The Bleakest Future Yet
Dystopian futures really do make great set pieces. George Orwell’s 1984, Blade Runner, Deus Ex, Ghost in the Shell, Robocop, and Judge Dredd are just a few that jump to mind. Some are great for their in-depth analysis of the human condition and society’s state in the future, others because they’re just fun as hell to get into. It’s time to add a new one to the dystopian lineup, as the team behind 2016’s Layers of Fear is back with what can best be described as the love child of 1984 and Blade Runner, titled >observer_.
A Cyber Trip
2084. The world has been ravaged between a great war and a plague called the Nanonphage that targeted many cybernetically augmented humans. What remains in the aftermath is a police state where the Chiron corporation is judge, jury, and executioner. Instead of the haves and have nots, in this future there are those who are on Chiron’s payroll and those who are not. It is as close to an Orwell’s authoritarian future as I’ve ever seen a game achieve, and it’s as unsettling to experience as a game as it was as a book.
You’ll be stepping into the role of Dan Lazarski, a heavily augmented agent of Chiron called an Observer, a weaponless investigator, designed to be the ultimate interrogator. People don’t need to talk to an Observer for them to get what they need from you. Considering most of the population has, at minimum, neural hubs, it’s quite easy for them. An Observer can retrieve information from a person in the most invasive way possible; plugging directly, and painfully, into the host’s brain. How’s that for ‘advanced interrogation techniques’? While Observers sound like corporate bogeymen, there’s more to Dan than his loyalty to the corporation. A past he cannot run away from begins haunting him while on a routine patrol, and soon he finds himself pulled into a dark twisted occurrence in a dilapidated and labyrinth-like tenement complex.
Stumbling upon the scene of a murder, Dan’s journey to get to the truth leads to scenes of homicide after homicide. A search for answers quickly becomes a search for a fast-acting killer who seems bent on picking people off one by one. But, what binds these people together? Is it random, or is there something deeper? Players will use Dan’s ability as an observer to infiltrate the memories of the dead and dying, desperately trying to put the pieces together.
These trips are confusion inducing, eye blurring, and constantly unsettling. Pieces will slowly come together the further into the memories you get, but a lot of it involves running around confusing meshes of areas the victims recall, complete with computerized glitches and oddities symbolizing a corruption of the systems. At times navigation through these can be frustrating, but most of the time it’s just a matter of being patient and taking things slow, so I’m not marking the confusion as a negative thing in this case, but, rather, a unique way to display data corruption.
The more Dan ‘observes’ these victims, the more the lines between the real world and their memories begin to blend. As the game goes on, he starts having hallucinations and callbacks of his own past while sprinting through his own fragmented memories. As if that weren’t enough, Dan also finds himself face to face with a manifestation of the data corruption more than once in the form of a massive multi-eyed beast who can sprint fast enough that trying to outrun it is pointless. If it sees you, you’re done for and will have to reload at the last checkpoint. Meanwhile back in the real world, the killer is something more sinister than I had first pegged, and while it was a welcome twist I also felt like it clashed with the overall narrative, and ultimately ended up making much of the game feel like a sub-plot to the last few sections. It doesn’t stop the game from being enjoyable, how it all comes together just feels a bit unfocused.
Tears In The Rain
There’s no doubt to be had that >observer_ looks and sounds beautiful. The setting in its entirety harkens memories of Blade Runner with a cyberpunk flare that looks straight out of 1982. The sounds also bring back memories of the film, rather quickly, with none other than Rutger Hauer voice acting the main role. Delivering a great performance that rides a line between grizzled detective and someone slowly going off the rails, Hauer’s voice acting steals the show over the other voice actors in the game who range from very good to just awful. Whether that’s intentional, or if they just had to work with what they could afford, I couldn’t tell you, but if they could land Hauer, then I expect at least Hauer’s quality or just under it across the board.
A Dystopia Worth Visiting
Advertised as a cyberpunk horror, I do feel that >observer_ falls short of that aim considering I only jumped three times throughout. What it did right is more than enough reason for any fans of the cyberpunk genre, fans of works centered around dystopias, and fans of vintage sci-fi to at least give it a shot. From the setting to diving into others’ minds, and then watching the lines between real and unreal begin to blur, it’s an unsettling walk through madness I’m happy I took.
Brilliant take on a dystopian future that calls back to classic works in film and literature, very well done voice acting on part of Rutger Hauer, diving into the minds of various characters is a mind melting trip in a good way.
Bulk of the main plot ends up feeling like a side story, voice acting inconsistencies outside of the main character is disappointing, falls short of being a horror game it’s advertised as.