Recently we were invited down to Kraków, Poland, to have a bit of an old hands-on with Observer, courtesy of its creator, Bloober Team. After Layers of Fear scared the nonsense out of us, we had high hopes for this new game, based on the promise that it builds heavily on what Bloober's previous Switch game offered, and expands it into a richer, more involved experience all around. So did it manage to get us scrambling out of our chair in an embarrassing manner? Sit back and relax, dear reader, for you're about to find out.
Things start off rather cryptic; a bit of narration sets the scene before we’re thrust into the perspective of Daniel Lazarski, voiced by the supremely talented Rutger Hauer of Blade Runner fame. Lazarski is part of a policing force installed with artificial modifications, allowing him to change his vision to better analyse an environment, amongst other useful crime-solving abilities.
At first, we were slightly worried that the build of the game we were playing wasn’t quite finished, as whenever we moved the camera we noticed artefacts blotting the screen and trailing behind everything we could see. A short while later, however, the game explains away these ‘errors’, and what’s more, solves them by use of a sedative designed to keep our character in control of himself and his cybernetic enhancements. A short telling-off by our employer and a quick self-administered dose later, the artefacts were gone, and the game looked as you’d expect.
This is a perfect way to set you up for what the game has to offer; it tantalises you with the idea that things are not only not what they seem, but that your own senses and instincts can betray you – without going full-Eternal Darkness. The message is clear: don’t ever take anything for granted in this world.
After setting everything up, we’re off investigating a dank and decrepit old building after a mysterious phone call from our estranged son. As you’d expect for a horror game, things aren’t 100 percent rosy and we’re forced to analyse the crime scene of a decapitated resident. Once we managed to make our way out, we found that the building had been locked down, but ironically our freedom within the building was exponentially increased. After that point, the game takes off the blinkers and just lets you explore if you want to, chatting to the dozens of residents through their doors, learning more about the world and just flat out letting you do whatever you want.
However, at this point we felt that a lot of the scares we were expecting were a touch less shocking and more moody and unnerving, which was great, but not what we anticipated from the developers of a game like Layers of Fear. A bit of further investigation lead us to another room in the apartment building, and that’s when we started to eat the words that we’ve only just written (and so couldn’t have eaten at the time). Waltzing in like the officers of the law that we’d become, we were presented with a chap looking a little bit under the weather, having had a lot of his throat torn out. Understandable.
And this is where the poster child of the game comes into play; being largely throatless, we couldn’t really get much out of this bloke verbally, so instead our brave hero decides the most logical course of action is to jam a big, special needle into this poor geezer’s cerebral implant and take a disjointed journey through his memories, so as to better find out just what the flipping 'eck happened to him.
‘Disjointed’ might be the understatement of the decade, in truth. We were banded around with a couple of surprising little moments like a window suddenly smashing and then rebuilding itself, but as time went by this rapidly devolved into entire rooms melting away in front of our eyes, polygonal figures flailing incessantly, screams, CRT televisions jittering and sparking as they float above a floorless chasm; the list goes on. It’s jarring, unpredictable and downright terrifying when played in a darkened room, even with the development team there, ready to give us a reassuring hug if we needed it. If you’ve ever been ill and suffered a fever dream, that’s what it’s like. If you haven’t, you’ll have to use your imagination.
Despite this sudden tonal shift, it all feels like it makes sense in Observer's grim cyberpunk future. If you’re jacking into the mind of a dying man, things are probably going to get a bit hairy and be less than consistent. Small details such as unimportant people that, for example, litter the halls in a prison are barely modelled; just shifting, dark, basic 3D figures with little to no detail, because who would be able to remember every face amongst dozens that they saw all at once? This is pushed even further with one person amongst them having much more detail to them; still quite fuzzy, but with colour and distinctive features, who later turns out to be the cellmate of the man you’re seeing the life of. A really nice touch.
From what little we’ve played, Observer looks like it’s going to be a horror game unlike any other on Switch. The world is rich and open, the game is involved and requires more from you than you might expect, and the story has been created in such a way that it allows you to make choices, but without slapping you in the face with objectives telling you to perform action A or walk to point B. If you have the initiative, you can change how the game plays, but don’t expect it to hold your hand. As for the scare factor, well, everyone’s going to have their own personal scale when it comes to what makes you moisten your trousers, but if dread, unease and a total lack of predictability sound like your cup of tea, you could be looking forward to a long, sleepless night after playing this one.