If you thought that Bloober Team‘s horror exploration games Layers of Fear and Layers of Fear: Inheritance brought nightmares to life, then you’ll see that virtual reality can be even more disturbing in cyberpunk horror adventure >observer_.
Daniel Lazarski, a detective of the Observers police unit that hacks their targets’ memories and fears, follows a series of murders in an apartment complex and slowly loses his own grip on (virtual) reality.
Brave New Virtual World
Blooper Team has always tried to incorporate mature themes in their stories, but the worlds and characters of the Layers of Fear games were either too emotionally detached or too derivative. While >observer_ faces the same problem of borrowing too much from the Blade Runner aesthetics and voice acting (after all, it’s Rutger Hauer who has the lead role), it works much better here. Dealing with the dangers of virtual reality as a drug, augmentation as a way to change one’s body, and artifical intelligence becoming more human than human beings themselves, these are themes that aren’t new in the cyberpunk genre, but the way they’re handled is quite impressive. Despite mostly playing inside a dilapidated apartment complex, with the outside hinting at a much bigger city, the sense of place is horrifyingly real.
Scanners and estranged people
The investigation involves talking to the janitor and a few individuals in the apartments (although just via door cameras), creating the illusion that one actively participates in a futuristic detective story that also offers optional side quests/stories. Using the Electromagnetic Vision, one has to scan for electronic devices, while Bio Vision enables the player to scan for biological evidence, both tools essential to finding clues to progress. Switching between these and the normal viewpoint can be disorientating at times, but it further adds to the immersion. Reading through computer files and emails offers more insight into the lives of the tenants, giving an impression of where our current society might also be heading to. The storyline with its many revelations and twists is interesting, although calling it very suspenseful or the characters memorable would take things too far. The pacing is rather slow and the plot comes across as a bit convoluted, which isn’t helped by the labyrinthine exploration and elongated nightmare sequences.
Connecting to the nightmare wires
In adddition to talking to characters, reading e-mails, and looking for evidence which make it feel more like an adventure game experience than Blooper Team’s previous output, the biggest selling point is the Dream Eater, a device that connects to people and lets Lazarski enter their memories and nightmares. However, one shouldn’t expect too much from this device, as it only offers a different perspective and can’t be used by the player to change anything in the story or character development. It works more like an alternative camera lense to open up more nightmarish sequences. These are genuinely disturbing, because they play with the fear of darkness, closed spaces, and various other phobia that are cleverly woven into futuristic technology, e.g. with a mechanical snake slithering its way through an office where the computer screens go on and off, or people’s heads being changed for TV screens that follow the player around. Unfortunately, these sequences are simply too long and induce headaches and downright nausea when one is constantly chased by something or bombarded with distorted sounds and images. Having too many scary elements at once doesn’t necessarily make these moments more frightening, but rather annoying, especially if one doesn’t always know what to do or where to go next.
Running around aimlessly without a clue and then being asked to solve puzzles that involve carrying around a light source to scare away the darkness also shows that there’s a problem with pacing and gameplay mechanics. The Layers of Fear games didn’t have the most sophisticated puzzles, but what the player is confronted with here is even worse at times. It also becomes very frustrating that there are many ways to die, making the trial and error, or sneaking and running, method even more aggravating. With only one savegame and a few game-breaking bugs, it’s also worth keeping constant backups on one’s computer. This might also help to see a different ending, as the game requires the player to play through the whole game again, only to make another decision at the end.
The art direction and graphics go hand in hand with the thematic virtual reality and rainy Dystopian metropolis setting, which means that one shouldn’t shun away from graphic depiction of violence, e.g. with mutilated bodies and blood-spattered walls. One’s view is also often distorted with compression artefact effects that are unique and add to the atmosphere, but they aren’t easy on the eyes and sadly cover up some otherwise remarkably well-drawn scenes. There are actually so many detailed screens and the few characters one meets in person look almost life-like that it’s a shame that these distortion effects become more prominent the further one progresses. It’s also something of a missed opportunity that one can’t explore the city. Even if it looks very much like Blade Runner with its neon lights and video advertisements, the outside areas are impressive and more varied than the same apartment corridors and underground passages.
The synthesizer music is oppressive and fits the scenery, often mixed with choir music that creates goosebumps. However, one shouldn’t expect the next memorable Blade Runner soundtrack, which is also true for the voice acting. Despite Rutger Hauer voicing the lead, he doesn’t sound very convincing, often rather tired and even a bit bored and out of context in certain scenes. Fortunately, the rest of the cast does a much better job, although it’s no stellar audio work. This is only reserved for the excellent ambient sounds that add to the moody apartments, dirty underground tunnels, and flashy, nightmarish sequences.
Cyberpunk horror show
>observer_ is a visually unique game that cleverly mixes distorted images with disturbing imagery. Its story asks some profound questions about modern technology and what it means to be human, which is certainly not new in the sci-fi or cyberpunk genre. Unlike a game like Deus Ex, the gameplay is lacking, though. Even if it requires more interaction and cerebral thought than the company’s former games, it’s still more of a walking/running simulator that can often be very frustrating. However, it’s certainly Bloober Team’s best game to date and a worthy addition to the horror and sci-fi exploration genre.
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