Cyberpunk has been undergoing a renaissance for some time now across every medium, including some recent high-profile releases like Blade Runner 2049 and Detroit: Become Human. Bloober Team’s latest release, Observer, is yet one more title riding the cyberpunk wave.
Observer (stylized as >observer_ in marketing material) is set in 2084 in the Fifth Polish Republic, a corporation-state formed by Chiron Incorporated following a “digital plague” called the nanophage and a resulting global war. The remaining population of humans, now living in a heavily stratified society, have all had some degree of physical modification. This is the retrofuturist world of Blade Runner if it had a baby with the body-augmentation obsession of Deus Ex.
You’re put in the shoes of Daniel Lazarski, a police officer with the special role of Observer, who can connect to people’s brain implants to view and relive their memories. In the opening sequence, he receives a call from his long-missing son, leading him on a investigation into Krakow’s slums to locate him. Daniel is voiced by Rutger Hauer of Blade Runner “tears in rain” monologue fame, which seems a bit on the nose given the cyberpunk angle. Unfortunately, Hauer’s performance falls a bit flat; much of the time it sounds like he’s phoning in the lines.
Observer is, well, more or less a walking simulator. I know, I know, that’s become somewhat of a weaponized term in the video-game industry over the past few years, but the game suffers greatly from a lack of interaction. It’s not like some others where you just hold the W key the whole game, but after an hour or so you realize that conversations, while offering options, all lead to the same ending. Crime scenes give you the chance to look for clues, but there’s no negative if you miss one. The only reprieve comes in the form of a few puzzles here and there, making you search the environment or read data entries to find a door code, for example, in order to continue forward.
What Observer does have going for it is the visuals. They’re absolutely superb. An old apartment building of wood and plaster retrofitted with digital displays and streaming data feeds would look right at home on a movie screen. The dreary hallways are covered with advertisements for luxury goods that the tenants will never be able to afford. The building’s landlord, a veteran of the war, bears cheap, disfiguring augmentations. When Daniel enters someone’s mind to view a memory, it’s like entering a fever dream. Environments twist and reshape before you—the laws of physics don’t apply here.
However, these memory sequences, while visually stimulating and chaotic, often drag on for far too long—sometimes 10 minutes or more—and can often be difficult to comprehend. They’re supposed to be cryptic to some degree, but most of the time I was left scratching my head when the memory ended and had to consult the updated mission log to make sense of what information I was supposed to have gleaned from it. These extended sequences make the story pacing feel off, plodding along until everything rushes together at the conclusion.
Greater interaction would do wonders for the game. When finding a clue at a crime scene, Daniel instantly muses to himself, coming to a conclusion about it—I’d rather the game let me try and weave the threads together myself. And have the conversations actually be branching, instead of every choice lead back to the same ending.
Observer tries some pseudointeractions, but they ultimately end up as filler. There are three or four points in the game where you’re forced to sneak and hide from enemies through the level, which feels oddly out of place; once is while playing a memory, and, true to form, if you’re caught you get pulled out of the memory with no further consequences. As another “interaction” Daniel suffers side effects every time he comes out of someone’s memories in the form of disrupted vision in his augmented eyes and has to take drug capsules to fight of the effects. But the drugs are common enough throughout levels that you never feel in danger of running out, making going through the whole process feel like busywork.
I’d also love more of a look at the world of the game; Observer is like a television “bottle episode,” taking place in just a handful of locations. We’re in the slums, but how do the rich people fare in this corporate hell? There are just two side quests in the game, teasing more of the bizarre world just out of reach. Just like a bottle episode, it’s short on actual characters—many of the conversations are conducted through apartment doors, with nary a real person in sight. The story is more of a personal one as Daniel hunts for his son, so the traditional genre plots of evil corporations and hackers aren’t as prevalent, though the available endings are deliciously cyberpunk.
Unfortunately, much potential here is squandered. Despite imaginative endings, it’s not enough to pull the entire experience together. Perhaps once the game gets a heavy discount it might be worth a go, but otherwise it should only be for those who must consume everything in the cyberpunk genre.
Observer is available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, Linux, and Mac.