>observer_, developed by the same team that brought you Layers of Fear, is a look at the not-too-distant future. While LoF brought you traditional horror, >observer_ looks to tap into a fear that you may not even know you had. In a world obsessed with machines and technology, Bloober Team wanted to explore the idea of humans becoming too attached to said machines; literally.
Welcome to 2084!
We begin in the year 2084 in Kraków, Poland. War and a plague, known as the nanophage, has cost thousands to die. Soon after, a powerful corporation known as Chiron took control of Poland. They developed a police unit known as Observers to maintain control of society. These officers possess the unique ability to “hack” into people’s minds via data chips implanted in their brains.
You take on the role of one of those Observers named Daniel Lazarski. After an abrupt and ominous call from your son, Adam, you set out to find him and uncover a murder that sets the events of the game into motion.
New Game, Same Idea?
At the surface, I went into this thinking that Bloober team would make the same mistake many developers, like Telltale Games, makes. Which is, incorporate most of the same game mechanics in all of their games. While at the surface >observer_ shares a lot of similar gameplay as Layers of Fear, it’s different in many ways that make it feel fresh and exciting.
You start off in your squad car and after a few minutes of dialogue, you make your way over to the apartment complex where Adam is staying. The feel starts off exactly the same as LoF. Use the R2 button to open doors and interact with objects, the view is in first-person, and there is absolutely no sort of combat.
You are also free to explore in >observer_, but the map is a lot bigger. So much so, that there were actually load times when I’d go for a door handle. It was a little frustrating at times to have to wait 20 seconds for the door to open, and it took me out of the experience a bit. It wasn’t anything major, just something I was surprised to encounter.
Something neat is that the game takes place in two distinct worlds. There’s the real world and the mental/digital world. The real world mostly consists of the apartment complex you’re investigating in while the mental digital world is where you go when you hack into people’s minds using a device called the dream eater that links your mind with anyone who has a chip in their brain. This is where most of the trippy and scary stuff happens. The mind is a scary place, apparently!
I was pleasantly surprised that there was an actual investigation aspect to >observer_. Early on you come across a murder scene and you jump right into cop mode. There are two tools at your disposal when investigating. One is your electromagnetic vision that scans for electronics such as computers, fuse boxes, and the like. The other is you bio vision that scans for biological evidence such as blood, hair, and all those sorts of things. You utilize these tools quite a lot, and I found it to be a fun part of the gameplay.
You also get night vision which allows you to, of course, see in dark areas. This was such a welcome upgrade as >observer_ has its share of dark areas just as much as LoF. These tools will also uncover side cases for you to work while you’re there, which also made me feel like there was plenty to do while in the game. The sad part about these tools is they can’t be utilized in the mind world.
As was the case in LoF, there are also collectibles in this game as well. According to Steam, these are:
- 69 Patient Cards
- 4 Patient Recordings
- 4 RC Cars
- 4 Roses
- 10 Mini Games
These are REALLY well hidden because I didn’t even locate ten of the patient cards, none of the RC Cars or Roses, and only seven or eight of the mini-games. I do think I was able to find the patient recordings, so yay me! On the note of the mini-games, I was thrilled to find out these little gems. The game is called With Fire and Sword: Spiders, and in it you take on the role of a warrior trying to rescue a princess. The goal is to kill all of the spiders, collect all the coins, and get to the princess in a Pacman styled maze. It was a nice little distraction from the main story, and I really enjoyed how much of a brain teaser they were!
However, these are mostly for trophy and completion purposes. As far as I can tell, the story is completely linear. Aside from a certain event towards the end of the game, nothing will change the outcome. However, these little hidden treasures definitely increase the replayability value since, as in LoF, none of these are made apparent to you. Once you realize they’re there you’ll want to go back and see what else you missed!
Death, So Much Death!
Be prepared to die, a lot. Especially in your first playthrough. There is only one thing in this game that can kill you and when you come across it, it’ll be an instant death straight to an actual game over screen. That’s right, unlike LoF you are actually notified that you died. Coming across the mutant was probably the scariest part of >observer_ for me because I absolutely HATE creatures that one-hit-kill you. Simply for the fact that you can’t fight them off, and they stalk you. It taps into my anxiety and always makes me go into panic mode.
Like LoF, >observer_ doesn’t do much to hold your hand. You’re basically thrown to the wolves and made to find your own way through your game. This means that your first death is TERRIFYING!
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
Bloober team really loves focusing on psychology. With LoF it was the painter’s battle with his mental disorder and delusions. In >observer_, it’s the fight between our memories and technology. After finding a headless corpse in Adam’s apartment, Dan goes on the hunt for whoever is killing people within the apartment complex. The bodies keep piling up, and Dan is running out of time to prove that his son is still alive.
Instead of focusing on tragedy, we instead get a story about conspiracy, espionage, and illegal dealings. Turns out, lots of shady characters call the complex home such as an illegal prosthetic limbs dealer, a body chop shop, and even a derange serial killer. The latter is the focal point of the story, and we even get an opportunity to explore their mind to see what truly made them become the literal monster we saw before us.
It makes you wonder if the complex was built on tribal burial grounds or something, talk about having a bad day! It almost seems like there are no innocent people living there, and maybe that’s the lesson we’re meant to learn; everyone’s hiding something.
It’s a bleak outlook, but it highlights the actions of Dan all the more. He’s the only person who seems to be acting out of pure love and justice. His only secret is that he allowed his wife to put her decision to die on his shoulders. Something Adam never forgave him for.
The graphics in >observer_ are solid! Everything looks nice and polished, and sometimes it didn’t even look like I was actually playing a video game. Everything is just so highly detailed that it was a visual pleasure to experience.
The twisting and winding visuals are back, and they are probably one of my favorite aspects of Bloober Team’s games.
However, get ready to get lost, a lot. Most of the mind world is one giant maze and the fact that its constantly distorting and warping doesn’t help. So much of this game’s visuals are meant to disorientate you. At some points, I just wanted to curl into a ball and cry because my senses were being assaulted from all over the place. I think it added to the fear aspect of the game and made me really question my sanity.
Another issue I had was a LOT of lag. I don’t know why I was experiencing so much lag, but it is the first time it’s ever happened on my PS4. I think that the vastness of the world with all of the changing visuals and particle effects took its toll on the CPU of the PS4 classic. I’d like to try it out on a pro or even a high-end PC to see if I faced similar issues.
The music for >observer_ was once again handled by Arkadiusz Reikowski, the same guy who did the music for Layers of Fear. This time around he went for the full-on creep factor that made me uneasy but in a good way! While I absolutely adored the theme song for LoF, the music for >observer_ was also great! Arkadiusz does a fantastic job of capturing the atmosphere of the game and forcing you to feel enveloped in what’s happening on the screen.
However, some of the same issues I had with LoF’s sound effects were carried over here. The developers love using screeching loud noises in their games. I know it’s supposed to create fear and panic in you but, for me, it just hurt my ears and annoyed me. It’s not even so much that they use them to surprise you, but instead of it being a quick jolt of sound they make it a blaring siren that plays on for what seems forever. I will admit, at points, it worked well for the scene because it added to the disoriented factor, but other times it just sounded like loud noise.
A Solemn Farewell
>observer_ felt more like a fusion of Science Fiction and Horror, which worked really well. It plays on those societal worries of us relying too much on technology and allowing corporations to have control of our lives. It explores a not so far-fetched concept that we could see at some point in the future. Nothing is scarier than reality, and I think >observer_ captured that perfectly. I didn’t feel as emotionally connected to it as I did Layers of Fear, but it was still a great journey to experience. By the end, I still felt bad for everyone involved. The way the characters were portrayed made it seem like everyone was a victim of their environments.
Bloober Team are great storytellers, and these games have left me wanting more! I am excited to see what they have in store for us in the future. I really hope they do something in VR because these games would be PERFECT for that! >observer_ is available on Steam, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. You can also purchase it as a bundle with Layers of Fear on Steam, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.