Bloober Team is a fascinating developer. The Polish outfit has released a couple of games this generation: its first, Basement Crawl, was so poorly received that it had to be remade, and was reborn as Brawl. Its follow-up to this was Layers of Fear, a Victorian-themed horror title about painting, and it remains one of the better horror titles of the generation. So despite its missteps early in the generation, we had high hopes that Observer would be another horror treat.
In Observer, you take the role of Daniel Lazarski, a cyber-detective based in Krakow, Poland. The setting doesn't really count for much, as the title almost entirely takes place in one apartment complex, in the future world of 2084 referred to as 'The Stacks'. Daniel – voiced by actor Rutger Hauer, one of the best things about Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – finds himself immersed in the dregs of society here, where drug use, murderers, and retro computers run rampant.
Daniel ends up here because he's trying to locate his estranged son. Upon finding his son’s alleged apartment, all hell breaks loose, and the complex gets locked down for fear of an outbreak of the Nanophage, a plague that's killed countless enhanced humans. While locked down, Daniel begins solving a series of murders that have taken place, while also contending with the 'phage.
Unfortunately, Observer is dreadful as a horror title – it’s not the least bit scary. It almost exclusively relies on jump scares, even when there’s nothing to prompt this. This makes for a game that, rather than fray our nerves in fear, gave us a headache because of how annoying the loud noises were. This is made all the worse by the fact that the audio mixing is atrocious. All of the loud noises are so loud that you'll have to crank the volume up to hear people talking, only to frantically scramble for the remote to mute the game when the absurdly loud noises start assaulting your ears again.
While the scares in Layers of Fear are delicate, this is the antithesis to that: loud, grating, and with about as much finesse as a bull in a china shop. Not only that, but much of the “horror” feels nonsensical: there are a collection of grotesque and disturbing images and scenes that feel like they're in the game simply because of their horrific nature.
This poor implementation of horror would have been fine if it did a good job in other areas. Hell, many horror games aren’t particularly scary while still being great – SOMA is a good example of this – but even the narrative elements aren’t enough to pull everything together. Rutger Hauer’s performance is exceptional, but it's surrounded by some shoddy voice work and a disnonsensical plot. The investigation of crime scenes is interesting, particularly mind jacking – where you uplink into the victims’ neural networks – but like many elements of the title, they go on for far longer than they should.
For a game that only lasts about five hours, the title feels shockingly padded. If all of the superfluous stuff were to be eliminated, it might have been about two hours long – and it would’ve been much better for it, especially if that meant removing much of the narrative clutter. So many of the things that we did or heard were hard to care about because much of it dealt with characters we had no attachment to. The game should’ve focused far more on Daniel searching for his son than it did, rather than adding in a bunch of supporting characters we didn’t care about in the build up to the game's literal deus ex machina ending.
The problems aren’t limited to narrative and atmosphere, either. The game looks gorgeous – for such a small team, the game looks seriously impressive, much like Layers of Fear did – but at the cost of performance. The title’s frame rate chugged for almost the entirety of our playing it, even dipping into single figures at times. In addition, we encountered a few progress impeding bugs where we had to reset the game, as well as some truly bizarre UI bugs, like the game’s hint that we could “press circle to crouch” refusing to go away for hours at a time. On top of that, there was one time where we lost ten minutes of playing trying to get a door open because the physics were totally borked.
The game design is quite annoying to boot. While the investigation and walking simulator aspects of the title are perfectly fine, there are several arbitrary segments with fail states. Many of them come out of nowhere, some of them do a poor job of letting you know you can die at all, and one in particular – we had to walk through a corn field while avoiding hovering drones – felt so random as far as punishment that we wanted to throw our controller.
Finally, being a cyberpunk title, soundtrack is an important facet of the genre. Blade Runner’s score, for instance, is one of the best film soundtracks ever made, and many successful cyberpunk titles – like the Deus Ex games –have incredible music. Observer, however, does not. The soundtrack, when it is there, is generally competent, but outside of the credits song, which is good, the music seems to lean more into its horror roots, and doesn't leave any lasting impact as a result.
Observer is rough. Some neat narrative beats and a beautifully presented cyberpunk world paired with an exceptional performance from Rutger Hauer end up being the only redeeming qualities present in this title. This is a game that, despite being short, feels overlong, due in part to some tedious and obnoxious gameplay segments, and some of the least subtle “horror” we’ve encountered in recent memory. Throw in a bevy of technical problems and a third act that is complete nonsense, and Observer is, at best, a bit of a mess. To call this game a letdown would be an understatement.