Sometimes a game can seemingly pop up out of nowhere and catch your attention straight away, Observation was one of those titles that came through on a lovely press email and suddenly, I saw people talking about it so I had to know more! Who wouldn’t want to play a game set in space where everything seems to have gone wrong? Well… I’m still in a locker in Alien Isolation, but Observation certainly looked to be something I could handle. We were fortunate enough to be provided with a copy of the game and here are my thoughts on Observation.
We begin in a spinning space craft, we don’t know what has happened yet, all we know if that we’re spinning. You play as SAM the ships AI and you have to try and help crew member, Emma Fisher, get the ship in working order and work out what happened. It’s clear something isn’t right and there is something in the ship, or around the ship or in SAM. Either way, SAM has done this and it’s your mission to follow one simple order: Bring Her.
Observation is a game from No Code, published by Devolver Digital, released on PS4 and Steam and offers a tense story of exploration with some puzzle elements in this Lost in Space, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sunshine style story. It’s interesting being the AI in this game as we’re quite used to the first or third person titles these days with the mix of shooting and stealth with the occasional puzzle or three. I found the story itself quite gripping as Emma needs SAM in order to figure out what happened and get the station into a state that means she can find other crew members… but would you entirely trust something that may have done this to you? Either way, as SAM, you’ll try to assist Emma while occasionally encountering a strange Hexagon that springs a call and response style puzzle at you. Is this what took control of SAM? What is it? What does it want? You’ll have to play the game if you want to find that out!
I have to say that I found the overall look of the game quite impressive. Sadly for me the one thing that did spoil things a little was the facial expressions of the characters and the sometimes awkward lip syncing with the dialogue. It was a shame as simple things like Emma’s eyes following SAM while in the sphere would have made a big difference rather than her blankly staring ahead. Other than that though, the details on the station were great. It felt claustrophobic, there were nooks and crannies with personal photos and notes dotted around from the crew, it looked exactly how you would expect the inside of the International Space Station to look so there was no doubt about where your were and it was highly effective for building that sense of isolation. It’s got that clinical look but then there is the chaos of the incident that sees items that have become dislodged and have been strewn throughout the station. Outside of the station, you get the sense of the scale of the crumbling structure and it is very impressive. I felt lost trying to find my way back to the airlock I had come out of as I thought I knew where I was, only to then have realised that I was completely wrong. But there is the other thing that gives you a sense of scale and that thing is Space…. there certainly is a lot of it.
Gameplay wise, being an AI is tricky business and not as easy as moving around as a human. Emma assists in opening up access for SAM to get into the camera feeds around the station which allow you to zoom in to interact with hatches laptops and other electrical systems on the system. Due to the limited power and systems on the station, you’ll have to use the cameras to do a little searching for information as your data files have also been corrupted which has left you a little in the dark. By seeking out schematics, you’ll be able to ‘manually’ override some of the hatches and get some systems back online. Moving cameras could feel a little slow and limiting at times but SAM also has a sphere which allows you to move throughout the station in your own ball which can get you into some spaces which you would otherwise be unable to access. This allows you a little bit of freedom to go about your business and once upgraded, allows for a boost that will give you the option to bump into vent grates giving you a shortcut to another closed off area. I think the menu design is great in this game, not just in how it looks but also how it functions. The look reminds me of the screens in the Alien movies which flicker as you move from screen to screen. The Station layout is made simple but gives you an idea of how to get where you want to go. The Communications screen and Station Alerts screen are pretty self explanatory and then there is your Data screen, which shows you everything you have picked up along the way and also shows the combined data in a colourful manner. It behaves as you would expect an advanced computer system to function… a little slowly at times as you scroll around the data circle piece by piece rather than at speed. While some may not enjoy that, I think it’s great and really adds a lot to your faceless character.
Occasionally I would be a little unsure of what I was supposed to do in order to solve something, I know that is the nature of puzzle games to make you think and work it out for yourself but I did spend half an hour on a puzzle at once stage because I hadn’t found the second half of a piece of paper but the instruction on the menu still just remained the same. As a result of this, I would simply say scan everything, try and get into every laptop and look at or listen to every bit of data to make sure you’re getting as much as possible. I finished the game still missing a good 30 bits of data and wonder whether I would have solved some puzzles a little quicker if I just took more time to check everything. So this may turn a 4-5 hour game into 6 or so hours instead, but you’ll probably end up learning more about the crew and the ominous mission. My least favorite puzzles were relating to the Astrophysics terminal… I may just be an idiot (I’m not great at puzzle games to be fair) but it took forever and a little bit of luck to get the solution I needed to finish it off. Again, I think it’s just a case of scanning everything and you might get lucky but I spent a lot of time on this bit and ended up getting a bit frustrated.
An element that I haven’t touched on much so far is the sound. Now in space, you wouldn’t expect a whole lot of sound but with the creaks, groans, clanging and the underlying score from Nine Inch Nails’ Robin Finck, it creates an incredible atmosphere. The Hexagon comes with its own distorted sounds which can remind you of an uncomfortable frequency change and almost cause you to close your eyes in pain but it works and is very effective. Overall, the sound design is great. The performances by the cast really added to the tension of the story. I suppose it’s tricky to make an AI performance your own but Anthony Howell does a sterling job of holding his own against other ship AIs of movies past. Kezia Burrow’s performance of Emma is highly emotive giving the sense of desperation and panic while also trying to remain calm and focused. It’s a shame the facial expressions mentioned earlier, didn’t carry her great vocal performance because it would have been the cherry on top if it had.
As I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone, all that is left to say is that I did enjoy Observation and now that I have played through and know the puzzle solutions, I am tempted to go back through to find more of the data files I missed and maybe to explore a little bit more because I think I missed a good chunk of stuff. The game is roughly 5-6 hours in length (maybe a bit longer if you’re not that great at puzzles like me) and the story does keep you engaged. I didn’t feel bored and while I may have been a little frustrated on occasions due to the limited instructions or getting myself lost (which in a confined space when you do have a map layout seems strange) because it was oddly disorientating, I don’t feel it was necessarily a fault of the game. I think it’s a well designed game if anything, not just in look but in where you begin and end up so that’s really why I’m eager to play through again because I would have liked to spend more time in the game. If you have an afternoon or evening spare, you’ll have a good time delving into Observation. It’s original, challenging and griping. Another great title published by Devolver Digital and I look forward to seeing what No Code bring to us next!