Observation Review

Dean Abdou

Back in 2016, The Turing Test, a sci-fi puzzle game, hit consoles. It was a title that essentially let people see what it’d be like if you were HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Since then we’ve not really had anything akin to this, until now, thanks to No Code’s Observation (first released for PlayStation 4 and PC in 2019). But this time it’s more of a ‘what if?’ scenario where, instead of a station’s AI going rogue, it’s the only thing that can save the crew of the eponymous space station.

Observation is a puzzle-based sci-fi horror thriller (say that fast three times) in which you take on the role of the station’s onboard AI system, S.A.M., and are tasked with helping Dr. Emma Fisher figure out what happened to the station and its crew. Playing as the station’s AI means you have no legs to actually walk around and explore. Consequently, the game has you controlling the station's camera system to navigate your way around the facility, and see what’s happening in each section. Doing this is simply a case of opening up S.A.M’s main system menu to access the station map and see which cameras are available for you to jack in to.

A little further into the game, you’ll eventually gain the ability to use a sphere - essentially a drone camera that can float around and access hard to reach areas, as well as being able to explore the exterior regions of the station. For the most part, using the station's cameras to navigate and solve puzzles is pretty fun; the only times it tends to get annoying is when you’re controlling the sphere. While using the stationary cameras is super straightforward, taking control of the sphere cam is not, and as such it’s probably one of the biggest pains you’ll experience during the game.

With that said, the majority of Observation is pretty intuitive when it comes to S.A.M.’s main operating system. This is basically the central hub for all your skills and abilities - you’ll find yourself accessing this pretty frequently as you progress through the story. On top of being your main locus for traversal, it’s also your access point to communicate with the rest of the crew, go back over documents you’ve found aboard the station, access upgrades and other skills etc. A lot of how this works you'll learn within the first hour of the game, with Dr. Fisher guiding you, essentially acting as the in-game tutorial as she slowly reboots your system, so that it’s back up and running. This is a really nice little touch that keeps you immersed in the game’s story.

When you solve a puzzle, every now and then you’ll have to report back to either Emma or someone else to let them know what’s cracking. It’s not all that common in a puzzle game that you’re prompted to report back to certain NPCs, but Observation truly puts you in the digital shoes of an AI system. The puzzles mostly come in the form of station alerts, which again can be found in S.A.M’s main operating system. Whenever a new alert comes up, you’re instructed to go solve the issue and then respond to Emma. Observation doesn’t ever hold your hand when it comes to solving puzzles. If you’ve forgotten what to do, then you can ask Emma to repeat her last statement, but you’re absolutely on your own otherwise.

As for the tasks you’re presented with, these succeed in providing varied challenges throughout the game, which proves to be a joy. You feel like you’re progressing, rather than merely repeating a pattern again and again. The only recurring puzzle is the system for hacking the doors around the station. Every other puzzle is unique, utilising a different system within the ship, ranging from operating its communications array to re-activating the coolant system. The enjoyment mainly comes from feeling like you’re an all-seeing, omnipotent presence, navigating the backend of the system to rectify issues as they crop up.

But what really makes the game so atmospheric is its superlative sound design. Not only is the soundtrack brilliant, making you feel like you’re experiencing a cinematic story, but the audio for accessing the system or just floating around as a sphere in zero gravity is fantastic. Even when decompressing the airlock to reach the exterior sections of the ship, the sound drowns out, leaving you enveloped within the eerie silence of space. The sound design is so well executed that it seamlessly blends with what’s happening in Observation - there’s never a moment where it feels over the top or a moment where you think it’s lacking. And when it comes to horror, this is exactly what you want in order to fully immerse you within a game world.

The only thing that brings Observation down is its graphics. When it comes to cut-scenes, there’s quite a bit of screen tearing on show, and beyond that there are moments where the game glitches out, causing some visual distortion. Despite this, there isn’t a moment where it ruins the pacing of the story; once you’re immersed, you’ll be immersed all the way through to the end.

Inhabiting S.A.M. proves to be a unique experience, and makes Observation’s narrative a captivating journey. You play a character that is devoid of emotion and feeling, and while there are characters in many other games like this, S.A.M’s journey really is something else. You’ll feel compelled to behave just as an AI would and obey what you’re being told, but at the same time grapple with the idea of what’s the right thing to do and what’s not. The further you progress through the story to solve the mysteries surrounding the titular vessel, the more you’ll find yourself being sucked into its near-future sci-fi world.

Observation is without a doubt not only one of the best sci-fi horror puzzlers I’ve played this year, but it’s also possibly the most unique puzzle game I’ve enjoyed in recent years. Despite the visual shortcomings such as the screen tearing during cutscenes, the quality of the game mechanics, the sound design and its stellar narrative pull Observation through. Developer No Code has delivered an outstanding game that’ll leave you craving more.
 

Observation

Observation is without a doubt one of the best puzzle games of the year. You’ll be instantly drawn into the story within the first few moments of being S.A.M. and become completely enraptured.

Form widget
80%
Audio
85%

The audio really is sensational, delivering an immersive cinematic atmosphere and truly making you feel like you’re there, drifting through space.

Visuals
65%

When it’s not glitching out or screen tearing like mad during the cutscenes, the visuals can be pretty nice to look at, especially when you traverse the exterior of the station to view The Observation in full.

Playability
85%

Despite the controls for the sphere being an absolute pain to control, it’s actually very easy to understand S.A.M.’s system and how you can navigate the entire station with it. After the first hour of learning it, you’ll quickly be whizzing round like an AI god.

Delivery
75%

Even though the story of Observation is short and sweet, it’s easy to find yourself wanting to return to it for another playthrough to see if there’s anything else you might’ve missed. The story is crazy alluring and being S.A.M. is just a lot of fun.

Achievements
40%

Sadly, the achievements are extremely lacklustre and incredibly basic. You’ll unlock an achievement for completing each chapter of the game, but then you have a couple of optional ones, which aren’t all that hard to do.

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