Ever since Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey hit theaters, we have seen countless science-fiction stories run with the idea of a malevolent AI terrorizing humans. However, Observation from publisher Devolver Digital flips that idea on its head. In this game, the AI is the hero and the player character, who does its best to assist the humans living on a space station as they clash with each other and perhaps something even worse.
Despite this twist on a classic sci-fi trope, Observation's story can't help but be derivative of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. This includes having a story that some members of the audience will find downright nonsensical, whereas others will enjoy sharing theories with one another about what the plot is really about. Observation doesn't hold the player's hand with its story, but in order to preserve its surprises, we can't really talk much more about what the game is about beyond an AI working with humans on a space station.
Some will find it confusing, but Observation's story is still its strong suit. There are a few very memorable story beats in particular that will send a chill down players' spines, and it would be a shame to spoil any of them here. We will say that Observation is a genuinely terrifying game, and it accomplishes this without resorting to jump scares or cheap tricks. It's eerie, it's unsettling, and it will stick with the player long after the credits roll.
Observation developer NoCode is comprised of people who worked on the sci-fi horror hit Alien: Isolation, so it's no surprise that the game's scares are so effective. The story itself offers plenty that will make players uneasy, but the graphics and sound also go a long way in creating a truly creepy atmosphere.
The space station isn't romanticized or made out to be some sort of futuristic spacecraft. It feels like it could exist in our world, which makes it all the scarier. The space station mostly consists of cramped tunnels, not unlike the real world International Space Station, and these dimly lit corridors will leave players feeling claustrophobic. The music is subtle, but used effectively at the right time to invoke a sense of dread as players observe the space station through various cameras and robot-like spheres that they can manually control.
And that's where Observation ultimately fails. The game is scary, and its presentation is fantastic, but it is miserable to play. It has some survival-horror style puzzles that are sometimes fun to solve, but moving the sphere through the space station feels like trying to do cartwheels drunk. The camera tends to sway in a motion that made us feel sick during extended play sessions, and thanks to the space station's gravity (everything is floating for most of the game), it is hard to tell what's up or down. We often felt disoriented, and while one could argue that adds to the game's realism, it also makes it frustrating.
Something else that makes Observation an unpleasant experience from a gameplay perspective is that it's not always clear what needs to be done to continue the story. This leads to mindless roaming through the space station, or fiddling with mini-games that aren't quite clear how to complete and are usually not very interesting. It's also not uncommon to encounter an object like a laptop or some kind of interface that will say it can be interacted with, but the button to do so is completely unresponsive with no explanation as to why. Players will learn that they need to do something else first and then whatever it is will suddenly start working properly, as Observation seems to want players to do things in a strict order for the most part.
We also ran into a pretty significant game-breaking bug during our time with the game that we imagine will lead to people just giving up on Observation instead of seeing it through to completion. We had apparently done things in an order the game didn't like, which triggered a story event that then made it impossible for us to interact with a computer that would enable us to continue playing. Of course, we didn't know this until we reloaded a save, and so we spent literal hours hopelessly looking over every inch of the area to figure out what we were doing wrong.
We didn't encounter any other significant technical issues like this when we were playing Observation, but in a game all about puzzle solving, a bug like this can be rather devastating. After encountering it, whenever we would get stuck, we genuinely didn't know if it was due to another bug or us just not figuring out what to do next.
Observation has the visuals, atmosphere, and story that would put it in the conversation of the best horror games of 2019, but the nausea-inducing camera, uninspired puzzles, and frequent lack of clear direction ruin it. It's a shame, too, because Sony clearly had confidence in the game and even featured Observation in its first State of Play stream. Sadly, it appears as though that confidence was misplaced. Hopefully NoCode's next game is able to deliver compelling gameplay to back up the rest of the experience.
Observation launches on May 21 for PC and PS4. Game Rant was provided with a PS4 code for this review.