If you say anything regarding cyberpunk, you have my attention. If you say something about Rutger Hauer in the same context as cyberpunk, you have my strict focus. I’m one of those kids that grew up with Philip K. Dick books on my shelf and a VHS collection that ran the gamut with tons of cyberpunk-centric films. From the more polished and widely praised BLADE RUNNER, to cult films like HARDWARE and FREEJACK. I was all about the cyberpunk aesthetic. So, when Bloober Team devs and Aspyr publishers released a game called OBSERVER, that is set in a cyberpunk world and stars Rutger Hauer, it quickly shot to one of my most anticipated games of the year and for great reason, you guys.
If you are like me, the Rutger Hauer and cyberpunk combo might be enough for you to immediately stop reading and go seek out this game. If combination of those things isn’t enough though, a look at the elements that go into this game damn well better.
In the not too distant future, humans have taken to upgrading their body with technological enhancements. At the height of that modification popularity, a digital plague called the necrophage spreads like wildfire. That plague sends humans into an intense war that leaves the Fifth Polish Republic as one of the last bastions of humanity. Still, most of the survivors have turned to drugs and virtual reality as a way of escape. You play as Daniel Lazarski, an Observer by trade. Lazarski’s certain set of skills includes hacking people’s minds with the assistance of a device called a Dream Eater. Observers are used to collect info during tough interrogations and can even grab info that you may have forgotten.
When a scrambled communique comes through from Lazarski’s estranged son asking for help. Lazarski rushes off to a dilapidated tenement to find out what kind of trouble his son was in. Upon arrival, he discovers a headless corpse moments before the tenement goes into lockdown. He is then tasked with finding his son and uncovering the reasons behind the tenement lockdown.
The aesthetics of this game are uniquely derived from a cyberpunk world. Neon’s litter a dark and polluted city. Everything is covered in sheen from the never-ending downpour of rain. The people that inhabit this world are isolationist, and have mostly lost their minds, making every encounter something that borders on the bizarre, the disturbing and even the hilarious. OBSERVER creates an immersive and claustrophobic world that rewards you with tonality and a creeping feeling of dread.
I’ve been telling everyone that this would be what would have happened if David Lynch had directed BLADE RUNNER. Dialogue is delivered in strange dreamlike cadence making everything feel slightly off. The game is heady and has roots dipped in horror. Using your Dream Eater to infiltrated someone’s mind takes you to the landscape of a very bad LSD trip, where someone’s psyche is revealed through different visions you venture through. As you traverse these mind fields, that subjects story is unraveled through your play through. You are able to find out who that person was and what lead them to the moment you find them in. Ultimately, Lazarski, uses the device to collect info but there are times he uses it to go further, each time he delves into someone’s mind, he comes out frazzled and disorientated, he has to self-administer drugs in order to keep from losing his mind or even death.
Visuals are represented extremely well. Without medication Lazarski’s vision becomes pixelated, as sound becomes distorted and muffled. The degradation of his sanity is something that messes with your head as a player. And that is just one of the many ways the game extends its trippy tendrils out to the player. Amazing care had to have been taken to create this world, the pixilation and distortion is straight out of some of our favorite cult cyberpunk films.
I was able to review OBSERVER on PS4 by a code that was provided. At times the game was unable to keep up with its own frame rate and choked a bit when I tried sprinting as opposed to walking. From what I last read the devs have ironed out some of that glitchiness in updates. Outside of that issue, the games mechanics are deeply embedded in simple puzzle solving and the investigation of different areas in order to gather clues. Lazarski is equipped with both Bio Vision and Electromagnetic Vision. These two scan abilities help to explore crime scenes more precisely. Once an area is scanned other areas of the tenement will open up as your objectives are updated to take your further down the rabbit hole.
Like I mentioned before, Rutger Hauer voices and lends likeness to Daniel Lazarski. At different moments in the game mirrors will remind you that you are indeed playing as Mr. BLIND FURY himself. Knowing and being reminded of that, constantly reinvigorates the cinematic feeling that this game is full of. The devs also wink at the audience a bit. Throughout there are moments that pay homage to BLADE RUNNER. Rather its pigeons flying about or a constant cascade of rain, you will feel yourself called back to his portrayal of his role as a replicant crying (or not crying) in the rain. Hauer, has strange vocal ques at times and comes off as a bit of a grump. I’m not sure if this was an issue they had with him during production but it definitely lends itself to his grizzled, grumpy character. You can get the sense that he would do one take and just announce that he was okay with just doing one. The happy accident of that possible scenario is that Hauer’s cadence fits the strangeness of the game.
You come to OBSERVER for its cinematic experience. Not so much for what it does better than other first-person games as far as gameplay goes. While gameplay does sail along and each dive into someone’s subconscious is exciting eye candy, there are moments, albeit not many, where things can feel like a chore. There is a “creature” that you have to hide from at certain points that took me out of the game experience momentarily, the interaction between said creature and Lazarski didn’t feel scary or organic. It was something I couldn’t wait to get through to further the story. Thankfully, OBSERVER knows what kind of game it is and moments like those are very scarce. It tells a satisfying and embodied story, that connects from its beginning to its cliffhanger ending. The strange side missions and characters assist the game in its singular take on traditional cyberpunk and, once you see the whole picture, you can see a neon lit, smog filled cyberkpunk game deserving of praises.