Indie developer Bloober Team has become known for its visual, reality-bending horror experiences. From Layers of Fear and its DLC to the fast-paced horror shooter 2084 to 2017s Observer, the studio has been offering players some horrifying games to kill time in our less horrifying lives with. The latter has now been released for Nintendo’s hybrid console Switch and, even though we’ve actually reviewed the game before when it officially launched for PC, Playstation 4 and Xbox One a year and a half ago, we decided to give it a go in portable mode as well.
As with Layers of Fear, the developer’s debut horror title from 2016, Observer follows a somewhat unstable protagonist, battling internal traumas on the way to clarity. In Layers of Fear, one would follow a schizophrenic painter as he tried to understand where he went wrong and what caused him to forget a big part of his adult family life by inspecting and interacting with the artwork he had created during that time. The game was impeccably designed, making the player feel as though they themselves were going through what the main character was in the game with a gripping narrative, minimal but impactful gameplay mechanics and an ever-changing game world, trapping the player in the mind of the protagonist (or, in that case, the antagonist). In Observer, the player takes on the identity of a Daniel Lazarski, a cybernetically augmented detective of sorts, known in the cyberpunk-esque realm of the game as an observer, as he goes through different hardships, trying desperately to find his son Adan who he hasn’t heard from in a while. Set in a futuristic, alternate version of Krakow, Observer paints a compelling picture right off the bat.
While only getting to explore the slums of the high-tech city, Krakow is, in this world, a place in which people have started replacing their faulty body parts with cybernetic implants and bio-mechanical parts. With this technology at people’s disposal, however, (at least in the slums) people seem to be losing their humanity, with some even having traded so much of what made them human for robotic counterparts they seem to be in coma-like states, being kept alive by tubes and IV-drips. The player is told, early on in the game, that an observer’s job is to solve crimes either committed by or committed against cybernetically enhanced humans by hacking their way into these people’s, now artificial, brains to look for memories and clues as to what happened.
We know that Lazarski’s son is missing and we’re also told that “The Nanophage”, a digital plague, has been picking off cyborg-ified humans, effectively starting a war between the enhanced and the organic sides of humanity with the stronger side of the conflict being able to switch out whatever they injured while fighting who they used to be at one point in time. Lazarski sets out to investigate both the Nanophage and the disappearance of his child and ends up in an apartment building where things seem to have gone terribly wrong.
The controls in the game are simple – you steer Mr. Lazarski with the left analog stick and look around using the left, interact with a tap of the ZR button and open doors by either holding the button and sliding it open with the right stick or by using the Joy-Con gyro controls. Lazarski’s detective abilities (we say abilities, since he’s definitely not your average cop), that are like something out of a CSI mystery montage, are controlled by pressing L or R, offering different advantages, aiding him in his investigation. The two are both types of scanners that one can use at any time, one showing biological elements such as bodily fluids and other residues at a crime scene and the other showing electronic devices and such as brain chips, cybernetics and interactable monitors.
Using these abilities puts the protagonist through some stress, triggered by his own implants, prompting the screen to blur and various negative computer effects to appear on the screen (screen-tearing, some lag, some random code on screen). These effects all make the immersion stronger but, as we noted in our Xbox One review, they also get old – really fast. Such is, sadly, the case on the Switch as well – it’s actually even worse when in docked mode with the lower resolution on our 4K TV. In portable mode it was more bearable, however. We also had some bugs and freezes but nothing major.
Bloober Team’s Observer is still a solid experience, as it was when it first released. There are some frame-rate issues, some minor bugs and a less-than incredible, abrupt ending to the story but the general narrative up until that point, the Blade Runner-inspired visuals (and Blade Runner actor Rutger Hauer as the main voice actor for the game) and the interesting gameplay keeps the player interested, for the most part.