When the developers from the Poland based Bloober Team studio released their 2016 psychological horror Layers of Fear they invited players to experience fear in the form of the mentally ill. Now with their latest title, >Observer_, Bloober Team is transporting players into a futuristic, cyberpunk inspired dystopia where Big Brother is clearly an ever present threat. Placed in the role of Daniel Lazarski, an Observer for the Krakow Police Department, players find themselves in the year 2084. Following an event known as The Great Decimation that left humanity vulnerable to a deadly nanophage virus and most of the world uninhabitable what remains of society has been restructured under the watchful eyes of various mega corporations.
The Fifth Polish District is under the thumb of mega-corp, Chiron Inc. A strict class system has been put into place, with civilians labeled as Class A (the protected elite class), Class B (the equivalent of present day’s middle class), and Class C (the lower class and criminals). Civilians are equipped with neural implants which, when tapped by an Observer, can allow access to their memories. This is particularly helpful as an interrogation technique for the police when a victim or criminal can not – or will not – remember important events.
The beginning of >Observer_ throws players into the world with nothing in the way of training wheels. Our protagonist, Dan, receives a mystery call from a person he suspects is his estranged son, Adam. After retracing the call, Dan comes to the conclusion that his son is in The Stacks, a class C living facility that is every bit as run down and destitute as its name implies, and sets out to search for him. Once Dan arrives at the Stacks the entire building is put into lock down with no warning or notice, leaving players trapped in the building with the tenants who are locked away in their individual apartments. Players can have Dan interact with the tenants via intercoms on each of the apartments doors, sometimes picking up useful tidbits of information that help fill in details about the world around us. Eventually Dan tracks down the apartment that the call originated from where he discovers he has walked onto a crime scene. Players can use two visual augmentations available to Daniel to uncover clues littered about the scenes. Scanning the room with Daniel’s electromagnetic vision causes useful electronic devices (even those buried inside of a body) to become visible and may occasionally provide valuable information to Daniel and the player. The other augmentation available is Daniel’s bio vision, which allows him to detect blood or other organic materials in the world and uncover important information about the source from which it came such as species or blood type.
In addition to the vision augmentations, Daniel can use his aforementioned dream eater augmentation to access Class B and C civilians’ neural implants. But the minds of dying victims or brutal criminals can be a dangerous place, and this is where >Observer_’s hidden horror element truly shines. Each mind Daniel accesses is more perilous than the one before it and often the framework of the mind is crumbling an unstable. The lines between what is real and what is a glitch becomes very blurry very quickly. This was even more true for me in my original play through, unfortunately, as I repeatedly fell through the floor while exploring certain memory sequences. Given the intentionally glitchy atmosphere of >Observer_, I found myself sitting at one point for over 15 minutes as I tried to figure out how to get out of a certain circumstance. After some time, I discovered that in my effort to be stealthy and hide among a cubicle maze I had actually managed to fall through the “floor” of the game, and I was not just in some looping puzzle but actually outside of the world itself. The only way to remedy these glitches were to exit back to the main menu and attempt the sequence again from the last check point. In addition to being plagued by randomly falling through the world, >Observer_ also suffered from the occasional screen stuttering and crashes – most notably during action heavy chase sequences. Fortunately, though, a patch is in the works that should clean up the stability problems that I experienced.
Despite the stability issues, >Observer_ truly goes above and beyond to conjure up a creatively unique experience. The chaotic, glitchy atmosphere that Bloober Team has created by thrusting Daniel (and the player, by proxy) into the terrifyingly grim world of the Stacks is daunting and depressing enough, on it’s own. But the developers didn’t stop there. The entire world of the Fifth Polish District feels alive, whether you interact with it or not. Even the most mundane characters locked behind their apartment doors, from the blind man that’s worried about missing his appointment for eye surgery to the sex bot that’s heartbreakingly self aware, are interesting to talk to. Every computer contains documents, photos, and news files that flesh out the world and immerses the player with each new detail. The extent to which players explore the world can also have an affect on the over arching story which ultimately funnels down to Daniel making the ultimate in tough choices. Unlike Layers of Fear, >Observer_ does not feature chapter select, so following completion of the game players that want to experience aspects they missed in their initial play through will need to start over from the beginning.