Horror games have seen a significant evolution in recent years, as part of the resurgence of the previously stale genre. We've seen numerous outstanding horror experiences, but the reused mechanics have since translated into a rather lazy approach to horror experiences.
Among the most popular horror games of this generation, Layers of Fear stood out for its unique approach to both level design and horror tropes. Following a painter who is descending into madness, the game plays with the surrounding world to disorient players and leave them unsure of their actions. Executed in a way I've never personally endured, this bizarre journey rightfully sits among the best horror games available today on Xbox One.
The game's developer, Bloober Team, has now moved onto its next project, hoping to build upon the strengths of Layers of Fear. Known as Observer (or >observer_), the game introduces a unique blend of psychological horror alongside a dystopian cyberpunk world. Although they're both established genres, the game's attractive premise could be a major differentiator from similar horror titles.
With a launch set for summer of this year, we've yet to see a huge amount of gameplay relating to the project. But we did spend 15 minutes in the game's twisted world at GDC 2017. Here are some early thoughts.
Set seventy years in the future, Observer puts players in the shoes of a detective resided in a once technologically-advanced Poland. Following a catastrophic digital plague, known as the "Nanophage", society has been thrown into turmoil as a result of rapid technological progression. With widespread deaths from both the virus and war that followed, survivors have turned to technology in an attempt to hide from this harsh reality.
As a part of a special police unit known as "Observers," you have the ability to hack into and explore the minds of suspects in the search for evidence relating to your case. However, once a mysterious case leads to hacking the unhinged minds of both victims and criminals, you're subjected to the horrific experiences they endured up until their demise.
This makes for an uncommon angle on storytelling, with the ability to unfold the story from multiple perspectives. Factoring in the mental instability of those you choose to hack, Observer has the ability to offer some insanely abnormal experiences.
Watch your back
Learning from the developer's previous successes, Observer takes a more inventive approach to the mysterious aspects of its world. While its cyberpunk influences allow for an appealing aesthetic, they also factor hugely into the gameplay mechanics. With the creative freedom to explore almost anything through insane minds, the game has the potential to cover some interesting territory.
Rather than rely heavily on excessive gore and unoriginal jump-scares, Observer's horror builds off the idea of player disorientation and uncertainty. With the environment changing in real time, this adds an interesting dynamic; the player must lose trust in something that remains constant in any other video game. This allows the game to detach from some of the overused tropes in the genre, in pursuit of conveying atmospheric tension in a unique manner. Loud static and violent compression artifacts also make frequent appearances during tense moments, further hindering the player's senses. Observer wants to put the "psychological" back in psychological horror — and it sure looks promising.
Puzzles factor into Observer's gameplay, as well, adding a layer of challenge to an otherwise more passive experience. During our hands-on demonstration, we experienced a puzzle that placed the player in a room with what appeared to be no exit. Although this was a great way to build tension, the solution wasn't hugely intuitive or creative, to say the least. The puzzles add a nice change of pace to gameplay and could meld well with the more cinematic areas, provided puzzle design stays at a consistently high standard.
Observer is shaping up to be another amazing horror experience from Bloober Team, striving to find its own place within the horror genre. Despite clear influences from Layers of Fear, the game stands on its own as a horror experience, at least if the demo is anything to go by. Bringing together tense horror, puzzles and the beginning of what could be a weighty narrative, our hands-on was a captivating peek at the full experience.
As a fan of cyberpunk themes, Observer undeniably stands out to me on a personal level. And while that may be what gets me started with the game, its interesting approach to building tension may be the reason I stay with it. Again, the game is set for release on both Xbox One and PC this summer, and we'll cover Observer further on Windows Central after its official debut.
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