It goes without saying that there have been a lot of scary horror games over the years.
Yet it’s rare to find many effective horror games that can instil anxiety-pumping, ‘pause the game to recompose yourself’ kind of scares without imposing monsters, shocking jump scares, or stressful low-resource combat. It’s for this reason why Polish developer Bloober Team’s cyberpunk horror-thriller Observer feels like such a breath of fresh air.
Making its debut on the Nintendo Switch, this science-fiction nightmare is not a game of frightening monsters and heart-racing jump scares (although you might run into one or two of them along your journey). It’s a story about the monstrosities of humanity; a cautionary tale about society’s thoughtless obsession with technological progression with a haunting futuristic atmosphere and grimy Blade-Runner-esque visuals.
Observer is scary without needing enemies to stalk your every move, so much so, in fact, that it’s actually at its worst when it tries to implement them. The incredible tone, storytelling and world design creating an experience that, whilst not making you scream out in fear, gets deep under your skin and remains there long after you put the controller down.
The game takes place during 2084 in the Polish city of Kraków. Following a wide-spread digital plague that killed a large number of the population, the high-tech metropolis is now under the control of a shady megacorporation known as Chiron. You play Daniel Lazarski: a hard-boiled, gruff-talking cyborg-detective known as an Observer. His job is to hack into the minds of criminals, searching their memories and inner-demons to solve crimes. Following a call from his estranged son, Lazarski travels to a remote apartment complex where he uncovers a string of grisly murders and a case he vows to solve.
From here, the game drops you into a small but dense sandbox, allowing you to go where you please. You may choose to simply follow the questline, or, you can explore this dilapidated slum in its entirety, uncovering a variety of side-missions that tell other stories in this bleak universe. While the sheer amount of things to search in this decaying environment can, at first, be overwhelming, once you embrace the chaos this repulsive world becomes a constant highlight, especially as many of the anecdotes you discover off the beaten path showcase Observer’s best moments of storytelling. Every corner of its world feels like it has a story to tell; the unusual tenants and unwelcoming atmosphere creating an experience that unravels narrative through exploration rather than long exchanges of dialogue.
But this apartment complex isn’t the only place you’ll have to explore. Being an Observer, Lazarski has the unique ability to enter the minds of the deceased, reliving their most recent memories and gaining insight into their psyche. This ability manifests through lengthy playable dream sequences; surreal and horrifying set pieces that task you with solving puzzles or reliving the host’s most traumatic life events. They are largely a lot of fun and spice up the game when the pacing begins to drag, however, they do eventually begin to shoe-horn in stealth horror sections and frustrating puzzles that feel needless in a game that so brilliantly plays off its terrific atmosphere and story.
While the game works as an investigatory journey through an isolating urban structure, these more traditional horror elements feel jarring after such a unique style of gameplay. They are, luckily, few and far between, meaning they don’t disrupt the general flow of gameplay very often.
Using Lazarski’s Observer skillset does make up a good chunk of the gameplay, but outside of these nightmare odysseys, you’ll mostly be playing the role of a traditional detective. This means scouring rooms for clues, questioning nearby occupants, and following up on leads. These crime scene sections can be annoyingly lengthy – especially when you miss a clue and have to backtrack to locate it – but it’s an acceptable nit-pick when the game does such a great job of immersing you into your role as an investigator. Searching through a suspect’s home and gradually learning more about their situation is rewarding, particularly as the game’s lack of handholding means that your discoveries are completely down to your own natural curiosity.
Learning the truth means rooting through nearby computers, using Lazarski’s augmented powers to scan areas and hacking locked terminals to access secret rooms. This may sound repetitive on paper, but what makes these various scenarios work is just how diverse the cases you’ll investigate are. While I won’t detail their nature – as discovering them is perhaps Observer’s most engaging element – it’s clear that Bloober Team spent a long time honing this anthology of miniature sci-fi horror stories to not only be unbelievably unsettling but also captivating.
The success of this tonal focus is, in major part, down to the game’s fantastic technical design. The sound is incredible. The whispers of other tenants and creaks of floorboards permanently heightening your paranoia, while the slow and deliberate nature of Lazarski’s movement makes you feel human and vulnerable. It cleverly brings you into this world on an immersive level, establishing the character of not only our grizzled protagonist, but also the world he’s enveloping himself in.
With that in mind, it’s worth mentioning that the voice acting, despite the sensational casting of Rutger Hauer (ironically, of Blade Runner fame), is entirely hit or miss. It sometimes feels brooding and distinctive while at others out of context and emotionless. It’s often noticeably misplaced, but the technical prowess on show elsewhere means it’s overshadowed by the game’s better aspects.
There is one significant dampener on this port of Observer. Sadly, the game’s arrival on the Nintendo Switch is bumpy, to say the least. While it’s understandable that porting to a less powerful console is bound to have its compromises, a lot of the technical necessities Observer requires feel slow or unresponsive. The visuals, for one, are not so easy on the eye. The game in docked mode has blurry textures, a frequently low frame rate, and a fair amount of technical glitches. I wound up spending the vast majority of my time with the game in handheld mode because it was more visually consistent and contained fewer bugs.
That’s not to say handheld isn’t rife with glitches, however. Terrible frame-rate drops came to plague many of the game’s more expansive final few missions, while I had to reload the game multiple times during scenes where certain cues would not activate and I’d be stuck in an area. Add to that the occasional annoying bugs – such as doors not opening and prompts to press buttons appearing above where they’re meant to be – and it’s safe to say that the Switch isn’t the best system to experience the game on.
That’s not to say that this less than ideal port ruins the experience entirely. From the fantastic story and world to the incredible atmosphere and detective gameplay, Observer is a sensationally morbid science-fiction thriller that is worth a play regardless of the fact it doesn’t stick the landing on the Switch. There are few games that nail exploration-centric gameplay to quite the same degree as Bloober Team has with this horror masterclass, and if you haven’t had a chance to play it, this is a good time to jump in.
Platform: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, Linux, macOS
Developer: Bloober Team
Release Date: Out now
The Switch may not have the power for a game as expansive as Observer, but even with its technical faults and the occasional gameplay misstep, it’s still an incredible experience. Whether it’s the morbid story, the disturbing atmosphere or the deeply involving detective gameplay, this is a genuinely brilliant horror-thriller that works its way under your skin and lingers long after you put the controller down.
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