Game name: >observer_
Release date: August 15, 2017
Price: US$ 29.99
Available on: Steam
Genre: First person adventure
Developer: Bloober Team
When CDProjekt RED announced that they were working on Cyberpunk 2077, the gaming world went bananas over it, and rightfully so, considering the Polish studio’s track record. Sadly, the next title from the masterminds behind The Witcher 3 is still a ways off, and cyberpunk games aren’t exactly dime a dozen. Luckily for us, not all is lost, as Bloober Team, another Polish studio, decided to give the genre a go with Observer, a first person detective ’em up released last month.
Set in a futuristic version of Krakow, Poland, Observer puts us in the boots of Detective Daniel Lazarski, a veteran member of a police force known as Observers because they have been outfitted with tech that lets them enter people’s minds, using their thoughts to pursue leads and interrogate suspects (even post mortem, in extreme situations). Trying to find out what happened to our estranged son, we’ll set out in a journey through dark alleys and strange dreams, where nothing is as clear cut as it seemed at first sight.
Our employers are Chiron Incorporated, a mega-corporation which took over Poland after a nuclear war left most of Eastern Europe uninhabitable. In order to survive in this grim new world, most citizens are augmented, and they resort to drugs to escape reality or take care of medical conditions that would otherwise cause them unbearable pain. Daniel Lazarski is no exception to this rule, as his Dream Eater implant will slowly corrupt his senses unless he periodically ingests a certain substance that can be found as we advance.
The search for our son will take us to one of the many buildings created to house and contain the poor, and after investigating an apartment with our nano-augmented vision and collecting some clues, we’ll soon have to deal with a lockdown. In Observer‘s world, a deadly plague called the Nanophage has been doing the rounds for years, spreading through both digital and biological means, and maiming or killing untold numbers. In order to deal with the Nanophage, Chiron Incorporated has fitted every building with steel shutters that will automatically seal off sites that show signs of contamination. Of course, lockdowns can also be caused by computer malfunctions, so as the only government agent present in the building, we’ll have to do our best to reassure the tenants that no harm will come to them.
Stuck in the apartment building, our hero will have to solve some puzzles and interact with the tenants, engaging in conversations that may not only give us more information about our son, but also start new side quests. We won’t see our interlocutors’ faces most of the time, instead relying in their voices and distorted images projected by the intercom machines. Our character is also fully voiced, and by none other than Rutger Hauer, of Blade Runner fame. Considering that the rest of the voice cast had to live up to this legendary actor’s performance, it’s incredible that they not only managed to do that, but at times even surpassed him, bringing their characters to life with pitch perfect performances that would even stand out in a big budget release.
Of course, as an Observer, our main method of gathering information is far more ellaborate than just talking to people and checking for fingerprints, as from time to time we’ll get to situations that require the use of our Dream Eater implant, letting us enter other people’s minds and examine their dreams in search of the truth. These segments are sometimes hard to stomach, since the world may dissolve before our eyes, altering itself to fit newly acquired knowledge, or to visually represent the subject’s fears. Some of these sequences may even feature stealth-based scenarios, which will force us to complete objectives while staying undetected. I didn’t particularly like those situations, but they are over relatively quickly, and can be taken as a way of adding an action-y touch to the adventure.
Dream Eater sequences get weirder as the game advances, starting out with a relatively tame reconstruction of the world (think Inception’s city bending moments) and going all the way to full body horror. Owing to the drugs pumped into our system at all times in order to keep our implants going, some of the crazyness will eventually make its way to the normal world, a feeling that is accentuated by the garbled digital signals that pop up in our heads up display from time to time.
While the beginning of the game is relatively slow paced, our investigation will quickly take flight, and later segments are not only an audiovisual treat, but can also surprise the player at every turn. Puzzles also evolve, and we’ll have to use all the tools at our disposal if we wish to uncover Observer‘s many mysteries.
The story will walk us through classic cyberpunk tropes, but to Bloober Team‘s credit, they are experts at subverting player expectations, and their worldbuilding is truly excellent. Every apartment, shady street corner, or underground shop has a story to tell, and we can choose whether we care about it or not, as it’s never shoved on our face. Daniel will sometimes comment on the things we see, adding a much welcome personal touch and revealing different facets of his personality along the way.
Tech wise, we’ll find a title that can actually use all the shiny features present in Epic‘s Unreal Engine 4 without looking like a nightmarish mid 2000s bloom-fest. Even the much maligned chromatic aberration effect doesn’t look out of place in this cyberpunk future, and the way maps change during Dream Eater sequences is simply jaw-dropping, as they twist and turn from moment to moment, showing the guts of the buildings (sometimes literally) at one second, and something else at the next. As we’ve already discussed previously, the voice work is also excellent, and the game’s sound FX and music don’t disappoint either, creating a tense and sometimes creepy atmosphere with every beat.
My only complaint would be that effects-heavy scenes caused noticeable performance drops at high resolutions, even with a 4K ready machine (Ryzen 7 1700, 32GB RAM, GTX 1080Ti). Playing at 1440p eliminated the drops with some strange exceptions, and dropping the resolution to 1080p let me achieve a locked sixty frames per second, so this is more of a small nitpick than a real issue.
Aside from those small performance woes, Observer is as close to a cyberpunk masterpiece as we’ll get, featuring an engaging story, excellent performances from all the voice actors involved (an impressive feat, considering that the cast had to keep up with Rutger Hauer), and impeccable worldbuilding. Bloober Team has come a long way since Layers of Fear and I can’t wait to see where they’ll go next.
9.5/10 – Excellent.