Review: Blade Runner meets Kowloon Walled City in Observer, a cyberpunk dive into a terrifying world
Cyberpunk gets a healthy boost in this absorbing game, which references Blade Runner’s Hong Kong-inspired atmosphere and immerses you in its psychological horror with great use of audio and visuals
Cyberpunk’s cult status as a sci-fi subgenre might be waning if the lacklustre box-office performance of the Ghost in the Shell remake this summer is any indication. But when cyberpunk is tied to the past, the subgenre still has plenty to say.
That’s largely what makes Observer (for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, OSX and Linux) so appealing. The game deftly balances the subgenre’s many well-worn clichés and creates something fresh and innovative – ironically because of its inspirations: Blade Runner, eXistenZ, The Matrix are all given their due tribute here.
Players take on the role of the titular Observer, voiced by no less than Blade Runner star Rutger Hauer, a detective who taps into peoples’ thoughts and memories as he traverses a rain-soaked game world obviously inspired by the old Kowloon Walled City.
The influence of Blade Runner (also heavily inspired by the streetscapes of Hong Kong) lies heavy, with a bit of David Cronenberg thrown in for good measure. And that’s far from a bad thing – why create your own worlds when you can borrow from the masters?
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The main mission is to roam the dilapidated hallways of rundown tower blocks and play the standard detective role: look for clues, interview poverty-stricken residents and inspect crime scenes.
Make the most of the futuristic tools you have at hand, including the “mind jacker”. The device is able to combine your character’s recollections with those of others and the accompanying stream-of-consciousness sequences are wonderful dreamlike asides. In this regard, the game harks back not only to the sci-fi films of the 1980s, but also the eccentric CD-ROM releases of the ‘90s which were pushing boundaries through the use of basic video playback.
The story is involving and the gameplay engrossing, but Observer’s audio and visuals make it stand out. From the dimly lit environments, crackling neon signs and filthy surfaces of locations you examine, to the strange, far-off conversations and static noises, this is a fully realised retro-future setting, and it’s so immersive that it’s almost exhausting.
Observer eventually reveals itself as a psychological horror game in a cyberpunk disguise, and the enigmatic storyline leads the player into some nightmarish, blood-soaked environments. It’s incredibly effective and more than a little frightening, made all the more real by the balance between influences from well-known films.