Observer (or >Observer_ as the developers insist on writing it) is a game about memories. It’s also a game about guilt, parenthood and hard drugs. There’s a serial killer in there somewhere, and also a pig living in a virtual reality. It’s a weird game, OK?

The game is set in a bleak, futuristic version of Krakow, Poland. The year is 2084, and the immediate parallels to 1984 aren’t coincidental. The presence of an all-power, ever-watching government (or corporation in this case) is felt at every turn. Even your thoughts and fears aren’t safe from the prying eyes of the Chiron Corporation, as your brainchip can be hacked by special detectives. Those are called Observers.

You are Daniel Lazarski, the titular Observer. After receiving a message from his estranged son, Lazarski arrives at a rundown apartment building to search for him. Soon, the place goes under lockdown, and we spend the rest of the game exploring its halls, talking to neighbors and hunting down a monstrous killer that’s locked in there with us. And where there’s a killer on the loose, bodies start piling up. All the victims have something do with your missing son, so it’s up to you to investigate the crime scenes and figure out how it all fits together.

Observer review VR Pig

Truthfully, it doesn’t. At least not well. The connection between your son, the victims and the killer is there, but it’s flimsy at best. You can learn more about the killer’s past, but it doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with the situation you in. You gather clues from a crime scene and all they do is lead you to the next one without any meaningful revelation. It all feels like a string of unrelated events that just so happen to be connected in a roundabout way. I’m not saying that the bits and piece don’t fall into place towards the end, just that when they finally do all you’re left with is “oh, that’s it?”

The overall story doesn’t quite click, but what you actually do is a lot more interesting. Exploring the apartment building is pretty intriguing, and you’ll even encounter a couple of side missions if you do so. Investigating the crime scenes using two different types of “detective vision” also works rather well. There is plenty of information and clues you can miss if you’re not thorough, so you’ll actually feel like a detective as you comb each area. There are also plenty of hidden collectables to find, with some giving you a little insight into the characters.

However, Lazarski is no regular detective – he is an Observer. As one, you will use your Dream Eater to hack into the memories of the murder victims and try to piece together their last moments. When you hack into someone’s mind, the game changes its pace. In the apartment building you’re free to wander around, talk to people and follow leads, but when in someone’s mind, the game turns into a completely linear experience. So linear, in fact, that I would almost call it a walking simulator, albeit a really twisted one. It’s the same kind of creepy corridor strolling we’ve seen in Bloober Team’s previous title – Layers of Fear.

Observer review doorway

The mind is a weird place, and the mind of a dead junkie is even weirder. As you walked through the fragmented memories of the murder victim, everything around you constantly twists and changes. You’ll loop through the same room over and over again, but every time something will be a bit different, until the room suddenly changes into a jail cell, the door slams behind you and you’re trapped. At another instance, you’ll walk towards a wall only to have it explode in slow motion and create a bridge above an abyss full of crows. You’ll hear echoing voices, experience key moments from the person’s life, and face their worst fear. This is surrealism and symbolism at their best. Visually, the game’s depiction of the mindscape is menacing, disorienting and often disturbing – in a good way.

It’s too bad this interesting concept is wasted on simply walking forward. Because that’s all you do when in the mindscape – trying to reach the end of this haunted house ride. There are a few rudimentary environmental puzzles, and a couple of scenarios where need you use stealth to avoid a patrolling monster, but nothing that will stump you for more than a minute or two. I enjoyed investigating the halls of the derelict building way more than I did diving into the wounded psyche of a serial killer, and that’s not OK. Granted, some of the more interesting moments of the game happen during a mental hack, but all you get to do is stand there and watch. But what else can you expect from a game called “Observer”?

Observer review outside

But watching everything unfold isn’t really that bad, mostly because the game’s visual design is great. The contrast between the bleak sci-fi world of the apartment building and the surreal fantasy of the mindscape is always jarring, and the way the two bleed into one another gives the game a unique, sometimes terrifying look. Through it all, you can clearly see the influence of classic cyberpunk movies like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell (or it could be just more Blade Runner). The game even “steals” legendary actor Rutger Hauer, who played the replicant Roy Batty in the movie, to lend his voice and likeness to protagonist Lazarski.

Observer is a weird, interesting, but ultimately flawed game. It’s a horror walking simulator that prides itself on its “deeper primal terror” experience, but relies too much on jump scares. The many different parts feel disconnected from one another – something on purpose and something not. The story in particular is disappointing; there’s a lot of potential in the premise of a mind-hacking jaded police detective, but the story takes us down a more relatable, yet mundane route – a father looking for his son. Observer isn’t a bad game, just a wasted one, and that’s the real crime.

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