Adventure Gamers Awards
The speed enhancement comes in handy as the space station is large, with many different arms to explore. On the Observation (when you have access to the SamOS), you can set waypoints to your destinations, which allows you to follow a path fairly easily. But in several parts of the game you need to exit the station for an outer space journey where waypoints are not available. Instead you simply roam around until you find the correct spot, with no direction even from Emma. This gets worse when you begin exploring another vessel of equal size and complexity as the Observation once you access it later in the game. Once there you have no access to a map, making navigation even more difficult.
Another issue is the timed element needed to solve several puzzles, including a fairly difficult one near the end. Here you must follow a sequence of highlighted spots in an octagonal array and use the keyboard to quickly move to each spot, then click to activate it and release a clamp. You have only ten seconds to do this and it will take many tries due to the fact that it isn’t at all clear how to even get to several of the octagonal positions. N,S,E and W are obvious enough, but it took persistent trial and error until I discovered the key combinations for NE, NW, SE and SW with such a restrictive time limit. If you fail and the timer runs out, you need to start over again. Worse, you need to do this three times, once for each of the three clamps located throughout the station! While these sorts of challenges are appropriate in an arcade-style or action game, they seem out of place in an otherwise leisurely adventure game.
This is just one of the many obstacles you’ll have to overcome in order to progress the story. To keep track of your current objectives, you can call up a task list. Usually there is just one item listed, ranging from searching the different station arms for crewmates to dealing with various station alerts, using astrophysics to find coordinates, and so on. Sometimes there are multiple goals to pursue (the most I ever had at one time was five) but even when that happens, while it appears they can be completed in any order, they are actually quite linear to simplify gameplay.
As you attempt to complete each assignment in sequence, be sure to interact with as many objects are you can, particularly laptops (which contain files and personal messages) and documents on walls and desks, pictures, etc. If you can interact with an object you will be able to “connect” to it by clicking on it and repeating a three-digit code. Not only will these items yield clues to proceed, they also provide intriguing backstory. (Pay special attention to log entries by crew members to help figure out what is going on.) To review your progress and relevant documents/clues, you can access SAM’s memory core which keeps a record of every important thing you do.
While exploring the many areas of Observation, you’ll want to take time to admire the level of detail the developers have implemented. It is impressive, including not only the things you’d expect to see in an international space station, such as storage containers, emergency equipment and floating medical kits, but also the crew’s personal items like notes from home, photos and children’s art. These little touches really add to your sense of immersion in the environment. Add to that the well-developed physics engine, especially when constantly crashing into objects (with a jarring, bumping effect) when using the connection sphere, and you really feel like you are in space!
Since all puzzles are environmental, there is no need for an inventory system. This is unusual for an adventure game but makes sense here and the obstacles you face have been nicely implemented, with a few notable exceptions. Although I found the camera switching and zooming into objects refreshing, executing these tasks is not always easy. For instance, most locations have multiple cameras that must be switched back and forth in order to find the correct angle for interaction with the appropriate item. This can be tedious and time-consuming, since the cameras pan very slowly. Other activities that may try your patience include meticulously scanning an astral field to find specific coordinates, and several other timed sequences (such as activating an Experimental Fusion Reactor) that make you repeat the process several times.
Graphically the quality is generally high in presenting space station-type imagery. Some scenes are crisp and clear, like the very beginning and during some cut scenes where you see the station approaching Saturn, but mostly I was reminded of our own Space Shuttle video feeds, where there is a bit of graininess and occasional interference, especially when maneuvering SAM around in the connection sphere. This is obviously intentional and does a good job of making it seem like you’re viewing the station through recording equipment. Similarly the sound design is very well done, with realistic ambient effects (the hum of machinery on the Observation) and radio communication between SAM and others on the station, but no sounds in space (as there shouldn’t be!). Synthesized music plays subtly most of the time (even in space), at times amplified by occasional deep rumbling backgrounds and higher-pitched sounds when appropriate to reflect moments of added intensity.
The ending is interesting, but I must admit to finding it a bit confusing. I am not sure if the developers are planning a sequel, but if they are the elements are in place to release one. To reach that point there is a solid 10-15 hours of gameplay to experience, with progress regularly recorded by an autosave system. While I struggled with the interface and some of the mini-games and controls at times, overall I thoroughly enjoyed playing Observation. The exceptional voice cast, realistic space environments and intriguing plot had me eagerly coming back for more, right up to the engrossing if perplexing finale. If you are a fan of this kind of adventure game, or are just curious about the premise of playing a game as an artificial intelligence, you should really give Observation a try.