Proving that there’s more to him than an appearance in a cult sci-fi film, Rutger Hauer takes centre stage in Observer, a soon-to-be cult sci-fi game. In fairness, Hauer’s performance is exemplary, and the absolute highlight of this cyberpunk title which too often sacrifices gameplay for an excess of bizarre, incoherent imagery.
The setting is both grim and gorgeous, a dystopian hell which manages to make the settings of Deus Ex and Judge Dredd look far more palatable in comparison. In the year 2084 where the majority of the population is augmented, a digital plague has affected most of the globe, resulting in another world war and the establishment of both a Polish republic and a mega-corporation named Chiron. Obviously, you’ve never seen a benevolent mega-corporation, and here is no different, but where they fit into the story is the core of Observer’s story arc.
Enter Daniel Lazarski, a washed-up office of the Krakow Police Department, and an Observer - a detective with the ability to hack into the minds of people, read their thoughts and therefore see their past. Lazarski’s search for his missing son at the beginning of the game leads him to a tower block which promptly gets locked down, confining his mission to a series of corridors and apartment rooms. The city’s inhabitants are a collection of reprobates, addicts and unpleasant vagrants who are, for the most part, sealed behind the doors and only talk over intercom.
The meat of the game comes from the crime scenes Lazarski encounters as he prowls the block. Someone - or something - has been trying to cover their tracks and leaving a trail of bodies in their wake. Fortunately, his detective skills are enhanced by two abilities: a bioscan which can analyse organic matter, and EM vision for studying electronics. Combined with thorough searches of the rooms you come across, Lazarski can pull together a picture of the events that took place there, and more clues to his son’s whereabouts.
When you are required to literally jack into the mind of a person (living or dead) to find out more, the environment shifts to a nightmarish sequence of events, where reality becomes far more fluid. One moment you’re in stalking around an apartment, the next you’re transported to a vector-drawn office block. The walls transform into gore-dripping viscera, while television sets transmit screaming mouths; Observer’s aesthetic is never less than stylishly unsettling.
The more you hook into different people’s minds, the more your own starts to degrade. As Lazarski’s perception of the real world falters, you will need to rely on regular shots of an augmentation drug called synchrozine to keep him grounded. Numerous capsules of this can be found dotted around the building, causing it to feel like an afterthought that was added in to give the player something to do, rather than having any major impact on the game. It’s a shame, as the purpose and effects of this drug are never really explored.
Similarly, puzzles are loosely implemented, usually appearing in the form of keypads preventing access to other sections of the building, the codes for which are found through conversation or by scouring the environment. Other tasks, such as rerouting power to different doors by manipulating power cables are equally simplistic. But the more annoying sections are those requiring stealth, as various horrific incarnations are conjured up to prowl the minds of the people you observe. Getting spotted results in an instant fail state, but even that pales in comparison to one tortuous section in a cornfield patrolled by drones who have an uncanny way of crossing your route far faster than you can move. The number of times a searchlight will find you despite there being no appreciable enemy in sight is frustrating, and shatters the carefully constructed world for no good reason other than to add “challenge”.
Observer will ultimately divide its critics, not least due to Rutger Hauer’s acting. We thought that his weary, softly spoken delivery fit perfectly into a society where hope is a concept from a bygone era, but others may consider it phoned in. Gameplay-wise, the real test of a player will be the navigation of endless corridors and doors, traipsing backwards and forwards between apartments and similar looking environments at a plodding pace. The game does a reasonable job of masking its linearity, but once you spot the walls of the zone you’re being funnelled through, it’s hard not to keep noticing them.
Repetition takes effect as well; too many times you’ll find yourself walking towards a door, only for another horror sequence to play out. Considering it comes from the developers of the terrifying Layers of Fear, there is almost nothing scary about Observer. A few cheap jump scares attempt to liven up proceedings, but they sit uneasily in the cyberpunk setting, and given that almost none of the sequences have any bearing on your character’s survival, they soon become tedious. Face-to-face conversations are limited to the tower block manager and a few key scenes, which only adds to the feeling of detachment; it’s hard to care about a downtrodden society when you can’t see it.
For an six- to eight-hour game, Observer feels a lot longer. It would have benefited from more ruthless editing to bring out the core narrative, and cut out some of the stealth sections and overlong transit sequences. As a visual treat and a depressing vision of a possible future it can’t be faulted, but if you’re looking for more than a neo-noir walking simulator, you’ll end up disappointed.