Who doesn’t love an abandoned space station, spaceship or research facility? Who didn’t adore quivering under tables in Sevastopol in Alien Isolation or investigating The Espial in The Station or the underwater PATHOS-II in SOMA. So I guess you could say games in this vague genre have been done before and done very well. Is there room for another game along these lines? Well yes, always, but Observation also offers something quite different. You are not on the station; you are the station. Something terrible has happened aboard the satellite station Observation and crew member Dr. Emma Fisher is determined to find out what that was and where her crew mates are. The key to this is you. You are Sam (S.A.M.) the on-board computer. You’ve been wrecked, taken offline and your memory banks damaged. Between you and Emma you must fix the ship as best you can, find the crew and work out what the fork happened.
Observation is a first person narrative thriller. It combines story elements with a unique style of gameplay. Sam can possess static cameras and sometimes a floating spherical camera. Working with Emma you need to help Sam access various cameras around the station which will then allow access to power points, laptops, terminals and trackers. He can jump around various parts of the ship once they are accessible – and you may have to work a bit to make this possible. Turning on systems and fixing issues and alerts isn’t always just a matter of finding the nearest terminal. Some systems have what could be described as mini games that require puzzling out before they will turn on. Some issues may even require you to go outside. Eeek.
In fact the whole game is pretty much a huge puzzle. Emma will task you with something important and your job is to figure out how to do it. She can occasionally be somewhat vague which is really great for the feel of the game. Remember you are a broken AI with damaged memory banks. It feels wonderfully in character that you have to fathom out what on earth you need to do. Some objectives are pretty easy, but others can be a little more tricky especially at the beginning when you’re getting used to your UI, your functions, what you are capable of and how to work with Emma. Often you will have the run of many rooms and corridors and in addition to your objectives you can pick up optional information about the crew by accessing various pieces of equipment. You can use way points to guide your main goals but otherwise you can go off the track a little and explore the parts of the station that are currently accessible.
Your UI is pretty nifty. As well as being able to link into access points you can also “respond” to Emma with a report. You can do this with items and doors around the station but also within your own menu system. Sam’s own menu allows him access to the station’s map which means you can instantly jump to another room or another arm of the station if there’s a functioning camera available. You also have a memory core where you can store the information you find and use it to progress. As the game continues and Sam regains his functionality his menu will allow other functions which I won’t spoil. I’ll just say that pretending to be an AI is very awesome.
As I said earlier, Observation is a narrative thriller. It’s not a walking simulator as you have quite a bit of work to do, but there’s no peril involved. You can’t die as such, but your journey is a fight against something unknown and clearly dangerous. Observation holds its secrets very close, keeping you on edge all the way through the narrative. I never hit a point where I thought the story had given up everything. I was gripped right up to the end, my feelings for Emma and Sam strengthening with every plot twist and setback.
Graphically, Observation is beautiful. All those games I mentioned earlier? Think along those lines but with an aesthetic that feels a little more realistic. It’s what I imagine an actual space station would look like in the near future and a lot like how I imagine they probably look now. With the lack of gravity, Sam’s spherical camera can float around wherever he pleases and often you’ll be upside down sometimes without even realising. But even upside down or sideways or even facing upwards, the environments look great. You don’t necessarily feel like you’re topsy-turvy until you spot a laptop and think hey why is that laptop upside down oh wait no it’s me. Adding to the game’s more realistic touches is the fuzzy connection when you first jump into a new camera or Sam’s sphere bumps into something. The signal becomes suddenly weaker and the picture stutters for a moment and loses quality before it fixes itself and goes back to normal. It’s a lovely touch and a good reason not to go full on Mario Kart with Sam’s sphere.
The framerate held strong and smooth and I experienced no crashes. Smooth sailing (or floating) all the way. Playtime was around twelve hours, which felt about right. The narrative isn’t drawn out in anyway or cut short. The story beats feel well balanced with good pacing and some brilliant dramatic punches to the face. The music helps a lot with this. The game is mostly quiet with atmospheric beeps, hisses and the sounds of panning cameras. But between the silence is a soft, barely there and unnerving musical score, and when the crap really hits the fan the sounds ramp up to something that sounds beautifully alien and actually quite frightening. Speaking of which, expect a couple of jump scares here and there, but Observation firmly stakes its claim as a thriller not a horror. It’s eerie, there’s no doubt, but it never strays into cheap scares. It’s frightening not because things jump out at you every ten minutes but because of the narrative, because of the enclosed space, because of the solitude, because of the threat of space with just strips of metal between you, Emma and it. Even as an AI the claustrophobia is real.
Observation is a Sci-Fi narrative thriller set on a dark and broken space station. The story is enthralling right up to the end, the graphics are gorgeous and the gameplay completely unique. If you’re looking for something a little bit different all you need is Observation.
SJ Hollis Rating 9/10
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