by Jed Pressgrove
Despite having one of the dumbest-sounding monikers among developers, Bloober Team delivered a visually dynamic punch with Layers of Fear. In that 2016 game, you explore an ever-transforming family home, which represents the mental and emotional instability of the husband/father protagonist. Observer, Bloober Team’s latest effort, features similar tricks — corridors that morph when you turn around, doors and cabinets that open by themselves, and so on — as you traverse people’s minds as a detective of the future. But while the setting of Layers of Fear effectively puts one in the shoes of a frustrated male artist, good luck feeling like an investigator of a fresh case in Observer, as much of the imagery you scan is hackneyed and contrived.
In Observer, you play as Daniel Lazarski, a cyborg policeman who searches brains, not just crime scenes, for clues. After receiving a distressed phone call from his son, Lazarski finds a decapitated body in his son’s apartment and sets out to explain this murder and locate his missing offspring. From here you question a variety of tenants, many of whom are on drugs. Here and there, you must pop a pill yourself to correct Lazarski’s vision, which starts glitching after a certain amount of investigation. Drug dependence, a common neo-noir topic, paints the hero as a vulnerable figure in a decadent society.
As in Metroid Prime, technology allows you to to view your surroundings via different lenses to detect important details, but Observer wants the trips you take inside of people’s heads to carry the most weight. In this respect, it’s understandable that Bloober Team presents the mind as a messy place where memories and insecurities translate as strange and shifting sights to Lazarski. Observer is at its best when Lazarski’s own history influences what he sees and hears in another person’s brain — when the human condition conflicts with the goal of objective observation.
The problem is these psychological dives often come across as assembly-line horror. With many scenes that recall the hallways in Layers of Fear, Observer gives off the vibe of a cookie-cutter sequel rather than that of a distinct story. The worst decision by Bloober Team is the inclusion of stealth segments that bring to mind a number of survival-horror titles, such as Outlast 2. These sequences suggest journeying into a mind is the stuff of cliched trial-and-error game design, not to mention that they seem irrelevant to the story Observer wants to tell.
Game-breaking bugs on the PlayStation 4 worsened my experience with Observer considerably. Within a few hours, the screen froze twice, and more than once a glitch rendered an essential puzzle-solving item unusable. I’ve observed enough: if a sci-fi game has something to say about the effects of technology, the least it can do is work right.