Observation | game review
Who is watching who?
Game summary: A sci-fi thriller uncovering what happened to Dr. Emma Fisher, and the crew of her mission, through the lens of the station's artificial intelligence S.A.M. (IMDb)
Observation is a game that I really wanted to like, because I love art style, the music and sound design, the story is fantastic and I really like characters too. For the most part, all of these things combine pretty well with what is ultimately a fairly simple control scheme too, which makes it all the more frustrating that there are so many annoying issues meaning it all ends up less than the sum of its parts.
You play as an AI helping Emma Fisher figure exactly what's happened to them, the space station they're on and their crewmates, but there are certain moments which feel overly restrictive in how you proceed. I get that this is a linear game with a set story to tell and allowing the player even a little bit of choice in how to proceed could complicate things massively, but some design choices feel very odd.
At one point, you are able to transfer into a spherical probe allowing you to move around the space station and interact with systems that way instead of moving cameras and pointing them at the right part of the screen. When controlling the probe, movement alone can be dizzying thanks to being able to rotate on every axis in a weightless environment making it easy to get disoriented.
The bigger problem I have is that there are multiple occasions where you have to interact with systems - wirelessly - that Observation insists you be in the probe for. Why? How has the probe got more advanced features than an entire space station? Rather than simply letting you point a camera at the correct piece of equipment and interact with it that way, you're forced to use the probe... for reasons.
There are other moments like that, where it makes more sense for you to interact with things one way and the game lets you control other systems that way, but insists on this particular occasion that you need to do things differently. I get that the developers, No Code, want to set puzzles for the player to figure out in order to proceed, but some of them do come across as intentionally obtuse solely to slow things down.
The biggest issue this causes for Observation is that you can get stuck on these parts, for however long it takes, and it ruins the pacing of what is a genuinely enjoyable and interesting story. Not only that, but certain moments can be frustrating enough that it takes you out of the story in simple relief that you've progressed past an irritating puzzle and miss some dialogue as a result.
All of that is why I can't fully recommend Observation despite it having so much going for it. Kezia Burrows as Emma, Anthony Howell as S.A.M. and Jon Mckellan as Jim are all excellent in their roles, and I genuinely love how this game looks and sounds (even if the video distortion effects do grow old quite quickly). There's so much good here that it makes the bad stuff even more disappointing.
Observation looks and sounds great, with an excellent story on top - all of which is let down by some fiddly controls and needlessly restrictive ways of proceeding. There are some very arbitrary design choices which don't make a great deal of sense, making progressing in the story more frustrating than it needs to be at times, even if it is ultimately worth the effort - especially for sci-fi fans.