes,
Strong Language, Use of Drugs

Official site:
www.blooberteam.com/observer-redux

Once again, it is spring time. All the big holiday releases are out, and I didn't need to bother playing them because they were all crap. So I spent all my time on the indie football games. Well now football season is over too, and I'm done with my critique of the indie football games. So it's time to dig into my Steam backlog and try to play some of the games that have been sitting around for years without being played.

I've been on a Bloober bender lately, playing through Layers of Fear 2 and The Medium, so I decided I'd check out their other game: the cyberpunk horror >Observer_.

Dialogue trees and player-driven exploration gives the player a greater sense of agency than in Layers of Fear.

Bloober seems much more cynical about trans-humanism compared to Frictional

Having played a few of Bloober's games, I was expecting a visual treat. If nothing else, Bloober's games are technically impressive in the ways that they depict surreal environments. I was curious how this would translate into a cyberpunk setting. It doesn't disappoint, as the game is a visual and technical treat from start to finish. But much like Bloober's other games, Observer is a technical treat, but as a game, it has definite shortcomings.

Observer lags behind other stand-out sci-fi games like The Swapper, Soma, and Outer Wilds by not really using the gameplay mechanics to convey its sci-fi concepts. Soma is an especially apt comparison because both games deal with transhumanist themes. I feel like Soma is a lot more thoughtful, thorough, and laser-focused on its singular main idea; whereas Observer is a bit more scatter-shot and surface-level with its various cyberpunk dystopian ideas.

You're given a few moral decisions that relate directly to the game's themes of transhumanism.

Observer also never really challenges the player to think too hard about the moral, ethical, or metaphysical consequences of your choices. There's a decision at the end of the game that determines which of two endings you get, and there's a couple optional side quests that culminate in the player making a moral decision based on what you've learned about how this world operates, and whether you think the technology is being mis-used. There's also dialogue trees that give the player the opportunity to poke and prod at how the other characters perceive this world, and to imbue a little bit of your own characterization on the protagonist. So yes, it does engage the player with the story's subject matter a little bit, which is certainly a heck of a lot more than Layers of Fear ever did.

It does fall apart a little bit in practice because the whole game is so cynically distrustful of the technology and institutions that employ them. The game only ever shows the pain, suffering, and degradation of human dignity that the cyberpunk revolution brought, but it never bothers to show any redeeming qualities of the technology. We're told that there are wealthy "A" and "B" class citizens, but we never see how they live, nor are we given any real hint at how much of the population is trapped in the disgusting squalor of these tenement buildings, or if this lifestyle is common in the rest of the world outside of Poland. By choosing to only show the heavy human toll that this technology has taken, and not giving the player any additional background knowledge or context, I feel like Bloober kind of makes the player's decisions for us.

Bloober is a bit cynical and heavy-handed in its depiction of cyberpunk dystopia.

It pales in comparison to the other games I mentioned (Soma in particular), which actually had me stopping dead in my tracks and really thinking about my choices. It's not "bad" story-telling per se (and in fact, the visual aspect of the story-telling is superb!); it's just not particularly interactive story-telling. Beyond Bloober leading the player towards these specific moral choices, there's not much else in the way of decisions or opportunities to apply the ideas towards any particular challenges or obstacles.

Observer wasn't exactly challenging me with its puzzles.

Observer certainly wasn't challenging me with its puzzles. Most puzzle solutions are just given to the player (often via the hacking function for combination locks). I only recall one lock (in one side quest) even requiring me to look outside the same room to find the combination.

The overly-simplistic puzzle design sadly extends to the investigative aspects of the game as well. You basically just walk into a room, scan everything with your tech and bio scanners, then use whatever objects are interactable to solve a rudimentary puzzle or unlock a progress gate. The forensic vision modes and hacking mini-game are a good integration of the cyberpunk tech, but they don't really work any differently than the detective vision that we've seen in hundreds of other games across a dozen genres. I guess it's not Bloober's fault that every Batman, witcher, and medieval assassin has futuristic detective vision (whether it makes sense in those contexts or not). And it's certainly not their fault that I didn't get around to playing the game until several years after its release (despite being interested in it back when it first released on Steam). Nevertheless, it still means that Observer just didn't wow me with its puzzle design or the execution of its broader mystery.

The worse problem was that as the game went on, I found the illusion of investigating a mystery or conspiracy on my own broke down. It became more and more apparent that each "crime scene" would have one key clue that must be examined to proceed. It also became increasingly apparent that I would never have to actually apply any of the knowledge or information that I gained from investigating a crime scene. Unlike other "mystery" games, I was never tasked with determining a suspect, figuring out a motive, or even with identifying the victims. Every piece of information is effortlessly obtained by simply going through the process of scanning the relevant clues. The clues were just fluff. A lot of it provides some decent world-building, but without any important supporting characters for the player to care about, it's hard to get invested.

You can scan bodies or electronics for clues.

The forensic vision even becomes less and less relevant as the game goes on. The second half (and final act in particular) gradually degrades to the dreaded "walking sim" tropes of just walking through linear corridor after linear corridor, stopping every so often to read some emails off someone's computer screen or listening to the occasional audio recording. Fewer and fewer items were highlighted by the forensic vision, and the few that remained were mostly just the same computers and tape recorders that I'd seen a dozen times since the beginning of the game. Even the use of the medicine is unnecessary, as failing to take it only seems to lead to superficial [but neat] changes in the environment.

Each crime scene investigation culminates in a little vignette of the victim's memories, which largely play out similar to Layers of Fear. Lots of impossible geometry, warping from memory set-piece to memory set-piece, and turning around to find that the door you came in now leads to somewhere else. There's even a lot of the same sound effects as Layers of Fear. But while this is basically the only trick in Layers of Fear's book, and Layers of Fear repeats these same gags ad nauseum throughout its 4-ish hour run-time, Observer is thankfully a bit more restrained. These surreal vignettes are relatively short and spaced out so as to never become too rote or tedious. They're also much more grounded, with more easily-comprehensible imagery and symbols, and enough context provided by the game for the player to be able to easily follow along with what everything means.

Just enough player engagement

Thankfully, Observer isn't terribly long. It actually took me longer to play than either of the Layers of Fear games (thanks in large part to the inclusion of optional side quests), but I felt like Observer had more substance and moved along at a much brisker pace. It never became a slog in the way that both Layers of Fear games did. There's a few light stealth segments and maze-like areas that caused a little bit of aggravation, but they were over pretty quickly and didn't repeat too often. The investigation aspect and more open-ended nature of the exploration of the tenement building (including the presence of optional side quests for you to discover and resolve) gives the player just enough agency to make it feel like my actions are driving the experience, rather than simply being dragged by the hand from set piece to set piece by the developers. At least, that was the case in the first half of the game. As I said before, it becomes more aggressively linear in the final act.

Sneaking past the monster can be annoying, especially with all the "glitch",
compression, and RGB-splitting effects making it hard to read the screen.

The fact that Observer's story is more straight-forward and grounded than either Layers of Fear game made it so much easier for me to follow what was happening. The concepts are much more clearly communicated (albeit a bit heavy-handed), and the story is much more focused around a few key ideas. It doesn't bog itself down in convoluted plot spaghetti like Bloober's later games have gone on to do. It's still not as focused or thoughtful as Frictional's Soma, but it's definitely a step up from Bloober's own Layers of Fear games.

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