The apartment building before you stands decrepit and forgotten. You know better than to enter The Stacks. A complete waste of lawless space, no need for an Observer to bother with. But you didn’t have a choice, not once your son called you after years of silence. Nothing could have prepared you for what’s inside. You make your way into the building, and the creepy landlord tells you the way to your son’s apartment. After creaking the door open slowly, you see the true horror. Before you lays a headless corpse. Is it your Adam? It couldn’t be. He just called, right? An alarm sounds putting a lockdown into effect. It says there are traces of the nanophage. You’re locked in with only goal: find your son.
So starts “Observer”, the new game from Bloober Team, the same team that brought gamers “Layers of Fear”. You play as Daniel Lazarski, the titular Observer. An Observer is a detective of sorts, but their approach is a little outside normal police procedure. They delve into suspects’ memories, and so shall you as you play through this game. It’s the only way to find the truth, after all.
A Familiar Backdrop
Further distancing this game from other detective games is its setting. Observer is in love with Blade Runner and not afraid to show it. From the constant night to the neon shining brightly, Observer wears its influence on its sleeve. And it does an incredible job selling you on the setting. Everything is dirty and grungy, and the apartments you weave between are obviously lived-in or left behind. You can open every single cabinet, closet, and cupboard you come across, and there are layers and layers of details. The singular apartment complex to which you’re confined may not be a very large area, but it certainly is a dense one.
This density leads into interesting, if flat, crime scene investigations throughout the game. You are a detective, after all. As you come upon a scene, you’re given two vision modes with which to investigate; one for technology and one for biology. You comb through what you can by scanning mod-chips and blood pools while a very mumbly Rutger Hauer narrates the thoughts of Detective Daniel Lazarski out loud. The first scene or two excite as your mind races through the possibilities of each crime. But you’ll quickly learn it boils down to checking off every item in the room with very little deduction on the part of the player. All style and no substance, as it were.
You can also learn a little from talking to the neighboring tenants as well. These brief conversations help to flesh out the ever-interesting universe, as well as Lazarski himself. The denizens are interesting, from screaming families to paranoid weirdos, but they’re only there for set-dressing. Never do they lead to new clues or something the game hasn’t already told you. The conversations themselves are interesting to the universe and in learning Lazarski’s personality, but they never offer the information gathering experiences the game would have you believe.
Things do get switched up during the memory sequences, though these often also boil down to style over substance. They’re an audiovisual delight, but are more akin to a cutscene than to gameplay. Which could work if not for the “horror” aspect of Observer.
A Narrative Distracted by “Horror”
Psychological horror brings imagination to the memory sequences. Flashing lights and distorted noises help to remind you that these people are not quite right. It’s the jump scares and monsters that detract from the experience. Jump scares are always boring, and this game is no exception, but it’s something you won’t mind ignoring to see more of the narrative unfold. The monsters, though, bring the game to an absolute and screeching halt. Stealth in horror games has become a notable trend that grows more irritating with every release. At several points in Observer, you’re met with instant-fail stealth sequences moving past a grotesque monster. It’s neither thrilling nor scary. Instead, it’s frustrating and time-consuming. Even when I made it past a section on the first try, I felt annoyed I had to do it at all.
Observer stumbles its way to an unsatisfying finale in its final hours, as it ramps up the horror at the expense of the detective work. It’s as if Bloober Team didn’t have the full confidence to leave their horror roots behind. What’s left is a game simultaneously too interesting to ignore, and too frustrating to recommend. The opening hours are so good, but it’s the unfortunate kind of game that gets worse the more you play. It will be remembered as a game that wastes its exceptional premise. Perhaps a sequel can come along and make better use of the setting. It would be a shame to waste the team’s obvious talents in atmosphere.