HIGH Exemplary production values and atmosphere.
LOW It’s a great 8hr game that could’ve been an extraordinary 6hr game.
WTF: Ok, this style of play has officially become its own genre now.
I like Star Trek. A lot.
The main reason I like Star Trek is that it’s one of the few pieces of mainstream fiction that paints a relatively nice picture of our future. This is the primary reason why Seth Macfarlane’s The Orville is, surprisingly, a much better continuation of Star Trek than Star Trek: Discovery ever was or will be. Granted, when Trekkies bring the optimistic viewpoint of the series up, we tend to ignore the ‘atomic horror’ part of the canon where most of humanity was killed in nuclear war followed by decades of barbarianism, but we got replicators and everything worked out alright.
The reason I bring this up is that whenever a game is set in space, 99% of the time space is in a perpetual state of war, and 98% of the time we are in space because Earth is in bad shape. I suppose a bleak future makes a good setting for shooting guns, but it’d be great if at least once in a while we got one where Earth was still chill, and so were the aliens.
Observation, the latest title from Untold Stories developer No Code… isn’t that game.
I feel the best way to enjoy Observation is to go in with as little information as possible, but needless to say it’s rather bleak. What I can say is that the player takes on the role of SAM, an artificial intelligence system administrator in charge of an international space station where something has, of course, gone horribly wrong. It’s up to SAM to assist the sole survivor (or is she?) Dr. Emma Fischer to get the station operational and “bring her” to a destination. If one ever wanted to know what it would be like to play a game starring HAL-9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, this is probably the closest one will get.
As SAM, players inhabit the station’s security cameras and monitoring systems, zipping their viewpoint from room to room and solving various issues while trying to get everything back online. The neat thing is that this is never as easy as pressing a button and watching a hatch open — SAM needs to integrate into each bit of tech and reconnect circuits or reset applications with various interface motions designed to mimic the action.
For example, SAM may need to find some schematics to reconnect power to a door, and then the player has to draw the correct circuit pattern in accordance with the instructions. At certain points, SAM also needs to transport its consciousness into a mobile sphere to fly around and work on tasks not accessible from the cameras it usually inhabits. SAM’s implementation is a neat concept that helps one feel like they’re actually a computer booting various systems and not just opening a door.
As the player progresses, SAM will reclaim various functions and will be able to perform more actions, and there’s usually more than one task to attend to at any given time. I appreciated this nonlinear structure and the honest-to-god puzzles immensely — through them, it finds a rare and excellent balance between keeping the player more active than a walking simulator usually does, while also being accessible to people not looking for something that requires as much effort as an obtuse puzzler.
The graphics of Observation can be truly stunning (except for the occasional super close-up on a human face) and some effective filters make the whole thing look like footage from a space station would. The sound design is impeccable, the voice acting is great, and the music is incredibly haunting and atmospheric when it pops up. The game also features a killer title card sequence, which is never something I thought I would mention in a review, but it’s that good.
The pacing is also good since Observation doesn’t have many info dumps. Everyone involved knows about past important events and know the new happenings as much as the player does, and while there’s never a scene where everything gets explained, by looking at pictures , reading text logs, and simply noticing things that seem… odd… the player gets a fantastic a trail of breadcrumbs to follow. Unfortunately, things drag a little towards the end, and a couple of false finishes lead to an finale that isn’t necessarily bad, but doesn’t have a whole lot of oomph by the time it reaches its true conclusion.
When all’s been tallied, Observation’s only real problem is something that isn’t its fault — it joins an already-crowded genre consisting of The Station, Event  , Adr1ft, Tacoma, and several others in the newly-formed Narrative Adventure Set In A Busted Space Station During A Dystopian Future With Something Fishy Going On genre (or NASIABSSDADFWSFGO for short). However, while there have been a lot of games like it recently, Observation’s interesting player perspective, stellar production values, and exceptional level of detail might just make it the best of them.
Disclosures: This game is developed by No Code and published by Devolver Digital. It is currently available on PS4 and The Epic Store with an MSRP of $24.99. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on a Windows 10 PC with a GTX 1060, a Core i7-7700, and 16GB of RAM, which was able to run the game on max setting at 1080p with 60FPS. An estimated 9 hours of play were devoted to the single-player, and the game was completed.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M For Mature, featuring Blood, Mild Violence, and Strong Language. There’s really only one particularly violent scene and the occasional swear words are minimal. For a teenager who’s really into space or horror movies, letting them play this one wouldn’t be too big of a stretch.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The game’s story is told through voiced dialogue with accompanying subtitles, so they’re shouldn’t be any issues understanding the narrative. There’s also an option to have the subtitles match the words being spoken on screen for a more immersive experience. The subtitles cannot be resized nor can the color of them be changed. The game features no necessary audio cues, so players should be able to get through it without any problems. It’s fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: This game’s controls are fully remappable. Observation is not a game where precise and quick button prompts are necessary to finish it, but occasionally the computer modules will leave one’s fingers in a bit of a pretzel with their various combinations. On PC, the player has the choice of traditional mouse & keyboard controls or using a controller, and this review was completed using an Xbox One controller, while prompts for a Dualshock 4 are also included.
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Looks like Isolation. Well, if it has this atmosphere of loneliness and hopelessness I shall buy it!