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Review

Observation Review — Lost in Space

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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

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.

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

Reviewed on PlayStation 4.

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Review

The Sinking City Review — Sanity is Optional

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Video games based on tabletop games seem to be in vogue at the moment. With Vampire: the Masquerade — Bloodlines 2 and the announcement of Baldur’s Gate III generating a lot of hype, the time seems to be right for The Sinking City, an atmospheric horror-themed investigation game. Based on the lesser known Call of Cthulhu board game, The Sinking City sees the player taking the role of Charles W. Reed, a private investigator and veteran of the First World War as he travels to the fictional town of Oakmont, Massachusetts to seek reasons why he is plagued by horrific visions. Reed quickly discovers that the citizens of Oakmont are also troubled by the same visions, as well as other threats of a sinister and supernatural nature.

The game is set in the 1920s and unashamedly embraces the hard-boiled themes of that era of fiction while blending in a strong dose of creeping, Lovecratian horror. The city of Oakmont absolutely drips with ambience, from the murky lighting to the semi-constant rainfall and the looming, old-fashioned New England architecture. The graphics are extremely impressive, and the animation is very fluid. Even the horrific monsters are fascinating to look at. Getting caught up in the many mysteries lurking about the beautifully well-realised town leads to quick and easy immersion.

The town itself is half-inundated after an otherworldly event known only as The Flood. This means that many of the streets need to be traversed by boat. Doing so can be a little awkward at tight corners, of which there are many, but the other option is swimming in waters infested with any number of nasty things, so taking the time to learn how to steer is worth the extra effort.

At times, the player may need to don an old-fashioned diving suit and take a trip underwater. These are some of the most unsettling sequences in the game, as the ambient sounds, underwater lighting effects, and the shadows of things twitching just beyond the edge of vision give a profound sense of claustrophobia and helplessness as the player lumbers slowly towards the destination.

The main gameplay elements recall other investigation or detective games, such as L.A. Noire or developer Frogwares previous work on the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series. The developer has used that experience to good effect, as the outcome of the quests depends on how well the player has managed to pick up on various clues hidden in the crime scene and evidence. The developer has said the goal in each investigation can be reached in multiple ways, so if the player gets stuck at any point, they have the freedom to move on to a different quest. Sometimes, evidence for the problem quest will pop up, or the player will have a sudden epiphany on what to do next.

The visions experienced by the protagonist have a gameplay application as well, as Reed can use his visions and investigative powers to reconstruct crime scenes and gain insights into the events. However, doing so costs Sanity. Some disturbing scenes or monster encounters can also drastically cut the player’s Sanity, and this, in turn, can affect perception of the environment, causing the player to overlook or completely misinterpret what actually happened. Total Sanity loss is fatal, as the protagonist descends into suicidal insanity.

In addition to conserving Sanity, players need to also conserve ammunition. Though encounters with supernatural creatures often involve the need to unload a gun into them, bullets are also used as currency in Oakmont, as bullets are more valuable than gold in the nightmare-infested town,. The player can barter for useful tools or weapons, but will need to remember to keep some bullets aside for those inevitable run-ins with tentacled horrors.

The result is a balancing act with the player trying to conserve Sanity and ammunition while delving into the secrets hidden within the town. The Sinking City has many layers, with much to be unravelled in the dark, dripping streets.

The Sinking City

The setting is well-served by the music, which is mostly subdued and ambient, serving the mood well. Of particular note is the voice acting, which is great, particularly on the part of the protagonist. Reed’s voice actor does an excellent job of portraying his various moods, giving a convincing performance of a troubled, world-weary war veteran.

The Sinking City is one of the best Lovecraft-inspired games available and, despite some slightly awkward controls in places, the game is brilliantly crafted. Fans of horror will love its atmosphere and those who enjoy investigative games will quickly become absorbed in the depth offered by the gameplay. Those who loved L.A. Noire or Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, and players of the tabletop game, should definitely give thought to picking this title up.

OnlySP Review Score 4 Distinction

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

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