Blade Runner is okay, I guess.
Ridley Scott knows how to make a film look good, but that’s about it, really. Blade Runner has inspired thousands of pieces of material, one of them being >Observer_, what you’d get if you put Blade Runner into the same universe as Laid to Rest. God, no one has heard of that film…
>Observer_ was a Christmas gift from a friend, but it is also the second huge title from Bloober Team, a Polish team who jumped into the mainstream with Layers of Fear, a 2016 horror game that came too early for a resurgence of horror and too late for the YouTube horror Let’s Play boom. Still, the game was fun according to other people. I didn’t like it too much, but >Observer_ is definitely a step in the right direction, even if that step could be equaled by ants in seconds.
>Observer_ is set in 2084 and tells the story of Daniel Lazarski, an augmented detective with a burden on his back and a bourbon-coated throat. The man sounds like gravel if it could talk, and that gravel is going to be spitting all over the tenants at a run-down apartment complex in the middle of Poland after Lazarski receives a call from his estranged son. Murder ensues, conspiracies unravel, and most importantly, you get spooked.
Bloober seems set on making ambient horror prevalent throughout >Observer, which could be considered brave considering their past pedigree. Regardless, >Observer_ does set the tone off almost immaculately, with rainy streets, musky looking environments, that Alien aesthetic with block-y black buildings, and tight corridors. It’s a style we’ve all seen before, but there’s a certain grace to the way Bloober executed it, possibly due to the amount of flavour text used to create the world.
There’s a lot of history behind this Polish cyberpunk future, and a lot of it iiiiis extremely boring. It’s well-written, it’s well crafted, it definitely helps with the world-building, but it’s Bloober’s own ideas and plans that have gotten in the way of their own success, specifically with the hiring of the main character’s voice actor, none other than Rutger Hauer.
If you’re unaware of Rutger Hauer, he’s a Dutch actor known for stuff like Blind Fury and Hobo With a Shotgun, but made his big break with Blade Runner, with a magnetic performance as Roy Batty. Here, I don’t know if I can rate his performance normally, despite his fitting role, I feel like it’s a much safer conclusion that they made him a lead because of the thematic similarities between Blade Runner and >Observer_.
Regardless, Rutger’s role as Detective Lazarski is also amazingly boring, possibly due to Rutger being the ripe old age of 73, which means he reads every line like he’s about to fall asleep in the booth. That can be passed off as a trait of the character that Rutger is playing, an old jaded detective who’s too old for this proverbial shit, but snobbier assholes like me can jump to the conclusion that he is quite literally too old to be voice acting this shit.
The main objective you’re tasked with while barrelling through this condemned block of apartments is to find out what happened after Lazarski’s son called you in a rush. You’ll be trailing clues, interrogating tenants, and simply not caring while you’re doing it. I’ll jump into that later, but for the most part, the mechanics of gameplay are eerily reminiscent of publisher Bigben Interactive’s Sherlock Holmes games.
You look for clues which will lead you to another part of the complex, and with the harder to reach clues you use different vision formats via eye augmentations. Such as a biological scanner and a scanner to find electronic equipment. It’s basically pixel-hunting, and it’s not nearly as gratifying to accomplish objectives in this as it is in the Sherlock Holmes games for two reasons.
First reason comes down to linearity. The Sherlock Holmes games, at least Devil’s Daughter and Crimes & Punishments, have these playgrounds of clues and secrets, all of which are cleverly hidden and offer a bounty of other opportunities. In >Observer_, the metaphorical playground is relegated to one jungle gym where 3 quarters of the bars have rusted and fallen off, as all of the objects are in plain sight and only activate the next trail when you use the correct scanner.
Secondly: oh my god, the performance of this game is atrocious. I’m not talking about the graphics, as that is cleverly tied into the game , with the use of regular dosages of a drug that allows you to handle the mechanical augmentations your character is equipped with. No, I’m talking about everything else in terms of how this game runs, because not even Layers of Fear ran this poorly.
A few quick examples: there are loading screens everywhere, with that crap pre-tense of it being behind a door, and you’re free to explore the dirty hallway you’re in for a few minutes. You’re constantly falling through floors, with it almost being inevitable in a certain easter egg room I won’t spoil, for anyone who’s a fan of another certain body horror game… *COUGH COUGH* Apartment 202, The code is 3690 *COUGH COUGH*
Then again, you’re not here to be a part of CSI: Warsaw or listen to Rutger Hauer down another dose of NyQuil. No, you’re here because you want to be freaked out by some good ol’ ultra-violent body horror, a la Tetsuo The Iron Man, and while nobody gets impaled on a giant phallic mechanical drill, Bloober does have a few surprises in store for you.
Interrogations committed by Lazarski take the form of “Dream Eater” sequences. In these, Lazarski will be plundering through the mental visions of victims injured and/or killed by the perpetrator and attempt to figure out where the next piece of the puzzle shall be. It’s a neat way to keep a form of horrific mind-fuck going without going into the whole “oh, is it a dream?” narrative trope, but Bloober finds a way to make even this boring.
I think it just comes down to the fact that these sequences are way too long, and they run out of steam way before any real meaty section of mind-fuckery can take place. They can be creepy, they can get under your skin, but it takes sooooooo long to reach those parts, and I’m sick of jumping through the same hoops of “ooooo, we’re all slaves down here, Johnny, just sign ur SOULZ away!”
Because Bloober still has their minds on the horror games of yesteryear, of course, there’s an all-powerful deity that you cannot kill and have to sneak around. Again, it’s another tried and tested trope that can be all fine and dandy, even if Resident Evil VII did blow it out of the water with a simple trick, but it’s yet another thing that sabotaged the game.
This stalker has some astonishingly bad AI. I’m talking about pre-determined paths that are easier to spot than a sausage roll at an orgy, which means you can just run through most obstacles since the AI needs a telegram and an air horn to register you. Where’s the challenge, where’s the zest, the uncomfortable silence, where’s the point of all this?
I’m not spooked, I’m not interested, I’m not terrified, I’m not feeling anything but sheer boredom, the kind of boredom that could put people into a coma. As much as >Observer_ pleases my nostalgia-baiting senses, I cannot be bothered to continue sitting through Rutger Hauer trying to make it through another line reading without falling asleep. Whatever immersion and intrigue from the first part dissipated rather quickly.
Sorry, Teej, I promise I’ll like the next gift you send me.
Despite all this neat neo-imagery, >Observer_ can't help but feel like everything else on the market.