Polish developers Bloober Team are becoming a bigger and bigger name in the space of video game horror. They first caught my attention with the Layers of Fear series, I heard a lot of buzz about he expertly crafted way that game utilized psychological horror to not only terrorize the player but also instill a sense of paranoia and confusion throughout the experience. But it wasn’t until the 2019 release of Blair Witch that I actually put one of their games to the test. I instantly fell in love with the game and the way Bloober team played with perception and reality to deliver a horror game that wasn’t all about blood and guts, but was instead about messing with your mind. It was a fantastic game and one of my favorites of the year. So when I saw that one of Bloober Team’s earlier horror efforts was receiving a remaster to launch alongside the PlayStation 5 it didn’t take much convincing to get me to the front of the line to review the game for Mega Dads.
Observer is a sci-fi psychological trip through the minds of several individuals caught up in a series of murders in 2084. Set in a locked down apartment complex during a murder investigation, Observer puts you in the role of Daniel Lazarski (portrayed by late actor Rutger Hauer). Daniel is a detective trying to find his estranged son who calls him begging for help. In the process of trying to locate his son, Adam, Daniel discovers there is a serial killer loose in the building and the trail of bodies seems to all lead to a connection with Adam. The setting in Observer is absolutely drenched in atmosphere. The cyberpunk inspired visuals turn what is, at its core, a dilapidated slum into a neon soaked future-scape complete with holograms, harsh lighting and junk tech around every corner. The wonderfully dark design gives the apartment complex real character and as a player I was intrigued every time I entered a new area of the complex. There seemed to be new surprises behind every door and fantastic visuals that would cause me to pause and just absorb my surrounding because of how striking they were.
The gameplay of Observer is quite intriguing as well. As the Observer it is your job to investigate the murder scenes you come across by looking for evidence, hacking computer terminals and scanning the environments for clues using your different vision settings. These setting are courtesy of your cybernetic implants and you can toggle between electromagnetic vision, bio vision and night vision. Think the movie Predator and you get an idea of how this works and what kind of advantages it might provide you when investigating a crime scene. You can follow blood trails and find genetic traces with your bio vision, scan corpses for cybernetic implants using your electromagnetic vision and night vision obviously allows you to see in the dark, and this game can be very dark.
In addition to these traditional means of investigation you as the Observer are also able to jack into the neural implants of subjects of your investigation as well. This is where the game really takes off. By entering the neural plane of a subject you are able to relive their memories and find out secrets that other more conventional means might not afford you. This is all taken to another level entirely when Daniel decides it is necessary to hack into the neural network of the victims he finds, something which is strictly against protocol in the world of Observer. After this choice is made the game quickly pivots from grisly crime drama to abstract horror as Daniel navigates the dead minds of the murder victims. These sequences play out live a waking nightmare and are absolutely mind bending. Reality holds no grip on these areas and you will find yourself flashing from memory to memory at a breakneck pace and observing each victim’s stories through a fractured lens. Nothing looks or acts like you might expect and you’ll be walking through living metaphors of each character’s life story. It is haunting, confusing and frightening all at once. Without spoiling too much of the narrative of the game I’ll just say that repeated mind jacking of the dead causes Daniel to confront some real issues in the real world that will cause you as the player to question if what you’re seeing is actually happening or not.
This is a very ambitious, creative and artistic approach to horror and while it achieves a lot of what it sets out to do there are definitely some moments where it appears Bloober Team reached just a little too far and weren’t able to stick the landing in some respects. This mostly boils down to the narrative of the game and the resolution or lack thereof of some of the games plot points and story threads. In a game that’s all about blurring the line between reality and augmented reality, there are bound to be moments of confusion and abstract storytelling. I don’t have any issue with the writers keeping the curtain down on just what exactly is happening in a game, in fact I feel like a lot of horror games are better suited not holding your hand and explaining what’s behind the things that go bump in the night. But unfortunately while Observer had me on the hook for much of it’s mind-bending campaign it doesn’t conclude in a satisfying way whatsoever. What could have been a story about a mind bending to the point of breakage and the mystery around what is real and what isn’t, Bloober Team ends the game with a massive exposition moment where the game proceeds to tell you exactly what was behind everything from the start and unfortunately the answers aren’t nearly as satisfying as the mystery. It doesn’t go so far as to spoil the experience as a whole but I often feel like if a story is going to work so hard to twist your perception of what is happening the finale really needs to rise to the challenge and provide an ending that knocks you off your feet. Observer unfortunately just doesn’t meet that challenge.
In the end Observer stands as a real testament for what Bloober Team is capable of in the horror game space. I am very impressed by the creativity on display in Observer and there were many times where I was just blown away be how they presented a story that seemed to break down the walls of what we come to expect from conventional game design. The neural network nightmare sequences are some of the most interesting and abstract horror sequences I’ve experienced in gaming to date. I just wish for as intriguing as the moment to moment of this game was that the ending would have left me as impressed as the rest of the experience.