Let’s cyberpunk like it’s 1983 again!
Observer is definitely one of the most unexpected Switch ports we’ve seen to date. Originally released in late 2017, this very graphic adventure game was sorely underappreciated. For a certain audience of gamers who love old school 80’s cyberpunk, Observer was one of the best games of the year. As a result, it’s terrific news the game might get another shot thanks to the Switch.
If, like so many, you missed Observer on the PC, PS4, and Xbox One, but enjoy slower-paced detective-centric adventures, this is the perfect time to jump on board. That doesn’t necessarily mean with the Switch port, though. The game has long since dropped in price on other platforms and while it’s actually excellent on the go, it takes a real performance hit when docked.
Backing up a bit, it’s important to understand just what kind of creation Observer is. The elevator speech would be ‘a first-person cyberpunk detective thriller, with beautiful, frequently surreal grunge environments’. This isn’t an action game, though. You won’t be shooting your way through the mean, incredibly damp streets of Krakow, Poland in 2084. Coming from Bloober Team, Observer – from a mechanical perspective – bears a lot of similarities with their previous horror game, Layers of Fear.
Not quite a walking simulator, but certainly not a traditional action game, Bloober has created something more along the lines of an interactive narrative. Observer tasks you as Daniel Lazarski, a special type of detective who, well, observes. Dan has special abilities that let him jack into the minds of others and trek through their fragmented psyches to find clues.
Dan, like so many hardboiled detectives, has secrets and past traumas he’s still working out. Especially in regards to his estranged son who suddenly calls out of the blue. Like any father might, Dan tracks the call and ends up at a rundown apartment complex. What awaits him is a brutal crime scene, introducing Observer’s investigation mechanics that allow him to switch between vision modes to scan both biological and technological objects of interest.
Much like an old school point-and-click adventure, Observer lives up to its name in that you frequently have to comb crime scenes from top to bottom looking for clues. Using the two enhanced vision modes, Dan must scan any potential evidence he finds simply by focusing on it for a few seconds. You’ll also go door to door, talking to the paranoid and usually unfriendly denizens of the building. As the game moves on, Daniel ends up falling down a rabbit hole of violence, drugs, and corruption.
One reason Observer works so well is the phenomenal production values. Daniel is voiced by and modeled after legendary actor Rutger Hauer, so the game immediately has 80s-cyberpunk nerd cred. Hauer is an amazing actor in general and where others might have just phoned in their lines, he adds a true sense of personality and gravitas to the role of the burned-out detective. The story, dialogue, and writing, in general, are all excellent.
Visually, the game is a trip. Dan is basically leashed to a drug preventing him from losing touch with reality. As a result, the longer he goes without, the more digitized glitches affect his (and therefore, your) vision. Even when medicated, Observer is a kind of dreary techno hell, full of digital signs, neon lighting, and trash. It’s an ugly game by design, but that ugly is displayed beautifully.
Observer is very clearly paying obsessive homage to the uniquely 80’s sensibilities of what our dark and nasty future would be. Case in point: one of the first retro-future terminals Dan finds is very clearly using a Commodore 64 as its keyboard. The first character you meet – the superintendent of the complex – seems modeled after the bartender from Neuromancer. There are myriad such examples through the game. These easter eggs admittedly cater to a very specific (and probably fairly small) audience, but also help show just how much genuine affection Bloober has for the source material.
Observer mingles between sci-fi and horror constantly. When Dan jacks into someone’s mind, he travels through a wonderfully bizarre and surreal fractured landscape. Visual cues are especially important in these treks, as the mind mazes constantly shift and change in confusing ways. It’s these sequences that really show the link between Observer and Layers of Fear, and they’re fascinating.
The reason Observer manages to work at all on the Switch is largely because it’s not an action game. The framerate is iffy, but the pacing is slow enough that this simply doesn’t feel like a big problem. Indeed, the game frequently relies on confusing and jerky shifts. The big problem with the Switch port becomes apparent when playing on a TV.
In portable mode, Observer looks remarkably good. Blow it up, though, and the shortcomings are glaringly apparent. The game looks muddy and low-res on a TV. It might not be as obvious to newcomers, but we can’t reiterate enough that the other versions offer far superior performance.
Observer might be a niche game, mixing walking, adventure, and puzzle elements together in its dingy and desperate 80’s William Gibson-themed world. For those into the aesthetic, this game is a must-play. While we can’t wholeheartedly recommend the Switch port past being a great way to play it on the go, Observer itself is terrific.
[Reviewed on Switch]