Last year's head-turning Layers of Fear was a dark and twisted evening's entertainment. For Polish developer Bloober Team it was a start. Observer, a retro-futuristic game about mind-hacking, is what comes next. It takes what Layers of Fear began and cranks it all the way up. All that warped weirdness? It's back in abundance. All that tense, oozing atmosphere? It's everywhere you walk. But Observer is longer, richer and fuller than its predecessor - and it's a real stunner.
Imagine 2084 as seen through the eyes of someone living in the 1980s. That's Observer. Real, replicated buildings from Krakow, Poland, crumble - their walls coated in muck and murals. But the holes and degradation are digitally papered over by holographic projections, as if an architect's blueprints were superimposed on top, projecting pristine exteriors that aren't really there. It's a destroyed future clinging onto a holographic lie.
It's into this gorgeous grime you wake. Screens with bulky backsides flicker to life as a government handler contacts you, checking in. You're voiced brilliantly by an apparently well known actor who I can't place - or reveal even if I could. His gravelly tones and clenched-jaw dramatics suit the tone perfectly.
Mind-hacking has taken its toll on your character. You're a guy who appears to have little going for him, a guy wedded to his work, a guy who sleeps in his car and you have to chug pills just to keep you on the right side of sanity. In other words, you're a detective about as classically drawn as they come.
I'd gotten the wrong impression of Observer. Videos showed it being outright weird, the inexplicable occurring relentlessly, every few seconds. But what I was seeing was a mind hack: the inside of someone else's consciousness, chopping and changing as it sifted through a lifetime of imagery, thoughts and feelings. Of course it was weird. But mind-hacks are flare-bright moments supported by something more plodding underneath: a detective story about poking about, talking to people, looking for clues.
It slows you down, and helps you appreciate the detail around you. This isn't a Rubik's Cube of a game but it does make you stop and think. Simple little things like there being no location markers mean when you arrive at the beaten down apartment block - little Soviet retro-future robots scuttling around, and propaganda adorning walls - you have to probe a half-cyborg janitor for clues about where to head. His rolled up, baggy skin reveals a robotic forearm, and the rubbery flesh on half of his head appears to be stapled on - and sagging.
When there aren't people, you comb scenes for clues yourself. You have two scanner filters you can use - biological and electrical - to uncover things of interest around you and analyse them. Things like checking bloodstains against your database for a possible IDs, scanning to corpses to figure out causes of death, or examining mechanical workings to manipulate machinery. Puzzles are mixed into this - simple puzzles like door codes, but they're enough to maintain the ponderous kind of pace.
It's from that steady foundation the mind-hacks leap out. They are the moments when you plug into another person's brain and wade through their memory. I only saw one but it was all the stronger for me having nosed around the apartment block before - before I witnessed it through another person's mind. My expectations of my surroundings were toyed with, shaken around. Was there a door here before? Am I going in circles? What was that?
Glitches in people's minds produce startlingly unexpected moments too: a bird suddenly hitting a window; a figure suddenly lumbering by. Things change, the world rearranges on the fly and you're never sure what to expect. It's freaky and weird; mind-hacks are where Observer runs wild.Why does VR give some people motion sickness? Why it happens and how to avoid it.
It all adds up to a game with real promise. Bloober shows assured poise in Observer, a confidence both in the pacing underpinning the game and the eccentricity erupting from it. There's also a unique charm in the game being set in retro-future-Krakow, and an authenticity owing to the studio being located there.
Layers of Fear was an experiment for Bloober but Observer is a declaration. This is the kind of insidious horror the 20-person studio wants to make from here on out - indeed it's already preparing what comes next. But how bright that future shines remains to be seen. Will Observer be all style and no substance? I doubt it, but we won't have long to find out: Observer is due on PC, PS4 and Xbox One this summer.