I finished Observation from developer No Code a few hours ago. I debated sitting on this review for a day or two just to think about the journey and the ending before trying to say everything I wanted to about this stellar work of science fiction. We’ve been blessed with some great narrative driven games this month, Layers of Fear 2, A Plague Tale: Innocence, and now Observation are all story driven titles that fit into their own unique box.
The reason I debated sitting on this review for a couple of days is because of the tightly woven narrative, and how open to interpretation the ending is. Observation opens up on the space station of the same name. Dr. Emma Fisher finds herself suddenly alone on the space station, save for the helpful AI SAM (systems and maintenance).
Immediately, Observation feels very claustrophobic and the atmosphere is perfectly fitted to the narrative. Players undertake the entire game through the eyes of SAM, which means there isn’t any walking around the space station. Instead, players will examine portions of each module of the spaceship through the eyes of cameras stationed in each area.
SAM interacts with laptops and hatch controls to progress the story and help Emma explore the Observation. Instead of just pressing a button, players are tasked with solving puzzles and inputting codes in the correct order. It’s a smart way of having an AI that isn’t a physical presence in the world interact with environmental objects.
As SAM helps get various systems back online, it becomes clear that an alien presence of some kind is at the heart of this mystery. Hell, even after I’ve finished the game I have no clue exactly what kind of presence it really is, as it feels more conceptual than anything. I’m a huge science fiction fan, and Observation draws from many familiar films without ever delving into too many sci-fi tropes.
The main narrative of the game takes place over just a few hours of time aboard the Observation, but the real treat is getting to discover how and why what is going on in the empty void of space through text and voice logs. The mystery aboard the ship moves quickly, but is interlaced with brief moments of an unnerving calmness that becomes reminiscent of the Alien franchise. These moments are best spent exploring the ship through a connection sphere.
SAM is able to take possession of connection spheres to move around a bit more freely in zero gravity. Unfortunately, these are often the most annoying portions of gameplay. Movements while controlling these spheres are rather clunky, and it often devolves into spinning and readjusting just to take a corner properly. Controlling the spheres does give players the best opportunity to find audio logs and text files though, which quickly became one of my favorite things about Observation.
I generally don’t dig deep in games to find text logs and backstories because I don’t find them nearly as interesting as the main narrative. Here though, Observation manages to intertwine them so masterfully with the story that I became compelled to find as many as I could. Even some of the logs require puzzle solving to access, so it wasn’t just a simple task of finding them.
While I wouldn’t say many of the puzzles are innovative, I did find that each puzzle fit naturally for what was going on in the world. Some locked hatches required initial schematics that must be found in the world, and others required quick player input. A couple of puzzles were overly frustrating, like one in the astrophysics lab that required me to perform an action that I hadn’t had to do during a puzzle before in order to complete. After spending an hour trying to solve it I ended up watching a video. Even after watching the video I still missed the input and spent another thirty minute messing around in game trying to figure it out until I stumbled across it.
There were a few frustrating moments that basically ground the pace to a halt. Other than that puzzle, there are a few times where SAM possesses a connection sphere and has to go outside the space station to solve a few other puzzles. The spaceship is so big that it took a while to find the exact spot I needed to go, and I was dreading have to do another spacewalk.
The musical score and audio throughout the journey is top notch, and really helps nail the sense of atmosphere and dread. Heavy synth punches home the more over the top sci-fi elements, while more tender quiet moments of realization complement. On top of the great audio, the main pair of characters (SAM and Emma) have great chemistry, despite one of the two being an AI. Emma relies on SAM, which is highlighted by Emma constantly asking “SAM, are you there?” The isolation really helps highlight the “relationship” between the two characters. Without anyone else aboard, who does Emma really have?
Visually, Observation really nails it as well. Since most of the game takes place through the view of cameras, slight bursts of static pervade players’ view. Bumping into any object while controlling a connection sphere creates distortion in the image, and the outside image of space is vast and empty (save one giant sphere).
It may seem like I’m showering Observation with praise, but that’s because it is well deserved. The atmosphere, the audio, the narrative, the characters, and the intensity of the gameplay all feel like they could come from any AAA studio. The story slowly builds with an incredible amount of tension until it comes to a head with an incredibly punchy, conceptual ending that kept going even after I thought it would end. Even though almost all of the gameplay is puzzle-based, play this game. I can’t stress enough how good this game really is, even with the touchy and clunky movement.
Observation is available now for PlayStation 4 and PC through the Epic Games Store. This review is based on a PS4 copy of the game provided by the publisher.