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Video Game Review – >Observer_

After playing Layers of Fear, >Observer_ went straight onto my Steam wishlist. The studio, Bloober Team SA, suckered me in with something filled with hints of the Lovecraftian themes, before fully submerging me into a fanboy’s dream (or nightmare). With a chilling atmosphere, fascinating imagery, and a narrative unravelled asynchronously and through gutwrenching imagery brought from deep within the man’s psyche.

Here we have a game in which a detective in a cyberpunk dystopia plugs into the minds of suspects and victims to solve a crime, and he’s played by Rutger Hauer. If no part of that interests you then I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave immediately. >Observer_ ticked enough boxes for me that I played three hours without noticing, and the game hits a lot more of my fandoms than I initially realised.

Story

Det. Daniel Lazarski is having a peaceful night – under orders to take it easy following the aftermath of a terrorist attack – before his estranged son calls, and heavily implies that he is in the kind of trouble a father would be unable to resist diving headfirst in to for their son’s sake, dropping a big cryptic message “You’re not in control”. After tracking him to a slum, Daniel is locked in with a bunch of scared tenants and locked into a murder mystery of incredible ferocity, and far reaching implications.

It’s Psychonauts meets Bladerunner, which I heard (accurately as it turned out) in Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw’s voice, but to my mind he missed out The Cell which offers a far darker approach to delving into the minds of others. My first experience was delving into the mind of a woman who had joined with that of a little girl, both of them growing stronger together; followed by a dying ex-con whose mind shattered every time I approached his traumas. It’s a fun, if unnerving way to learn about characters, especially when dialogue is no longer an option. Slowly, you catch glimpses of Daniel’s own mind, leaking into the minds of his witnesses.

There is a pervasive fear of a disease called Nanophage, almost everyone in the block fears the corporate agents who come to “extract” the infected and books teaching children about the disease are littered everywhere, with the child on the cover of the books in increasing stages of the disease. Residents in the block have very different reactions to a police presence, which is a fascinating way to build the dystopian feel of the world, alongside the classic holographic billboards.

Style

Be warned! >Observer_ is a visual assault. Neon lights are everywhere, an attempt to superficially cover up the ramshackle and dilapidated surroundings, and at times this can make it hard to look at and navigate. It’s intentionally disorienting, this is supposed to be a horror game, but the epilepsy warning at the start of the game is well justified, especially once you go brain delving, or experiment with the various scanners Lazarski has embedded into his eyes.

The game balances the bright and flashy with the rundown and drab rather well, but it is not exactly easy on the eye. This disorientation is helped by the labyrinthine layout of the tenement building, the narrow corridors, the illogical layout that would make the place a fire hazard in the extreme.

When travelling within the minds of others this theme of twisting and turning corridors and enclosed spaces persists, and thusfar I have to say that it makes those brains feel a little homogeneous. Psychonauts meanwhile drew massive distinctions between brains by altering the feel of each. Now, even allowing for the radical difference between Doublefine’s cartoonish style, and the sci-fi realism and gritty noir pace of >Observer_, I’m finding the lack of diversity a little disappointing.

Gameplay

In Layers of Fear, most of the decision making takes place by walking in the right directions. There are no other people to interact with, no controls beyond moving yourself and objects.

>Observer_ introduces a few essential moments of stealth as you evade the horrors that await in the minds of others. There is a great deal more problem solving and a lot of dialogue options, as you debate the finer points of futuristic philosophy and contemporary morality through the doorways and video monitors of tenants, and certainly more interaction with the world.

I briefly mentioned the scanners you have at your disposal, something akin to Arkham Batman’s detective-vision, although less of a catch-all to look for anything useful. It’s broken down into night-vision, bio-scanner and electro-scanner. While I object that the electro-scanner doesn’t pick up even a fraction of the assorted technological junk in this cyberpunk world but can detect a remote control car, and while I find it “strange” that the bio-scanner could detect a few hair fragments but declined to pick up on a bathtub full of blood, or anything in any of the bathrooms (you can be damn sure I saw some bio-hazards in there), they still build an interesting game mechanic that further serves to build on the unnatural nature of modern life.

Here is where I admit that I have yet to finish the game, but by my estimation I’m about halfway through. I just hope that I don’t have to complete more of the infuriating mini-game, adorable though it is; some of those levels have got me stumped. This also means of course there is plenty I have yet to see and experience, and I’ve no doubt those words will come back to haunt me. “You are not in control.”

Now it’s over to you – What are your thoughts on >Observer_? Let us know in the comments below, or over on Facebook and Twitter.

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