Rutger Hauer once played the ultimate robot, sorry replicant, Roy Batty who questions humanity and goes on a murder spree to find his maker. The film was Blade Runner and since its release in the ‘80s, its legacy and influence has spawned a million films, music videos, photo shoots, architecture and of course games. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe” Roy Batty once said and never has a truer word been said of new cyberpunk game >observer_. Coming straight from the developers of indie horror game Layers of Fear, be prepared for your mind to be observed… and maybe destroyed.
The story in set in Krakow, Poland in 2084. There has been a massive war, and a strange disease called the Nanophage is raging through the world, and now people live drugged up, with neural implants and hooked up to VR. It’s a scary and dystopian world in the future, as it seems to be in quite a lot of the games that I experience.
You play the part of Daniel Lararski, an elite neural detective, or as they like to be called, an Observer. Your job is to investigate human crimes by hacking into suspects or victims minds and gathering the evidence so no one can hide from a court of law. You start the game in your car and receive a mysteriously distressing message from your son Adam, who is a high level engineer for the Chiron Corporation. You travel to the seedy slums of the city and enter an apartment block before your journey begins.
The game is a first person exploration/puzzle/survival horror/detective mystery. You walk around the area and interact with objects, collect evidence and enter the minds of the suspects. There are dialogue trees to be had when interacting with others, and you can run and crouch etc. There is no combat to be had at all in this game, because it’s not that type of journey. It is all about the psychological experience. You enter crime scenes, and a bit like in the Batman games, can scan the room for clues using special cybernetic skills which allow you to see special hidden items, or blood splatters. There are also clues to find in objects, or computer terminals placed around the areas. But it’s when you enter or hack into a person’s mind when the game really goes into overdrive.
>observer_ takes you into the psyche of a person’s fear, anxieties and distorted memories. The game is superb with what it does as it becomes really disturbing, upsetting and so weird that it made me genuinely have bad dreams about humans with the head of mice chasing me. The developer’s experience with the Layers of Fear franchise can be shown as a direct influence, with some sequences so amazing that I just don’t know how it could come out of a human mind. In these sequences you’re generally on a linear journey, but occasionally you will have to use stealth tactics as a horrible creature pursues you.
The level design and attention to detail is amazing and I believe this development team is unlike any other in the world when it comes to dealing with horror. Sometimes the nightmare sequences do go on a bit too long, and the actual gameplay and world design makes me feel a bit sick with its distortion of reality, but maybe that’s the idea they are going for. There are some framerate issues as well, with slowdown appearing now and again which is a shame. The main campaign should however take you around six hours to complete, more if you spend time examining all the areas and conversations. There’s a nice little hidden retro game – With fire and sword: spiders – that is a lot of fun to play.
In the looks department >observer_ is top draw, with an amazingly detailed futuristic world on offer. The cyberpunk design of decay mixed with future tech is brilliantly realised and used very effectively. The horror sequences and mind jack experiences are completely disturbing and have some images that will stay with you long after you’ve finished playing the game. Character design is wonderful and as I said before the attention to detail is superb. The sound design is also great with some brilliant voice work including that from Mr Rutger Hauer. The score and effects are frightening, intense, enlightening and, overall, pretty beautiful. The story is intense and feels well executed throughout, with some interesting questions posed regarding VR and eternal life.
I highly recommend >observer_ to anyone who loves story driven experiences. It does have a link to Layers of Fear, in both its tone and brilliant level design, but is a completely different game that is dark, disturbing and delightful all at the same time. There are some problems with framerate issues and for some the overall tone of the game will be hard to stomach as there are some truly horrific sequences, but the storytelling is absolutely outstanding and the same goes for the soundtrack.
If you want to travel to the future, hack into a suspect’s mind and have nightmares for a week, then this is the game for you. Trust me it’s well worth it.