The cyberpunk genre is alive and well on the Nintendo Switch with the glorious new port of >observer_, a narrative-focused first-person adventure game starring Rutger Hauer. The game features sci-fi crime scene exploration, wild tech concepts, futuristic body horror, and a well-crafted hard-boiled tale in a meticulously designed, highly atmospheric environment that performs surprisingly well on Nintendo’s flagship console.
>observer_ originally hit Steam back in 2017, and the Switch might seem like something of a strange route, considering the fact that first-person games with graphics of this caliber are a relative rarity on Nintendo’s burgeoning eShop. For anyone who doesn’t currently have an SD card committed to their console, expect to perform some time in the data management menu — the digital download of the game rests at a mighty 18+ gigabytes, though your first brush with the quality of its presentation should quickly justify its size. Virtually every environment is chock full of gritty, high-tech-by-way-of-the-1980s set dressing, with animated crawls of buzzing neon worming through hallway moldings, cranky hard drives blinking in the haze, and twisting mechanical armatures struggling under the weight of gleaming metal, all juxtaposed against the contemporary furniture and stained flotsam we’re familiar with today.
It’s an impressive demonstration, which (thanks to its requisite graphical downgrade) looks even more appealing out of docked mode and sitting on your lap. Still, >observer_ isn’t content with being merely attractive, and features a decidedly mature story of cybernetic augmentation, serial killing and, obviously, futuristic police work. You play as titular Observer Daniel Lazarski, a type of newfangled peacekeeper and investigator voiced by cult-favorite genre actor Rutger Hauer, whose iconic turn as Roy Batty in the original Blade Runner makes his casting here catnip for the fans. Hauer’s constant internal monologue and frequent dialogue means the actor’s voice is omnipresent throughout, and he most definitely earned his paycheck.
Now, it would be inaccurate to consider his performance perfect, and while there’s a certain strangeness and affected off-kilter nuance to it, it’s by no means clumsy or effortless, which can be sadly common with named celebs in games. After about an hour of play, during which time a surprising amount of flavor text and world-building information emerges, Hauer’s gravelly delivery ends up feeling more and more like a deliberately chosen component of the melodramatic intentions of the game. The voice acting for the other characters is generally well above average as well, and the mature (but not over-the-top) language content imparts the feel of a deadly, complicated world that is yet filled with compassionate human beings. Lazarski’s characterization in particular eventually manages to hit that ideal noir tone, of someone tough but beaten down, sensitive but focused, with dialogue choices in the game ingratiating you to his careful gentleness with the public he serves.
The story is a passionately-penned but familiar cyberpunk yarn that ticks a lot of boxes: evil corporations, VR, brain-hacking, cybernetic augmentations, and even a society-shifting tech-related disease, the Nanophage. For fans of the genre, everything in the preceding sentence probably just pushed >observer_ into insta-buy status already, and they’d be right to get excited, but it’s not just comfort food; it’s a quality product designed with care.
While >observer_ is by no means an action game, there are a few real-time elements that give it more immediacy and stress than a casually patient point-and-click adventure waiting for player input. Yes, it joins that rich and storied adventure game tradition which features the risk of seeing a “game over” screen, usually related to the brain-hacking events. At numerous points in the story, Lazarski will have to hack into another person, which leads players through a hallucinogenic nightmare pulled straight out of a horror game (which is unsurprising, given developer Bloober Team’s past work on 2016’s psych-horror adventure Layers of Fear, also previously ported to the Switch). Like certain other aspects of the game, the “Dream Eater” brain-hacking is not necessarily the most novel inclusion on its own, but these lengthy exploratory/puzzle scenarios serve to mix up the pace, and interpreting their surreal imagery adds another way to interpret plot events and character motivations.
It helps that the control scheme for >observer_ is fairly fluid, with the analog FPS controls feeling smooth and intuitive. Lazarski uses three different visual scans to inspect crime scenes and other areas for clues, similar in certain ways to “detective mode” in the Arkham games. Opening doors and cabinets by holding ZR and moving the analog stick is a really effective, even immersive way to interact with elements in the environment, and clicking the left stick activates sprinting as well. Other games sometimes pad out their length making the main character sluggish, but even simply moving around in >observer_ has a pleasant and tactile quality, and inspecting a new crime scene always has a nice fresh feel to it, as you look for secrets and toss open closet doors.
The entirety of the game can be completed in approximately 10 hours, especially if players seek out its side content, speak to every available character, and read all the computer console entries. The story is strong enough that a walkthrough doesn’t feel like it ruins it, so gamers who love the overall aesthetic (and cyberpunk fiction in general) but aren’t big fans of the adventure game genre might still find themselves enjoying the game through to the end.
While the complete range of puzzles aren’t necessarily the best to be found in an adventure game (many of them amount to hidden-item searches), most other aspects of >observer_ fulfill the very high standard that has earned it its rightful praise on Steam. Having access to it on the Switch does add a certain novelty, and its deliberately glitchy visual aesthetic is engrossing. There are certain people who may find the messy cyberpunk designs headache-inducing, but this is a smart, thoughtful narrative in a cyberpunk noir genre that is frequently attempted, but rarely done this well, and would be an absolute godsend on a cross-country flight.
>observer_ is out now for the Nintendo Switch. A digital copy was provided to Screen Rant for purposes of review.