Welcome to 2084; welcome to Poland; welcome to the KPD. You are Daniel Lazarski, voiced by the unmistakable Rutger Hauer. Detective Lazarski is an Observer, those dispatched to look into various crimes in the “Lesser Poland” city of Krakow. What makes this particular group of police different is their authorized use of an investigative measure known as the Dream Eater, a shielded wire which snakes into the skull of a subject and taps into their electronic brain implant, affording Det. Lazarski unfettered access to all that exists within the grey matter. The town is under the assumed control of ultra conglomerate Chiron, which has relegated hapless citizenry to the doldrums of “Class C” tenant living spaces. The task at hand is to uncover the truth surrounding a series of murders in one of these aforementioned shanties, which twists into a miasmal, terror laced trip into the dark recesses of the human condition.
Observer has two main gameplay veins. When in the “real” narrative world, your first person perspective amounts to a 3D point-and-click adventure. You’ll be fielding interviews with residence using a question tree system that sometime offers leads and clues. These tips truncate much of the guesswork behind clue collecting like offering keypad access codes and which apartments to scour over next. Once you arrive to a new scene of interest, Lazarski’s bag o’ tricks can be implemented. R1 and L1 switches on EM Vision and Bio Vision. The former unveils the location of electronic devices as well as other objects of pertinence and the latter analyzes natural substances like blood and cadavers in an effort to determine cause of death. Knowing when and how to use them in tandem becomes second nature very quickly, which increases your ability to gather intel and check off line item objectives at a steady pace. One little nicety of note is the LED lights of the Dualshock 4 will illuminate green or red depending on the Vision mode activated. Digital Chumps top tip: keep in mind to pick up all the Synchronization pills you come across in your searches. After a certain amount of time, the screen will begin to “tile,” this signifies Lazarski’s “stress level” is too high. Pop one of those mental delectations and he’ll be right as rain. This system may have been designed as a way to entice searching and not just skate by with only sleuthing in prescribed areas.
Playing shifts into another tempo when a Neural Interrogation is initiated. Use EM Vision to locate a person’s chip implant and unravel the aforementioned Dream Eater in order to “hack” their psyche. Within these environments, Observer‘s horror edge comes to eminence. Most of the folks you’ll invade aren’t exactly paragons of society; their minds are a maze of memories in a tormented pastiche. Much of these scenes are what I imagine Trent Reznor’s nightmares to be. The environments are familiar settings, whether they’re skewed locations from the game or generic spaces like an office floor dotted with cubicles. But they’ll often morph in wicked ways and can house monsters set out to exterminate you from the “session.” The Vision tools aren’t accessible, so you’ll just have to find the correct way through to the next area, item, or gateway. Some of the trips get pretty loopy, so be prepared for tableau imagery and adept art of the noxious sort.
As the game progresses, the lines between being in the dreams of others and the “real” existence of Lazarski become blurred. This is due to more of the game’s secrets being decorticated during the course of the four to six hour play time. Things that were certain become questions. True identities and motivations unveil themselves during your decent down the rabbit hole. Main storyline points are driven very well by major discoveries, but ancillary intel by the faceless residents hid behind their doors rarely does much to add real breadth to crucial situations. Mostly, these interviews feel like an additional collectible along with ID sheets that offer basic information about POIs. My biggest gripe about gameplay are the occasional path puzzles when using Dream Eater. Sometimes it’s simply mazes of repeated halls and doorways. Other instances feature an obligatory boogeyman that will squeeze the life from you if spotted, so keep your thumb on the circle button to toggle crouch! With no true stealth system and a complete lack of combat, this seems to be an arbitrary attempt to create tangible obstacles, making the game appear to be more than interactive storytelling. In fairness, these moments are few and far between, but again they feel like cursory garnish that can actually disrupt pacing.
Probably the best thing going for this title are the aesthetics. Overall, the drab, seedy underbelly of a technologically advanced 2084 metropolis acts as a nice, reliable canvas in which other pictures can be formulated. It’s when dreams and virtual reality events happen, however, that truly reveals sparks of brilliance. Some of the art direction and environmental design in these portions is simply jaw dropping. From demented to mesmerizing, you’ll witness a plentiful variety of colors, lighting, and shadow effects. One moment in particular during the latter stages comes to mind. A wooded area of pulsating voltage yellow against flat eigengrau elicited a sense of being transported directly into Observer‘s world, making me fully committed to that segment. Visually, it’s hard to ask for anything else. This is quite the pretty game, which made it a worth while play through. Audio is on a similarly adroit level, just without the sterling standout keystones. Rutger Hauer’s voice work is of course well done with his trademark panache. The rest of the acting is tepid by comparison, but doesn’t go so far as to detract from the proceedings. Other audible tidbits like footsteps and demonic screeches feel appropriate and proportioned, which do much to increase narrative magnetism.
I can’t help but think this game repeatedly tries to be more than how it honestly functions. This is NOT a survival horror game. Almost every generic convention of such clade is missing. There is no fighting, no oppressive amount of enemies, no real inventory system, no persistent allure of threat, et cetera. Sure, there are some creepy setups and spats of real unease, but said moments are aberrations, all things considered. Largely, this is point-and-click at heart, which is in no way an indictment. People like David Cage and studios like Telltale Games continue to prove very involved, memorable experiences can be created from the adventure game recipe book in the eighth console generation. I get this notion that Bloober Team wanted to eschew these possible comparisons for some reason. Had they revamped those several events that modulate what could be classified as active gameplay, it would have been a smoother ride. Despite this, Observer is a rather well done indie title with tons of style and appeal. Think Blade Runner‘s dystopian motif with Orwellian sensibilities and shades of Snatcher. Sign me up!