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>observer_

Score: 90%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Aspyr
Developer: Bloober Team
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Adventure/ Survival Horror

Graphics & Sound:

Itís weird that cyberpunk hasnít exactly flourished in video games. Elements of cyberpunk can be found here and there, sure, but as a universal design decision, it rarely finds a decent point of ingress and generally restricts itself to hacking mini-games that hardly attempt to explore the interactions between man and machine. Of course, there are good examples to be found here and there, most specifically in the System Shock games. And letís not forget, the world is holding its breath for even the slightest bit of information on CD Projekt REDís Cyberpunk 2077. But our latest foray into this science-fiction subgenre comes from a different team of Polish developers; specifically Bloober Team, the purveyors of all things sick and twisted who last year brought us Layers of Fear. Iíve given myself some time to sit on my initial reaction, and it hasnít changed: >observer_ is both a masterclass in cyberpunk storytelling and one of the most frightening games Iíve ever played.

2084 is a century ahead of the classic Orwellian dystopian novel, and it absolutely acts the part. The Krakow tenement that serves as the setting for >observer_ is a claustrophobic labyrinth of moral, physical, and existential terrors that, when taken as a whole, serves as a fine imagining of what hell might look like. And thatís not even taking into account Lazarskiís slipping grasp on reality. Aesthetically, >observer_ is bold and engaging, despite the unspeakable state of the grand majority of the play space. You get the sense that the world as it exists is not quite the same as the world you perceive. Whether or not this is due to the multitude of cybernetic augmentations inhabiting the main characterís body is left for you to decide. What is constant, however, is the noise: random electronic artifacts that alter your vision, from meaningless emerald vectors, pixels, and voxels to advertising taking up residence on the crudest possible apparatus. The world of >observer_ is vivid, and it is also unspeakably ugly.

Technically, >observer_ struggles on Xbox One. Frame rate dips are frequent, especially early in the game. To say that the uneven performance of the game is something of a statement regarding the glitchy mess that constitutes 2084 Poland would be far too generous; textures can be shrugged off as such, but the frame rate unfortunately cannot.

Rutger Hauer is a fine choice for the suffering, cynical Dan Lazarski. Not just for the genre cred he brings (his famous "Tears in Rain" monologue from Blade Runner is the stuff of science-fiction legend), but because his performance is just so bloody fantastic. Hauerís natural European inflection combines with a smooth and resonant delivery to give voice to a despairing individual whoís not only losing his mind, but arguably coming to terms with his insanity. Accents are not locked down across >observer_ís numerous, unseen NPCs, but considering the state of the world as established in the prologue, itís easily shrugged off.

Industrial ambience was always going to be the go-to motif for >observer_, and composer Arkadiusz Reikowski absolutely nails it here. Sudden blasts of random ear-rape accompany some of the jump scares, so your mileage will vary, depending on what you like out of a horror game. Personally, I think >observer_ should have been able to rise above this kind of stuff, but they donít ruin the experience. Use headphones, and crank them up. Thank (or curse at) me later.


Gameplay:

From nearly every perspective, Earth is unrecognizable in the year 2084. Cybernetic augmentation, once thought to be the promise of a better future for both the ailing and the enterprising, has by and large proved calamitous. A digital pandemic dubbed the Nanophage ravaged the augmented, killing an untold number, and maiming most of the survivors. Nations are no longer a plurality; mutually-assured or not, the global wars waged in the interim assured a destruction that was close enough to universal. Two human constructs remain: the Fifth Polish Republic, and Chiron, a monolithic corporation that controls and runs basically everything. You are Daniel Lazarski, an augmented police agent equipped with special hardware and software that allow investigations of a very special nature. Certain forensic tools are hardwired into his eyes, allowing him to analyze both biological and mechanical constructs, both mundane and otherwise. And then thereís the Dream Eater, which gives him his namesakeÖ

A strange phone call with a personal hook brings Lazarski to a ramshackle apartment complex in Krakow, home of society's dregs, better known as C-class citizens. Things get unspeakably ugly incredibly quickly. He discovers that a series of grisly murders has recently been committed, and the entire apartment complex comes under lockdown, the specifics of which are unknown and potentially deadly. Is it the Nanophage? Or is it something worse? All Lazarski can do is investigate and attempt to get to the bottom of it, in his own special way.

>observer_ opens with some incredibly strong world-building, then works overtime to construct a compelling detective story that alternates between the job and the individual who performs it. But a fair word of warning: this is probably the most disturbing game youíll play all year. Here is an experience that soaks the player in its oppressive, nightmarish atmosphere, allowing the imagination to run wild with anticipation of whateverís coming. Whatís truly amazing about this is that the payoff almost always manages to be more upsetting and genuinely frightening than any horrific scenario your mind might have cooked up. Itís a brutally subversive twist of the old adage about not being afraid of what you can see. This is primarily due to >observer_ís incredible literary and thematic ambitions. What youíre witnessing is revolting to the senses, but the ideas surrounding each shock are what elevates them beyond simple jump scares and subsequent displays of blood and gore. Itís often a sickening, intensely discomfiting experience, because it forces you to consider things that you donít want to think about. Things that would make you focus like mad to jettison them from your mind, lest they take root and shake you to the core.


Difficulty:

>observer_ doesnít often bother with challenge or the prospect of a fail-state. Youíre rarely in any imminent physical danger, and most of the trauma you endure is purely psychological. Of course, this may factor into the difficulty, albeit in a different fashion. >observer_ may not boast the longest running time, but over the course of its six-or-so hours, it will have you by the short hairs in a vice grip. When the credits ran, I noticed that my neck was stiff as a board; the experience left me so stressed out I was actually hurting.

The gameís most difficult (and weakest) sequences revolve around forced instances of stealth gameplay. Invariably, youíll have to move slow and stay low, but ultimately the gameís narrative does a great enough job of eliciting tension and fear that these sequences come across as forced. Fortunately, they donít occur often enough to significantly harm the overall experience.


Game Mechanics:

Most of >observer_'s run time is spent exploring the apartment complex, parsing through computer files, searching abandoned rooms, and interrogating anyone willing to give you the time of day. These interactions speak volumes about the kind of world these poor souls inhabit, and they rarely have good things to say. Even when things aren't in full-blown creep mode, >observer_ never misses an opportunity to bring you down with style.

A detective is not only as good as his tools are, but Daniel Lazarskiís craft demands precision and insight. Luckily for him, those two qualities are strengthened by the augmentations to his sight. Itís got three modes: night-vision, and two scanners, one that allows him to interface with numerous electrical applications, another that keys off of biological matter. Considering Lazarskiís job, heís well-equipped.

>observer_ís signature mechanic is the Dream Eater, a device that allows Lazarski to perform neural interrogations. Thatís really just a politically correct term for reaching into your wrist, pulling out a long, snaky wire that terminates in a horrifying-looking needle, and then sticking that needle into the subjectís brain to access the information captured and stored on his/her neural implant. These interrogations, easily the strongest moments in the game, are surreal flights of fancy that do an incredibly effective job at portraying the audiovisual logic of one of the most inexplicable phenomena of the human experience: the nightmare. But these moments donít merely operate as freakshows; theyíre abstract dark rides positively dripping with symbolism and subtext. Some of this frightful imagery exists solely to amuse, scare, or disturb, but a good portion of it is deeply meaningful and relevant to the narrative.

Lazarski suffers from a condition that drives a wedge between his perception and reality. Fortunately, he can control it using a medication called Synchrozine. This mechanic is housed within the case log, which tracks the diligent Observer's objectives as he completes them. This caused a major problem for me at one point in my playthrough; the button that opens the case log suddenly stopped working and didn't function again until I'd completed another objective. Like the frame rate woes, this is just another relatively small blemish on a great game.

>observer_ is a must-play for anyone who's into science-fiction, especially cyberpunk. Its brand of horror isn't for everyone; its gut-wrenching scenarios belie a peculiar high-mindedness that the genre generally tends to shy away from. But if you like your interactive fiction intelligent and provocative, it doesn't get much better than this.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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