Bloober Team’s cyberpunk sci-fi horror heads to the Nintendo Switch for another trip. Find out in our Observer review if it’s worth jacking in again.
The idea of diving into someone else’s memory is a fascinating one, and naturally, it can work very well when attached to horror. Bloober Team understood this when it created Observer, and went ahead in creating some seriously messed up headspaces. With the Nintendo Switch version out this week, it’s a good time to revisit.
Set during a grim cyberpunk dystopia (rarely any other kind I suppose) in Poland, Observer plants you firmly in the gumshoes of Lazarski, an augmented investigator known as an ‘observer’. This is a world where the post-augmentation reality is such a harrowing ordeal for the disadvantaged and destitute that they try any way possible to leave it. Financially-speaking, it’s not all that viable to just up and leave, so many have decided the best solution is to shut themselves out of reality and find comfort in the virtual world instead.
Lazarski (voiced with added gravel and whiskey by Rutger Hauer) can, thanks to augments, hack into the memories of people in order to solve crimes by watching what they do and piecing together details. On the night the game takes place, Lazarski heads to a decrepit tenement building after a tip-off and winds up embroiled in a murder mystery and while the building remains in lockdown, he must investigate the case, uncovering some truly nutso things along the way. There’s some fucked up places to go as Lazarski journey’s though some sick minds, but is it because of the people? Or is it because of something more sinister at work with their (and Lazarski’s) augments? Suffice to say, the game certainly keeps you guessing.
The majority of the game is set inside the tenement, and the design of it is suitably scuzzy with that sheen of technology hiding the crumbling reality below. The pockmarked walls of the building’s hallways are lightly disguised by digital wallpaper that steadily pulses to try and distract from the grottiness that surrounds you. It feels haunting and adds to the strange unreality Lazarski encounters during his investigation.
Before Lazarski gets into the mind trips, he can scan and scour areas for clues and piece them together. It’s surprisingly in-depth and largely satisfies when you collect data together to figure something out, but you’re dropped into it so early and so heavy that it feels a bit much the first time you experience it. The game is just building up its atmosphere during the opening twenty minutes when you first get down and dirty with the detective work, and it ever so slightly spoils the flow until you reach that first bout of ‘observing’.
Observing plays back digital memory, and when corrupted, it can cause some interesting ‘glitches’ in the memory, and in some cases, the virtual reality worlds some people choose to live in seep into actual memory, creating bizarre and horrifying imagery. Bloober used this trick well in Layers of Fear, and here it’s ramped up to new weird heights. Each dreamscape has its own ruleset, and they really shake up the stark bleak nature of the tenement. The reality and unreality blend closer and closer together as the story unfolds, and Observer even has the player doubting what’s actually real. There’s clearly something more to this than a routine murder case, and the ‘fun’ is in finding out what that is exactly.
Once Observer settles into its story, it masterfully shifts gears to create unease and terror from moment to moment. Slowly bringing it to the boil before serving it in twisted little parcels of mania. On the Switch in portable mode, it adds a bit of extra spice if you’ve already experienced the game on other platforms. Plug in some headphones and play in a darkened room and Observer sucks you into its repulsive, grungey world.
Rutger Hauer’s performance as Lazarski is unfortunately somewhat distracting. He puts across a nice line in world-weary gumshoe dialogue, but the delivery is inconsistent. There’s a fine line between weary and sleepy and Hauer flits either side of it. The effect on your personal enjoyment may vary, but it takes a little edge off.
Observer puts another horror string in the Switch’s bow. It remains an effective and compelling sci-fi horror trip that isn’t afraid to take things at its own pace whilst sticking firmly to its own rules. That does mean that it’s not going to be to every horror fan’s tastes, but it’s admirable that it stands by its convictions to deliver an unsettling and evocative experience.
Observer review code provided by the publisher for Nintendo Switch.
Observer is out now on Nintendo Switch, PC, PS4, and Xbox One.