Introduction

I wanted to finish Observer’s story in its entirety, similarly to my review method for Layers of Fear. Not only are these two linked through a few common themes, but they’re both the skilled work of Bloober Team SA. This developer made the perfect transition from fairly superficial arcade titles towards atmospheric video games, more suited for an educated and mature audience. Spelled as “>observer_”, it’s an obvious reference to programming and command inputs among other things. I would never regard this game as being boring, as some of the negative reviews on Steam pointed out, but I have to agree that Observer is in dire need of optimization and glitch fixing. As long you don’t expect instant action, all will be well. It’s a detective tale with an even slower burn than L.A. Noire, but just as exciting!

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Story

Rarely do I write about a video game whose sources of inspiration are drawn from numerous works of literature, movies and even other games. In Observer’s case, the strongest influence comes from 1982’s Blade Runner (a Sci-Fi masterpiece I highly recommend watching) and this can be noticed by the character likeness and voice acting provided by the Dutch actor Rutger Hauer which played the main antagonist’s role in the aforementioned film. Tables have turned and in Observer, Rutger gives life to Detective Daniel Lazarski, arguably the only character in the game which doesn’t have any hidden intentions or motivations. And that is truly ironic since our detective is a titular Observer. A mix between a Blade Runner (given his interrogation methods) and a cyborg, who’s constantly dependent on a self-injecting substance, in order for his implants to work flawlessly.

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Just by that last sentence, the Synchrozine subplot can be seen as shout-out to Deus Ex’s Neuropozyne or the Prozium II injections from the 2002 dystopian movie, Equilibrium. It’s evident that we’re dealing with a bleak dystopia in Observer as well, only that instead of a Big Brother (Orwell’s “1984” is present in-game as several easter eggs) or a Tyrell Corporation, the all-seeing digital tyrant is Chiron Incorporated. The game’s action takes place in Kraków, 2084. The Fifth Polish Republic is an abstract yet still oppressive regime whose leaders are never mentioned and they carry little importance to our story. This is in fact a neo-noir tale detailing the struggles of a classic anti-hero cop with a dysfunctional family. The trope doesn’t go all the way though and Lazarski is driven by a strong desire to reunite with his distant son. On a rainy night, Adam finally calls his father. He needs help.

What might have given the impression that the level structure is open (Daniel is seen inside his Matriarch AI-assisted squad car, in Observer’s first few minutes of gameplay), turns out that in a same manner as Layers of Fear, players shall get to thoroughly explore a closed albeit highly detailed environment. In our case, a run-down tenement block. A glimpse into a society which is controlled on all levels by a corporation which has CCTV cameras, hidden microphones, informants and death squads everywhere. A devastating war from the past and the still lingering threat of a debilitating plague are the perfect excuses for Chiron to exert its twisted power over all aspects of life. That includes its own employees (Observers, as well) which are kept on the same short leash as the “Class-C Citizens” from the apartments which Lazarski is currently investigating.

Graphics

Observer features some state of the art visual assets, courtesy of the Unreal Engine 4. What it shouldn’t have contained though, are the severe frame rate drops experienced on most resolutions I tested, from 1080p to 4K. I ended up settling for 2K since I wanted the screenshots to feature the right amount of details for them to be used as desktop backgrounds. Took close to 200 screens and more than half of them were subsequently linked onto my Steam account. I like the game, especially from its graphical perspective. It fits the story like a glove and many of its visual glitches are a game design choice. The bugs may not be game-breaking, yet I fell through the floor on a couple of occasions and had to restart from the previous autosave point.

Fortunately, the game progress gets saved fairly often and it can be triggered by moving from a room to another, sometimes. The frame rate dips are my main concern with Observer. I’ll explain why, without having to boast my system specifications. They are high-end and I keep all my drivers updated along with properly maintained hardware. No highly detailed UE4 games I tested so far on Steam (and there must have been at least a dozen) would drop from 60fps to 30 or less, WITHIN THE SAME ROOM. This is a clear red flag for a lack of optimization and it happened on a resolution of 2560×1440. When I tried running Observer on 3840×2160, I could expect even 10fps in the troublesome circumstances I already mentioned.

The developer needs to fix this ASAP and I can only hope that an update or two will provide the much needed stability. Observer looks amazing, but it doesn’t sport lush jungles and intense gunfights to warrant the digital punishment it currently renders onto my GPU. By contrast, the Unity-powered Layers of Fear ran maxed out@4K, never dropping below 45fps on my PC. I know, we’re comparing apples to oranges but my point is, perhaps Bloober Team should have stuck with Unity Engine 5 instead of Unreal Engine 4 which always represents more trouble than it’s worth.

Audio

Along with Hauer’s excellent voice acting, the other characters also sound convincing and the soundtrack was an adequate collection of futuristic instrumentals that would shift towards more classical sounds, during some illusions or interrogation sequences. As for the script itself, there are more than a few swears thrown around by either Lazarski or the NPCs he interacts with. It’s part of the good cop/bad cop routine, right? Still, the detective seems like a troubled mind and he occasionally slips off another one of his monologues. As much as I’d like to share with you the clip for “tears in the rain”, a touching soliloquy by Rutger near Blade Runner’s ending, I’ll let you see the entire movie first without spoiling anything.

Gameplay

If the direct narrative inspirations are hard to pinpoint to a single source, the gameplay takes this to a whole new level. It starts as a conventional Sci-Fi crime investigation by scanning with RoboCop/Terminator special sight modes that can focus on either organic matter or electromagnetic impulses. Glad to see those neural implants put to good use. And if you thought that Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is bleak, wait until you see the reality portrayed in Observer. Cybernetic modifications aren’t condemned, they are actually required by law as yet another instrument of control along with the plague I mentioned earlier.

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It affects precisely the organic tissue which contains implants. Without them, life is short and painful, as one tenant explains. Never detailed, but I can imagine a subplot on the polluted air and water, even radioactive maybe. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Nanophage was created by Chiron Incorporated, the same guys who then send the “cleaners”, to make a short work out of any infected citizens. Seems like an easy pretext to eradicate all forms of dissidence and opposition. I certainly hope you weren’t expecting a happy ending.

The gameplay mixes the initial detective drama with survival horror elements and “cybernetic insanity”, which is an unavoidable side effect of the interrogation technique used by Observers. They literally have to link themselves to the neural chip inside the heads of any suspects and victims. Yes, not even death can save you from having your memories and last moments, witnessed by a corporate inquisitor of sorts. The insanity? How you you call, prying through the mind of a drug addict or a serial killer? You’ll have lots of fun and by the end of the ride, Detective Lazarski will have plenty of unhealed mental scars himself, just waiting to be revealed and puzzle pieces to be set in place.

Puzzle sections. Yeah, not that hard but some of them require patience above all else. Carefully examine the brilliantly detailed rooms, scan them in both modes and also activate the night vision when the situation warrants it. Sneaking around and avoiding some one-hit-KO enemies complements the gameplay diversity and if you though I’m done, well think again. Collectibles, comprising of Nanophage-ridden dev team members and voice actors are aplenty and to my surprise, I could find even half of them despite exploring every nook and cranny. I need to explore even more during my second playthrough, once the game shall fix its stability issues.

So level sections are an obvious Layers of Fear tribute and the game’s poster is also present in certain rooms. No point in hiding the fact that Bloober is proud of its projects, past or present. They have no reason not to. Last but not least, I was impressed with the details of the low-tech hardware which is rendered in a similar style to the Alien franchise. CRT monitors and “Chirondore 6400” (a nice reference to the Commodore 64 home computers). Players even get to play a frame story in the form of an 8-bit game called “With Fire and Sword: Spiders”. Game within game. And Adam has a few tricks up his sleeve which you have to discover by yourselves. I hope I made you curious enough.

Verdict

I would have wholeheartedly rated Observer with a perfect score, as I did with Layers of Fear. These games leave few digital stones unturned and offer the kind of stories and gameplay that you seldom find nowadays. Yet Observer struggled to run in a decent frame rate on par with its gorgeous graphics. You can’t have “broken beauty” now, can you? I really didn’t even consider rating the game any lower or write a negative about it. Technical flaws no matter how apparent, are not going to cancel out the potential within this fascinating cyberpunk story of pain and oppression. Glitches can be fixed, the story is fascinating already from the start. Sequel, please!

All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.