>OBSERVER_ Review: Long Live The New Flesh

Just when you thought Poland was taking a breather from producing some of the finest video games available today, the developers at Bloober Team birthed the next jewel from the land that gave us Copernicus and Joanna Krupa. >OBSERVER_ delivers big on its promise of providing a sense of dread and unease against the backdrop of a dark, cybernetic future. Gamers who take the journey will find an experience that is more than capable of standing up against other Polish-developed giants like The Witcher 3, Dying Light, and This War of Mine.

A Bleak, Paranoid World

Set in a dystopian 2084 Poland, >OBSERVER_ puts players into the mind of Daniel Lazarski, a cybernetically enhanced detective with the ability to enter the minds of suspects via a device known as The Dream Eater. Lazarski works for a unit under the control of Chiron, an evil mega corporation that has a hand in virtually everything, not unlike OmniCorp in RoboCop, Taco Bell in Demolition Man, or Comcast in America 2017. Responsible for wars, income inequality, and the technology that seems to permeateall parts of human life in 2084, Chiron looms oppressively over everything that happens in the game. This world is seen through the eyes of the poorest dregs of society; a people with no hope and no way out, clinging to any small escape, regardless of the personal cost.

Lazarski enters an aged apartment block after experiencing a hallucinatory encounter with his son. Determined to find out why he was contacted, Lazarski uses his badge and skills in an attempt to find his son. A series of grisly discoveries sets him on a chase for his son and a murderer. As this is happening, the entire building goes into a lockdown due to fears over a cyber plague known as NanoPhage. Lazarski cannot leave or radio for help due to the full quarantine of the building. With an uncooperative set of residents and a murderous conspiracy expanding at each turn, players must use Lazarski’s mind-occupying equipment in order to piece together an idea of what is happening.

The line between observing someone’s mind and becoming an active participant is blurred in an instant. The darkest fears and mental anguish of an observed person must be endured before the truth can be learned. As Daniel connects to more minds, he finds his own fears and regrets begin to intertwine with those he actively observes. The farther he pushes for answers, the more the line between reality and dreams disappears.

Unrefined Retrofuturism

All of these sequences are presented with a punishing extravagance. Blooper Team uses Unreal Engine 4 to deliver a visual and aural experience unlike anything I’ve experienced in a game or other visual medium. Unlike some horror/thriller games that share an approach with movies or TV, >OBSERVER_ makes use of its medium in a way that is refreshing and often terrifying. Environments can shift in and out of existence in a split second and various sequences use audiovisual tricks to confuse and disorient players. What you thought was behind you is now gone and what is in front of you was never real. Excellent use of binaural audio is peppered throughout and begs to be experienced with a nice set of headphones. Full screen post-processing effects also take center stage here, including a filter that resembles MPEG compression artifacts that intensify as Daniel loses control of his mind.

The game features a computerized aesthetic that feels futuristic and old fashioned at the same time. Everything is connected with thick, pronounced cabling and most devices are straight out of the 80s. Computer interfaces evoke Ridley Scott’s Alien and early John Carpenter films. The world is absolutely rotten with CRT screens. The cult-like reverence for body horror and the cathode ray tube show that Blooper Team spent a bunch of time with David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Many lighting and musical cues are lifted directly from Scott’s Blade Runner.

Speaking of Blade Runner, Lazarski’s character is voiced by Roy Batty himself, Rutger Hauer. Hauer generally does a good job with what he is given, though some of the delivery is unsteady. English being Hauer’s second language or unfocused direction may have played some part in it, but overall I am still very glad to have him as a part of the game.

>OBSERVER_ is very much a conventional adventure game delivered in some exciting and unconventional ways. Admittedly, I am not a big fan of the adventure genre, though I’ve enjoyed more than a few of its standouts over the years. >OBSERVER_ presents a less than stellar first impression due to its inclusion of many genre tropes, especially for anyone unfamiliar with how most adventure games are designed or played. Player movement and interactions feel less than intuitive and lack the refinement you would expect from big-budget action or RPG games.

Opening doors and plundering through environments can be cumbersome and mildly off putting. Triggering interaction objects or parts of the dialogue tree are difficult due to the aiming reticle being a single white pixel in the center of the screen. There is no combat or any gameplay sequence that requires twitch controls or input finesse, so the typical adventure game clunkiness doesn’t really detract from the experience.

From a Technical Perspective

I played the PC version of >OBSERVER_ with a keyboard and mouse, though the game is also available on consoles with controller support. The technical side of things is a bit of a mixed bag. While the entities and environments often look amazing, they are usually drenched in a soup of post-processed filters. Some of these filters serve the game very well, but many PC players will be put off by the heavy use of chromatic aberration, depth of field, and motion blur. The blur can be disabled via in-game menus, the the chromatic aberration and depth of field can only be disabled by editing config files. The game comes with a low FOV that is also only modifiable via config editing. My first hours in the game left me feeling disoriented and with a slight headache due to the narrow FOV and erratic performance.

>OBSERVER_ has all the graphical tricks, but requires an absolute beast to maintain a rock solid 60fps. I played through the game using the Intel Core i7-7700K and NVIDIA GTX 1080 Ti on a Windows 10 1703 install. I originally intended to play the game in 4K, but drops below 30fps in the idle opening sequence led me to drop the resolution down to 1440p. For the most part, the game could offer a steady 60fps at that resolution, but certain areas and sequences brought more drops into the low 40s. I had to lower the resolution to 1080p to get a fully locked 60fps. Players with high-refresh rate displays should note that the game has a 62fps hard cap by default, but this can be overcome with config file edits. The game does not currently support 21:9 displays, though Bloober Team has said that support should be coming in a future update.

Ultimately, the performance complaints are just nitpicks. You do not need a solid 60fps to enjoy taking a ride into future Poland. >OBSERVER_ is a superior, more frightening take on the experience we glimpsed from Westwood Studios’ Blade Runner adaptation back in 1997. Outstanding level design and a perfectly paced nightmare make for one of the best adventure titles I’ve ever played. You will feel a sense of cybernetic dread that has been missing since your last run in with Shodan. This is a must play for fans of the genre or anyone looking for a solid scare. 9/10 tears in the rain - would mindjack these people again.

This review is based on the PC Steam release. The game was purchased by the reviewer. >OBSERVER_ was made available for Windows, Linux, OSX, Xbox One, and PS4 on August 15, for $29.99. The game is rated Mature.

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  • An impressive, hyper-detailed world
  • Novel use of video game as a medium
  • Superb implementation of binaural audio
  • Excellent pacing
  • Minor performance issues
  • Adventure game quirks
  • Nobody is smoking cigarettes
  • I don't have any cybernetic implants yet