Space can come across as dark, mysterious, endless, and beautiful all in a few seconds of star gazing. From afar, thinking of what is out there fuels imaginations with endless possibilities, even if the truth could be overwhelming and frightening. Much like the great wide open of space, developer No Code’s Observation can easily take your breath away in its opening moments. Sadly, just as atmosphere and intrigue will manage to grip players around every corner, Observation always finds a way to feel cold and confusing.
Before blasting off into the opening moments of the game, players should know that they will take on the role of SAM. SAM is an artificial intelligence system inhabiting and controlling the inner workings of a space station. Being locked to moving cameras, opening doors, problem solving, and hacking into devices effectively turns Observation into a point-and-click-type game, though this title is selling the game’s uniqueness a bit short. Controlling SAM often serves as a reminder as to what makes the game special, even if movement can be slow at times.
Film-grained visuals are not enough to make up for the game’s annoyingly obtuse nature, though. For every hour of well-paced story progression, players will face 10 to 15 minutes of just trying to figure out where to go and what to do. Sometimes tasks are as simple as finding a piece of paper in a specific room that offers information to unlock a sealed door. Highlights of this point-and-click structure test memory as well as, funnily enough, observational skills. Rewarding moments like these are littered throughout the game, but other times, players will find themselves wanting to skip sections all together. NPCs asking SAM to access specific terminals in a ship with two dozen locations without giving any hint as to where the terminals are located can lead to too much time spent wandering in the dark. Direction and objectives this poorly laid out will often resurface memories from the early era of the PlayStation 2 where game guides were most applicable. One of the game’s mechanics has NPCs restate SAM’s last objective, but its uselessness cannot be understated. Some sort of in-game guide, slightly more detailed instructions, an objective marker, or even a help function could have gone a long way to making Observation easier to navigate.
While something is to be said about appreciating a game that lets players figure out things for themselves, Observation is almost hell bent on making sure players spend at least an hour lost in space.
Observation’s opening moments are not only strong for an indie title, they are strong even when compared to some AAA titles. Alien-inspired, claustrophobic hallways are coupled with the feeling of confusion and isolation. Beautiful graphics can easily be mistaken for real-life video feeds as players first take on the role of Observation’s AI main character.
SAM and a space-suited Emma Fisher are stuck in a damaged space station with no clues and little hope. As a result of a destructive event, the other members of the crew are nowhere to be found, leaving SAM and Fisher to drift into the void. Narrative realizations are sprinkled throughout the campaign to ensure players never stop ask questions about what is happening to the unsuspecting crew.
No Code promises a game and story no different than titles with production values that tower over the budget of Observation. Voice work from both SAM and Fisher’s actors is enthralling and only adds to the game’s captivating opening moments. Then, when Fisher removes her helmet to talk into the player’s camera lens for the first time, the wrinkles start to show.
Because the environments and ambience are woven together so expertly, lack-luster animations and visual glitches do more than stick out, they actively detract from the overall experience. Focusing on Fisher’s instructions can be quite the task when her eyeballs disappear from their sockets and claustrophobia loses its upper hand when walls of the ship blink in and out of existence. Just when the last glitch starts fading from memory, another will rear its ugly head. Even when technical difficulties are not just as haunting as the game’s thriller atmosphere, facial animations can be just off putting enough to draw attention.
Observation is almost a great game. Characters are interesting enough to hold up an often-surprising story, gameplay sweats intensity and is rewarding more often than not, and what No Code has managed to put together in spite of its small budget is tremendous. What stings more than anything is the thought of what could be. The game has a lot of things that need fixing, even if the hiccups are mostly surface level and technical. Observation truly seems to be only a few patches away from cementing itself as a worthwhile experience in the narratively-driven genre of games. Until then, Observation’s shot at the moon left it drifting into space.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.
The Great Perhaps Review — Perhaps Not
Warning: The article contains discussion on the subject of suicide. If you or someone you love is struggling, The International Association for Suicide Prevention provides contact information for help across the world.
One common piece of advice for budding comedians is to never ‘punch down’. The target of a joke should be someone of a higher status or privilege than the joke teller, rather than a person within a marginalised group, such as the poor, the disabled, or the mentally ill. While this is not a hard and fast rule to comedy success, with shows like South Park using shocking moments to illuminate larger problems within society, without a deft hand, punching down comes across as cruel or offensive. The Great Perhaps, the first title by developer Caligari Games, makes an off-colour joke about suicide in the first five minutes of the game, setting a confused tone for the rest of its three-hour playtime. While this puzzle platformer shows some potential with solid puzzle design and great art direction, its terrible writing taints the entire experience.
The initial foot-in-the-mouth moment happens in the game’s animated prologue. Kosmos is an astronaut in a space station orbiting the earth. During a typical day, his communications with Earth are suddenly cut off, and he sees black smoke spreading across the globe. The station automatically puts him into cryogenic sleep, with instructions to wake him when returning to the surface is safe. Upon awakening, he discovers that over 100 years have passed. Kosmos is in despair, realising that everyone he ever knew or loved is dead, including his wife and children. He asks the ship’s A.I., L9, to vent all the oxygen in the ship, ending his life. She refuses, saying that the task is illogical. He asks again. She tells him to ‘nut up’ and to go explore the Earth. Kosmos reacts in astonishment, not at her cruel words, but at the fact she has developed a sense of humour. Magically cured of his suicidal ideation by her sassy insults, the pair decide to go explore the Earth and see if anyone survived the apocalypse.
Those whose lives have not been touched by suicide may find difficulty understanding why this moment is so offensive. This ‘nut up’ attitude stems from this belief that those suffering are not trying hard enough to get better—that one can just think themselves happy. Men especially suffer due to social pressure on them to not express their feelings, resulting in a suicide rate three times higher than women. Telling a suicidal person to ‘nut up’ would make them more likely to go through with their plans, not laugh. Real treatment takes a lot of hard work with support from both loved ones and mental health professionals.
This monumental lack of understanding permeates the game, although thankfully not as egregiously as the initial example. The flat intonation of Kosmos’s narration initially seems inspired, a man who has stepped back from the precipice of self harm but is still deeply troubled. However, the content of the writing actually shows that he is really cured, despite the monotony of his voice. About half an hour into the journey, he and L9 encounter a man about to jump off a roof, upset that no one likes his writing. He invites Kosmos to jump with him, but Kosmos proclaims he has ‘better things to do’. A callous attitude for a man who, within the last day or so, was in the same position. He manages to help the man by showing that his book will be successful in the future, handily sidestepping any real understanding of how to defuse such a situation. One does not need to be an expert on mental illness to write about the subject, but a modicum of research, understanding, or respect would have gone a long way. The Great Perhaps seems uncertain if it wants to be mysterious or funny. One moment, Kosmos will be lamenting the downfall of humanity; the next, he is riding an ostrich. L9 switches between making jokes and acting like a cold machine. The game is disjointed and lacks the emotional weight to support the story it is trying to tell.
The gameplay of The Great Perhaps fares better than the writing. A two-dimensional sidescroller with light puzzling, akin to Inside or Limbo, the game’s unique hook is the lantern Kosmos finds that lets him briefly travel back in time. The lantern button can be pressed for a glimpse of the past world, then held down to travel into the past for 20 seconds. For the most part, this mechanic works well, using the lantern to get around locked doors, bring objects between the past and the present, travel down a metro tunnel without getting hit by a train, or eaten by mutant rats. However, in some instances, the mechanic can be fiddly. The transition between worlds is fairly slow, so for sections where one has to swap to avoid a danger, the sluggish transition is frustrating. L9 will warn the player of a danger, but she usually warns too late for the player to perform the switch and save themselves. If this shifting function was on a toggle, rather than button press to turn the lantern on then press and hold down the button again to switch worlds, a lot of frustration could be mitigated. The time in the past would also benefit from being a bit longer. Throughout the campaign, several pipe dream-type puzzles appear in the past world, with the player needing to rotate tiles to form a continuous line from point A to point B. Getting kicked out of the puzzle every 20 seconds because of the time change was annoying.
Kosmos has some finicky movement, which is not a problem during the standard object puzzles, but is an issue in the handful of chase sequences dotted through the game. One section is set in a tight apartment building that requires him to push a cart, climb on it, jump to a ladder, jump across the gap, throw rocks to knock down the next ladder, scramble up, and run up two sets of stairs before reaching freedom. An already tricky sequence is made worse by Kosmos constantly getting stuck on objects. The enemy is close behind him for the whole sequence, so the sequence has little room for error. A bit more space between Kosmos and the monster would allow for collision-based delays.
Along with an autosave, The Great Perhaps has a chapter-based system as well. This system can be helpful if the player finds themselves in a soft-lock situation, which happened once during the review playthrough. In one section of the game, Kosmos needs to prevent a bank robbery in the past. A vital object—a large stick of dynamite—managed to phase through the floor and out of existence, making progress impossible. The autosave occurred after the dynamite escaped the confines of the world, so the only option was to load from a chapter. Thankfully, this chapter system was in place, otherwise the whole game would have needed to be started over. Perhaps a ‘reset screen’ option in the pause menu could be a helpful addition to prevent this problem in the future.
The world of The Great Perhaps has a pretty, cartoon aesthetic, with the transition between the past and the present showing a stark difference in how the place has aged. Lots of menacing creatures have emerged since the fall of mankind, with two-headed rats, giant mole-like beasts, an enormous octopus, and a creepy shadowy humanoid all doing their best to bring Kosmos down. Music is similarly well crafted, with a particular highlight being the escape sequence in a collapsing underground city. Kosmos has to assemble a giant robot to escape, and with each piece he completes, the music increases in tempo and adds more instruments to the mix. On the planet’s surface, the music invokes a sad, lonely atmosphere, trying to insert the emotion this game sorely needs.
So much potential is wasted in The Great Perhaps. Puzzle design is solid throughout, but hampered with finicky controls. Art direction is outstanding, but the story that the game is trying to support flounders between ‘funny’ and serious, and is full of clichés. Offensive content notwithstanding, The Great Perhaps is a very run-of-the-mill time travel story delivered in a monotonous tone. Many adjectives could be used to describe this game, but ‘Great’ is certainly not among them.
Reviewed on PC. Also available on Linux and macOS.
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