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.