Review copy provided by developer
It’s no secret that cyberpunk can have a very strong horror bent. The merging of machines with flesh is quintessential body horror, after all, and you can’t deny the creeping dread of soulless dystopias and unrestrained capitalism. Observer is one of the more notable titles to take a stab at cyberpunk horror, by way of the developers behind Layers of Fear. That originally gave me pause, as I am no fan of that particular romp. And while this one shares some of the same weaknesses, its robust story and improved pacing make it a journey worth seeing through.
Dan Lazarski is a very special detective with the Krakow Police Department, known as an Observer. In the grim, neon future of eastern Europe this means he’s wired to invade people’s brain-bits and experience what they did. This is super useful for investigating murders, which is perfect because something very un-good is going down in a slummy apartment building under lockdown. Dan’s going to have his cyber-hands full sorting out the twisting mess of clandestine connections and machinations there, and on top of that his checkered past is coming back to haunt him. He’s also voiced by Rutger Hauer, who brings some appreciated gravel to the role but sounds like he’s too old for this shit, like beyond the actual direction I’m sure he got to sound “too old for this shit.”
Observer is a first-person horror adventure, much in the same vein as 90% of the indie horror titles cluttering Steam these days. Unlike those titles, however, this one features an incredible visual style and level of polish that should be immediately apparent. Layers of Fear’s strong suit was its visuals, and they’ve only improved for this outing. The apartment complex where the game is set is a vision of futuristic squalor, a 20th-century brick edifice painted and wallpapered countless times, peeling and crumbling from neglect, jury-rigged with exposed wiring, and beaten by the rain of a dystopian corporate metropolis. Layered over this antiquity is a veneer of gleaming neon and networked wonders, forming a sharp disconnect between eras in the very halls you walk.
It’s a great setting for any game, but Observer makes the most of it to ramp up the intensity of its tale. Dan’s been sent to investigate the place because of a lockdown, possibly cause by the deadly phage. This is a strange disease that afflicts those with implants, and so all the residents must remained locked up in their residences. You can speak with them through their kitbashed intercoms, and what you’ll get in return is a cross-section of neuroses and tragedy. The folks that end up in a futuristic flophouse are a motley bunch, and despite some cartoonish voice work have some very interesting stories to share. They’ll also point you towards the dark secrets of the complex, excesses of the digital age that have defined new atrocities to inflict upon the undeserving. Some of what you find here will be grim indeed, and it only gets grimmer the further in you get.
Combing the complex and speaking with the residents forms a major part of the gameplay, which can make it feel like nothing’s happening for significant stretches of the game. That all changes when you reach a crime scene and plug into the victim’s mind, which dumps you into a digital nightmare world to sort out. Unlike the investigations, these sequences have little direction and involve you moving forward through brutal vignettes on an unclear path to the clue you’re trying to uncover. The atmosphere and presentation here is top-notch, but be aware that much of the actual horror hinges on jumpscares and stingers. This is where the game seems the most like Layers of Fear, and it’s not a flattering comparison, especially when Dan’s own neuroses start mixing in and making it hard to distinguish reality from imagined threats.
Fortunately there’s more to the game than just that. You have two special vision modes that let you scan biological or technological points of interest for additional evidence or backstory. You can also find terminals that hold story snippets and bits of world-building, along with a remarkably addictive puzzle game to play in your spare time. There are photos and other collectibles to find, and plenty of residents to speak to that are in non-essential areas. From this perspective the game honestly works better as an adventure title than a horror one, as the scares tend to be the weakest part of the design. I was certainly creeped out and uncomfortable in many parts, but the brunt of the jumpscares and spooky rooms fell flat for me. It was the story I was here for, and it was good enough to keep me chugging along.
Overall, Observer is a solid package that just might not be solid in the ways you’re hoping. The setting is fantastic and fully-realized, the story draws from the darkest, most depraved parts of cyberpunk, and the graphics and sound design really sell the whole thing. But it can drag a bit when it’s not being scary, and when it does try to be scary it tries a little too hard. It’s not obnoxious like Layers of Fear was, and in fact it shows a lot of maturation since those heady days of dolls slamming face-first into cabinets. Observer is a step in the right direction and a fine cyberpunk adventure, and those with weak constitutions will find it a frightful jaunt as well.