In 2016, the oddly-named Bloober Team released Layers of Fear, a horror game that mistook quantity of jump scares for quality, throwing scenario after incoherent scenario at you with little-to-no breathing room, leading to a predictable pattern of frights that marched toward obvious plot reveals. I mention this not to beat a dead horse, but to emphasize my own pleasant surprise at just how much I enjoyed their newest release, >observer_, a game that shares a lot of design DNA with its predecessor yet tweaks the formula in smart ways, turning shortcomings into strengths.
Rather than the Victorian horror of the previous game, >observer_ moves things two hundred or so years farther along – 2084, to be exact, in a not-so-subtle nod to the Orwellian surveillance state that comprises near-future Poland (you find a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four early in the game, just in case you didn’t get the allusion the first time). The Chiron Corporation has demolished the democratic structures of the country and now rules over the Fifth Polish Republic, a corporatocratic police state in which everyone lives in Chiron-built housing, watches Chiron-produced news on Chiron-manufactured TVs, and works according to a Chiron-determined caste system.
Daniel Lazarski is an Observer, a detective who has been cybernetically enhanced with the ability to jack into people’s minds and uncover hidden information and memories. Dan fits squarely in the mold of the modern, noir-styled, self-hating, down-on-his-luck detective, the kind that’s too tired or hungover to whip up Bogart-esque witticisms. He’s a willing tool of his corporate overlords but he’s not happy about it.
The game opens in Dan’s fabulously retro-futuristic squad car, where he gets a strange, garbled message from his long-estranged son, Adam. He traces the call to a Class-C Tenement Building and goes to find his son. A grisly discovery in the apartment where the call originated kicks off his investigation, most of which takes place within the oppressive confines of the housing complex.
Lazarski has more or less free rein of the building to explore, investigate, and interrogate tenants (all in first-person using standard WASD controls or a gamepad). While story progression is linear, gated by reaching specific story beats, you’re free to roam, and the game sends you criss-crossing between various sections of the apartment structure, hiding some interesting world-building material and optional content off the beaten path.
Do any reading about >observer_ and you’ll see that much is made of actor Rutger Hauer’s starring role as Daniel. Hauer may not be an A-lister but he has several cult classic roles under his belt, including perhaps the best known, most quoted scene in all cyberpunk-dom: the “tears in rain” soliloquy from Blade Runner. If you were hoping for that kind of raw, vital performance here, you won’t find it. Beyond the inherent sandpaper-y melancholy of his (now 70-plus-year-old) voice, Hauer seems utterly unengaged in his role, with flat line readings and bizarre, inconsistent intonation. With time it fades into the background and stops being a distraction, but unfortunately, this is not a prime example of Hauer’s proven talent.
The real star of the game is its setting. The Class-C Tenement Building is a masterful evocation of cyberpunk themes: “high tech, low life” in particular. All the standard aesthetic markers are here – rain, neon, looming mega-skyscrapers that disappear into the smoggy night sky – but >observer_ sets itself apart in the gritty details: the way the building has parasitically grown into adjacent structures as housing needs outgrew the original architecture, the homebrew technology cobbled together from old and disparate parts, the accumulated trash that seems to pile up in the halls faster than the building’s janitor bot can manage it. It’s both a grotesquely awful place to live and an utterly believable one, immersive and full of grim character.
You’ll explore this dense, atmosphere-rich environment using three different vision modes. Lazarski’s cybernetic enhancements include the ability to scan for relevant technology and biological material. Not only is scanning the environment a personal favorite mechanic for me, it also leans into the biological/mechanical divide that is at the heart of a lot of cyberpunk: every body (living and dead) you encounter contains flesh and metal. Switch on EMP mode and you’ll be able to gather more details on everything from digital picture frames and RC cars to the implants buried deep in the flesh of the recently deceased. Switch to BIO mode and you’ll scan blood types, analyze wounds, and identify the origins of nondescript piles of meat left in someone’s fridge (do you really want to know the answer to that last one?). And of course you’ll use normal old human sight for everything else.Continued on the next page...