Yes it’s on Game Pass, Yes the game has been out since November 2019 and Yes it is still worth writing about.
There is always a special place in my heart for shorter games. There will always be huge epics that take an age to finish or JRPGs with so many chapters it makes your head spin, but there is something very special about the refined shorter experience. I’m not saying all games need to be shorter mind, it’s that delicate balancing act for a game being prepared to only be as long as necessary. Not the game that just cuts short when the going gets good (like The Order: 1886) or a game that pads itself with fluff but an experience that takes 2 sittings and is like nothing else. The video game equivalent of sitting down to a 3 hour film instead of watching a box set. Wearing its 2001: A Space Odyssey inspirations on its arm, Observation deserves its praise but the Xbox port does need a few caveats. Time to blast off into space and see why it’s worth a spin!
What is Observation then? Despite appearing at a glance like a sci-fi themed Night Trap / Five Nights at Freddy’s, Observation is more about light puzzle solving and following the story of astronaut Emma Fisher. Events on space station Observation go from strange to bad to warped and you’re taken along for the ride. You switch around fixed cameras and zoom in to control laptops, switches, door locks and equipment. Once you unlock the sphere you will be able to float around the station and space with relative ease but there’s no fail state, puzzles reset when failed. You’ll never be hand held through each task or puzzle but the ability to check what you’re supposed to be doing at any time helps you get a grip on how to progress. Everything in the games design is there to help you progress through the story and that’s really where its strength shines.
Visually Observation is stunning. There are numerous little video filters and effects to give the feeling that you are seeing the game through the lens of a camera and it does help soften the uncanny valley faces of its cast. Surprisingly unlike other games set in space this game didn’t result in large amounts of motion sickness, which is great given how much tilting and swaying occurs. Everything in Observation is stunning and fits either the space aesthetic or the strangeness the story is dealing with (the most I can explain without spoiler details) The subtitles are easy to read, the prompts are great and everything has either a clean sci-fi edge or a fuzzy horror aesthetic that clicks really nicely. I’m a big fan of the interface designs throughout the game and the ‘computer from Alien’ vibe it gives really is a treat.
The similarities to sci-fi classics don’t stop with the visuals though, if you’ve seen Sunshine, Event Horizon, Alien or any decent space thriller you’ll know what to expect from the audio. Observation has some amazing sound work and voice acting that drives the narrative beat by beat. It’s incredible that you can have incredibly powerful moments of near-silence followed by loud uncomfortable interruptions and they all flow together to create this experience that really does have the emotions to back up the story they’re trying to tell. The acting is staggering in places and the change in tone to give away little clues to the emotion and thinking going on is superb. You can feel the tension when things ramp up and there was one moment where I could tell what was likely to happen next just from the tone of a passing conversation. Definitely not the norm.
This all sounds amazing, so what’s the catch? Where’s the caveats? Unfortunately Observation has a few technical hiccups. On the Xbox One X version I played there were 2 moments where everything locked up and I had to reset the Xbox to progress. Thankfully the auto-save had caught everything I had done before but it didn’t seem to occur for any one particular reason. There was also a long scene where the camera was carried through the surroundings and continually glitched through it. When outside of the station Observation has moments of exploration but it can be awkward to find what it is you’re looking for while whizzing around. When you get the ability to boost there can be moments of bouncing around walls waiting for the inertia to wear off but for the most part everything controls fine. Observation ran well enough and it was smooth sailing, it’s just worth noting that it’s almost a year since release and crashes can happen.
Caveats aside Observation blew me away. I was not expecting the ending to go where it went, there were fantastically written moments and the story was incredible. The fact that despite the game crashing, I couldn’t wait to jump back in and see how it progressed should tell you everything about how good it gets. From the smart design choices to the commitment to the aesthetic throughout, everything in Observation is polished and put together in such a way that you will blitz through the puzzles to see how things progress and enjoy every moment. All through the experience there’s a feeling that you could influence and change the story as it progresses and it still delivers regardless. You always know you’re playing something special when you want to write down little notes to keep you a step ahead (rather than forced to) This is the next level in story telling in video games and I can’t wait to see what the developer No Code will make next.
8/10 – Observing a new way in story telling
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