Observer Review: Classy Cyberpunk with a touch of madness
Review
Cyberpunk is extremely hard to get right. Thanks to the eccentricities inherent within the genre, in the wrong hands it tends to come off as corny or cheesy and during Observer's opening moments, I was worried that I was in for a cheese fest. All of that changed, when I jacked into my first mind.


Presentation
The year is 2084, a massive war has wiped out millions of people and rendered vast areas of the globe completely uninhabitable due to radioactive fallout. Those who survived are slowly being killed off by the "Nanophage" a digital disease that is wreaking havoc among people with augmentations.

To make matters worse, when war broke out Chiron Incorporated, a large conglomerate seized control of what was left, making them sole manufacturers and suppliers of everything, letting them form a totalitarian government that controls the world with an Icey grip.

You play as Daniel Lazarski, member of an elite unit called the Observers. Using an augmentation called The Dream Eater, you can jack into people's minds and trudge through their darkest secrets to uncover information.

If you haven't figured it out by now, the world of Observer is singularly bleak and depressing. Bloober Team, the Polish game studio behind Layers of Fear, absolutely nail the gritty, dark feel of Cyberpunk. The run-down apartment complex that you explore throughout the game is as detailed as it's grimy and feels like a futuristic, lived-in ghetto. Another masterstroke was getting Rutger Hauer to voice the main protagonist. While initially, his performance seems a bit jarring, you eventually warm-up to his inflictions and unique style of delivery.


The game is at its best during the Dream Eater sequences, where you jack into a person's mind to sift through their nightmares and uncover information. These are jarring, often violent places to lose yourself in, as the world glitches and contorts around you adhering to neither logic nor reason. The only drawback here is the over-reliance on jump scares which serve to dull some of the tension, but they are so creative and imaginative that they will keep you at the edge of your seat.

Without giving too much of the story away, you begin the game receiving a routine call to check out a building that has fallen victim to an attack before your communications are hijacked inexplicably by a familiar voice. Your son, Adam who you haven't heard from in a while tells you "You're not in control" before communications are cut off, you trace the call to a futuristic ghetto where you find a beheaded body, at the same time something sets off the security system in the apartment complex triggering a lockdown. Things only get weird from here. Saying anything else will detrimentally affect your experience, so you must take my word for it when I say this is one of the best cyberpunk stories to come out in quite a while. It takes elements from both Sci-Fi and Film Noir mixing them together flawlessly.

The sound design is excellent throughout, Rutger Hauer absolutely nails his performance as Daniel Lazarski. His voice reflects the torment an observer is put through often at the cost of their mental well being. He is also a father who lost his wife to the "Nanophage" and has an estranged son he hasn't been in contact with for a while. The rest of the voices in the game are also done well but some like the Janitor whom you encounter in the complex may be an acquired taste for some. The voices may also come off as a bit cheesy to someone not used to Film Noir tropes with heavy-handed and wordy writing that is par for course for this sub-genre. The ambient sound design is top notch though, with environments sufficiently creaking, slobbering and moaning to instil a sense of dread. Like I said before, the Dream Eater sequences tend to rely on jump scares a bit too much, but they are handled with a deft touch and don't overstay their welcome, which keeps things fresh.


Gameplay
Here's where Observer will start to get divisive. The main gameplay loop tasks you with finding clues in the environment and solving some basic puzzles. You have something known as Synchronization which you also must keep a tab on, when put under extreme stress or physical exertion, Daniel will start "Glitching out" which will slowly introduce anomalies or even hallucinations in his vision and will require you to administer a dose of a drug called "Synchrozine" to keep these levels in check. This is a clever mechanic as it forces players to explore the environment more to find these vials. Daniel also has access to two vision modes, one for scanning organic substances like blood and one for electronic devices, you can also hack into keypads around the environment using your Hacking software. There are a few stealth sections in the game that force you to stay hidden or risk failure, but these are very simplistic and aren't too much of a challenge. This game also has a mechanic that simulates opening a door or cupboard for example by using a controller or in my case a mouse. Some of these can be a bit wonky but they are easy to overlook, and you will get used to them the more you play.

More than the gameplay, Observer is about the experience and if you absolutely hate adventure games or point n click titles or walking simulators, this game will not change your mind.

Conclusion
Observer is one of the freshest takes on the Cyberpunk genre I have seen in awhile, it's an experience that's hard to describe in words, it manages to have just enough gameplay wrapped in to not be a full walking simulator but isn't going to do much to change your mind if you thought games like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Firewatch or even the developer's previous game Layers of fear were boring. For those willing to overlook the light gameplay on offer here, is an experience that is like nothing out there right now.