Horror games are always tricky to develop. Should we allow the player to defend themselves? Are we relying too much on jump scares? How do we keep them on edge? The answers to these questions – and much more – must be balanced out to create a thrilling horror experience. No combat but bland, predictable jump scares? Gamers are out. Developer Bloober Team not only acknowledges these questions with Observer, they do so in ways that subvert your expectations, leading to a genuinely thrilling horror experience.
Yes, Observer has jump scares. It has hide-from-the-monster stealth moments. It has creepy characters you may or may not be able to trust. But these situations are hardly the focus of the game. Instead, Observer opts to shove it’s Orwellian dystopia in your face and leads you to realize that real horror is not the monsters from your nightmares. True horror lies in the deepest thoughts of both you and those you surround yourself with.
You play as Daniel Lazarski, a police detective also known as an Observer. Observers are equipped with a “dream eater,” allowing them to enter the minds of others, accessing their memories and fears. The overruling megacorp, Chiron, established these after a widespread disease wiped out thousands of people. This leads to war, pushing many survivors to rampant drug usage.
As you can imagine, the job of an Observer is not easy. Upon being sent to investigate a murder case, Daniel receives a call from his long lost son, revealing he has some connection. What follows is an undebatably tense game of cat-and-mouse through a small apartment complex.
Gameplay mechanics are minimal. Most progression comes from talking with drug addled psychos hiding behind their apartment doors. Daniel has two sensors to scan the environment, allowing you to find clues and extra items. Most of the real world segments keep you on edge, but weirdly feel safe enough not to worry too much.
Part of this is the game establishing you can’t die in the real world, and part is the incredible voice acting performance by Rutger Hauer. Despite not knowing what the hell is going on, Hauer’s gravelly portrayal of Daniel keeps you at ease – the man has seen some shit, and he is not to be messed with.
Of course, a lot of praise goes to the writing he works with. Conversations with tenants range from the tense to the outright comical. My big standout being a seemingly straightforward one who slowly devolves into revealing his crazed obsession with another as you continue to question him. Seeing his sentences go from proper English to downright rambling is hilarious and, in its own way, horrific.
Both the gameplay and the storytelling take a turn once you enter someone’s mind. As mentioned, the dream eater has the unfortunate ability to delve not only into another’s memories but also their fears. In one’s memories, all shots are off. Anything can happen. To avoid spoilers, I won’t delve into much aside from praising Bloober Team’s ability to make each one drastically different from the last. These sequences are entirely unique to the individual and are best experienced blindly. Each is a brutal violation of privacy that left me feeling gross afterward – I don’t want to know this much about the people in my life, let alone a digital stranger.
You cannot scan in-sequence, only move. This leaves you to focus only on what’s going on, and to do your best not to have a real life breakdown. The more the story unfolds, the more you begin to question your own thoughts and fears, and the others around you. That’s not to mention the morally twisted ending choice that had me actually stop and heavily consider what to pick. A choice that has me wanting to go back and play again to see the results of the other.
That’s not a ridiculous proposition either. Observer runs at a not-too-brain-damaging six and a half hours. Give or take some time for collectible searching. I am disappointed with how Observer runs on the Xbox One. I was getting 15-20 frames a majority of the time, with random highs of 60 for a few seconds. This affected my enjoyment of the game somewhat, as there were times I opted against exploring to avoid the buffering. It’s still worth pushing through for the story, however.
Observer is appropriately eerie, with the game relying on footsteps and thunder strikes to set the tone. I’d recommend keeping your volume at a reasonable level, as the memories tend to go into an ear-blasting degree of sound. Sound effects failed to play at times, while others came delayed.
Bloober nailed the aesthetic of Daniel’s world. Each living space is increasingly tragic, with signs of the horror from times past spread everywhere. It’s a place where happiness is all but lost. A society with stories to tell and a constant sense of dread. Trash covers the ground. Apartments are in complete disarray. There isn’t a spot of cleanliness in this universe. The character models look like clay, however. Fortunately, most of them are seen through a screen.
There is often mention of middle-class people and areas. I would love for an expansion that explores these other places, as well as a clearer idea of what went on in the war. Observer brings with it a fascinating cyberpunk universe that we need more of.
By shunning typical horror and exposing the fears of the human mind, Bloober Team creates a genuinely disconcerting experience that will stay with you long past completion. Observer may only be a game, but the questions it poses push it beyond a little horror romp. It’s a game not for the faint of heart, and one I suggest you go into knowing as little as possible.
This review is based on a review copy of Observer for the Xbox One provided by Bloober Team.