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Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: No Code
Release Date: May 21, 2019


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PC Review - 'Observation'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on June 5, 2019 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Observation is a sci-fi thriller uncovering what happened to Dr. Emma Fisher, and the crew of her mission, through the lens of the station’s artificial intelligence S.A.M.

It's always difficult to make a game where the main character isn't the player but someone who the player assists. A lot of attempts have been tried, from Lifeline on the PS2 to The Last Guardian and beyond to mixed success. Observation is the latest attempt, and it's one of the more successful ones. It may resemble something like the modern spate of horror games inspired by Five Nights at Freddy's, but it has a lot more going on beneath the surface.

Observation is set on the titular space station. Players are put in control of SAM, the ship's Hal-9000-like onboard AI. During an experiment, however, things suddenly go drastically wrong. SAM finds himself almost alone with a single human survivor, Emma. The two must work together to figure out what happened to the Observation and how they can escape. Of course, things aren't quite so simple, and before long, the two must contend with something much bigger than a mechanical problem.

Observation wears its "2001: A Space Odyssey" inspiration on its sleeve. It's not a full retread of the plot, but there are a lot of similarities. A huge portion of the game is dedicated to the slow building of tension and mystery over the station's situation and what caused it. It's difficult to discuss without spoiling things that really make the game work — but I feel it's enough to say that it does work. There's a mystery here, and the eventual resolution is worth the wait, but saying too much can sour the experience.

The real star of the show is Emma, the sole human survivor on the station. Emma is a masterpiece of a companion and brings some much-needed humanity to the game. The character is amazingly voiced acted and has a fair amount of depth. She toes the line between professional and panicked in a way that feels immensely plausible, and that makes it easy to empathize with her. Likewise, her gradual changes and growth make her likeable. By the end of the game, I was fond of the character and did everything in my power to make sure she survived.

It's really an interesting twist. Emma is a human being who's gradually coming to enjoy her relationship with an AI, and of course, in our world, it's the exact opposite. It may not work for everyone, and if you dislike Emma strongly, then Observation won't be the game for you. If you're willing to let go a bit and enjoy the company of a fictional character, it does the job wonderfully.

The core gameplay in Observation is reminiscent of other "observing" games like Five Nights at Freddy's or similar. You're in the role of an AI, so you can't exactly walk around and give high fives. You control the systems in the station and need to figure out how to manipulate them to help Emma and keep her alive. This can involve anything from opening a door when she asks to finding just the right combination of available actions to save her before a fire engulfs her.

You eventually get the ability to move around manually in a tiny pod, but that is the least interesting part of the game. It doesn't feel like it meshes well with the idea of being the omniscient ship's AI, and the controls are awkward enough that it wasn't enjoyable. This was a case where the limitations were more interesting than freedom, and I'd rather the developers have spent more time with the hook of being limited to only what the AI can do as part of the station.

The biggest issue with Observation — and the one most likely to turn off people — is that its puzzles are clothed in plausibility. That means that a lot of the mysteries, especially early on, are solved with what feels like busywork and time wasters. The early pace is slow enough that it's a joy to reach the creamy center of interesting plot bits. It does pick up, but even then, the pace is slow and methodical more often than not, almost to the point it can feel like busywork instead of gameplay.

The other problem is that even when the pace picks up, the puzzle are pretty basic. I feel like more could've been done with the concept. There often feels like little difference between playing as an AI and playing as the unfortunate night watchman in Five Nights at Freddy's, if admittedly with fewer jump-scares. A lot of swapping and clicking is occasionally slowed down by moments when the greatest mystery isn't the puzzle but the interface. When I was most invested in the story is when these segments got the most frustrating, as I wanted to see what came next, not waste time on a meaningless puzzle.

This may sound like Observation isn't fun, but it is. It's just that the moments where it shines are the subtle interactions with Emma and the way those play out. The individual puzzles and any moments where SAM is separated from Emma are probably the moments I enjoyed the least. The feeling of working together with Emma and being responsible for her safety goes a long way toward building up empathy for her and her situation, and there are triumphant moments when you feel like you've done a lot — even if it was actually just a few clicks.

This is helped by the excellent presentation. Observation is a well-designed space station that is grounded and rough, rather than sleek and futuristic. It almost reminds me of "Alien" in how it combines futuristic and outdated tech, although perhaps not quite so extreme. There's a lot of subtle environmental storytelling that fleshes out the world. Emma's voice actress is, as mentioned, top-notch and carries huge chunks of the game on her shoulders, and the overall sound design is excellent. Every little sound or subtle beep carries with it an air of tension.

Observation is an enjoyable experience. It has its flaws, ranging from an awkward UI to tedious puzzles, but they are overshadowed by the excellent plot and atmosphere. It's pretty much a one-and-done experience (aside from a few collectibles), but the game provides a genuinely fun time. If you're a fan of sci-fi drama in the vein of Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, give Observation a shot, but be prepared to work through some rough spots.

Score: 8.0/10

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