As far as horror games go, 2017 has seen some fairly high profile titles hit the market, including the likes of Resident Evil 7, Outlast 2, and Friday the 13th: The Game. Compared to those releases, one new horror game has flown a little under the radar, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t deserving of just as much attention from fans of the genre. Observer, a cyberpunk horror game from Bloober Team, may just be the horror game genre’s sleeper hit of 2017.
In Observer, players take on the role of Daniel Lazarski, a detective of sorts with the ability to tap into peoples’ minds with a special device. Early in the game, Daniel is contacted by his estranged son and begins to investigate strange goings-on at his son’s rundown apartment complex, where the bulk of Observer takes place.
This apartment complex and the people within it, who are mostly interacted with through intercom systems, feel ripped straight out of classic dystopian novels like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and 1984. Everyone is paranoid of the government, people have enhanced themselves with cybernetics, and drug use has run rampant. Interacting with most of the tenants in the apartment complex is completely optional, but doing so leads to interesting conversations and side missions that flesh out the game world.
The dialogue is on point, and it’s eerie how the developers were able to make these tenants feel like real people with real problems, especially considering the far future setting. The sharp writing is integral to Observer‘s success, as the game is mostly a narrative-driven experience, with the twists and turns of the story the main reason to stick with it until players reach one of its multiple endings.
Even though Observer is a narrative-driven experience, it wouldn’t be fair to label it as a walking simulator like What Remains of Edith Finch or the sci-fi game Tacoma. Besides walking from one story beat to the next, players are also tasked with investigating crime scenes using scanners that examine both technological and biological items. The crime scene investigation sections of Observer are the most entertaining aspect of the game from a gameplay perspective, often featuring engaging puzzles that force players to think outside of the box.
Whenever another person or a corpse is found at one of these crime scenes, Daniel can connect to their minds by jacking into their neural implants. While exploring the minds of others, Daniel is subjected to nightmarish visions and distorted, hellish images. These trippy sequences are neat at first, but their appeal wears thin as the game goes on, as they often overstay their welcome to the point that players will become numb to the shock value. It doesn’t help that these moments almost always boil down to walking forward, with little in the way of puzzle solving or investigating.
These nightmarish stretches of the game are just not very compelling, though the developers attempt to spice them up with a monster that serves as one of the only ways players can get a game over in Observer. Whenever the monster is around, the game starts to feel more like Outlast, with Daniel having to hide behind objects and sneak around it to avoid detection. These stealth sections are fine, though they feel a little shoehorned in since they only occur a few times and stealth isn’t really a focus of the rest of the game.
Oddly enough, Observer‘s horror isn’t at its best during the parts of the game most obviously designed to scare the player. Its jump scares are effective, but the bits of the game where Daniel is exploring the apartment complex and interacting with the tenants are creepier and more disturbing thanks to the foreboding atmosphere the developers have managed to create.
Unfortunately, there’s one flaw in Observer that ruins the atmosphere and can break the immersion. There are times when players will find themselves repeatedly trying to open doors, only for the door stay shut tight – not by a locking mechanism or anything like that, but by its load times. This wouldn’t be a big issue, but it could confuse some players when they can’t figure out how to progress, especially when these loading doors take far too long to finally open.
While the long, immersion-breaking load times and repetitive nightmare sections are disappointing, horror fans will still find a game worth sinking their teeth into with Observer. Observer‘s story is reason enough to play the game to completion, but even those that aren’t driven by the disturbing cyberpunk tale may still enjoy its puzzles and compelling crime scene investigations. Overall, Observer is a step up from Bloober Team’s previous effort, Layers of Fear, and cements the studio as one to watch for horror fans.