Observer: System Redux Review

July 28, 2021
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If the seminal sci-fi film Blade Runner and dystopian literary classic Nineteen Eighty-Four had a video game baby, it would be Observer: System Redux. Set in a decrepit apartment building in futuristic Poland, Observer incorporates familiar science fiction and cyberpunk themes in a way that feels both deferential and distinct from its clear inspirations. Part detective story, part psychological horror, Observer is the kind of game you’ll want to play with the lights off and headphones on. It does a great job of building tension just by using its environments and ambient sounds, though a few out-of-place (and thankfully infrequent) stealth sections can sometimes cause more aggravation than fear.

Originally released as Observer in 2017, System Redux is an enhanced version of the base game with improved graphics and additional story content. The year is 2084, and Poland has been ravaged by the nanophage, a digital plague resulting in widespread drug use, body modification, and the watchful rule of governing megacorporation Chiron. The first-person perspective puts you in the hardened gumshoes of Dan Lazarski, an Observer – basically a police detective who can hack into people’s minds. As Dan, you’ll investigate crime scenes, examine clues, and trawl a creepy, locked down tenement building in order to solve a series of murders and reunite with your long-lost son. 

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Observer: System Redux doesn’t shy away from its sci-fi, cyberpunk, and horror influences. Lazarski is voiced by the now late Rutger Hauer, whose “tears in the rain” monologue from Blade Runner deserves a spot in the dystopian fiction hall of fame. There are multiple references to the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four as well, including finding physical copies of the book throughout the apartment building, and stumbling upon Easter eggs like this is always a delight. Despite the familiar themes, Observer never feels derivative; it’s more of a love letter to the works that came before than an imitation.

Being a cybernetically enhanced Observer, Dan Lazarski has a few extra tools at his disposal: he can use EM Vision to analyze electronic equipment, Bio Vision to identify biological materials like blood, and Night Vision to make dark spaces like the building’s creepy basement easier to navigate. You’ll use these abilities to track down whoever’s murdering the building’s tenants, sometimes following a literal trail of blood in your quest to stop the killer and find Dan’s son. Oh, and you can plug into a chip in dead people’s brains to explore their memories, like you do. 

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These “dream eater” sequences keep the derelict apartment setting from ever feeling too claustrophobic. They’re not an exact replication of the victims’ memories, but more of a trippy reenactment that mashes together different environments and art styles. There’s a lot left up to interpretation, which can be said for much of the larger story as well. For example, you have the option to make Dan take his medication whenever his vitals are in the red, but you’re never told why – or what happens if you don’t. Observer never holds your hand or answers every question, and your choices will have a very real effect on how you see the world around you and even how it all ends.

Unlike many games in the survival horror genre, Observer: System Redux doesn’t use violent combat or “run and hide” mechanics (for the most part) to create a creepy atmosphere. Most of the gameplay focuses on exploration and contextual interactions with the world around you, much like Gone Home or What Remains of Edith Finch. Observer is proof that you don’t always need the threat of a sword-dragging physical manifestation of guilt or a nine-foot-tall vampire lady to make a game scary (although those clearly work too). It doesn’t rely on cheap jump scares, instead creating a building sense of dread through the environments, ambient music, and sound effects. Horror is subjective, of course, but as someone who both enjoys the genre and is easily frightened, I found myself muttering “Nope, nope, nope” while exploring a darkened basement and yelped out loud more than once during the 10-hour campaign.

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That’s why it’s such a shame that developer Bloober Team felt the need to include a handful of stealth sequences that completely broke my immersion in its otherwise tense world. For story-related reasons I won’t go into, you’ll find yourself being stalked by a menacing creature at a few different points, and you’ll have to hide and sneak around it to progress. Being caught results in an automatic game over, which is jarring when the bulk of Observer doesn’t have a fail state. These sections are thankfully few and far between, but each one stretches on for way too long and completely kills the vibe. And the longer one them goes, the more aggravating it becomes, especially when you’re trying to decipher vague objectives while stuck sitting around for the enemy to make its rounds again. It’s hard to be scared when you’re so annoyed.

Besides feeling completely out of place, these stealth sections were especially frustrating because they rely heavily on using the sound of the creature’s footsteps to determine how far away it is. However, for hearing-impaired people like me, being able to gauge the intensity or direction of distinct sounds can be difficult. It’s disappointing, because Observer: System Redux actually has a comprehensive accessibility menu, including subtitle customization and options to simplify some joystick movements, but there’s no option to visually convey these already imprecise context clues.

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The rest of Observer: System Redux generally plays like a dream. The enhanced version comes with options to turn on 4K graphics and HDR, although sometimes it’s too dark to see much of anything (in a way that doesn’t quite feel intentional). But when you can see clearly, the improved visuals are full of delightful and disturbing details, and I found myself scouring every inch of the building to uncover its tenants’ tiny secrets. The only technical issue I had was some occasional trouble getting the cursor to focus on an object I wanted to inspect more closely while using a gamepad; sometimes putting the reticle directly over the object didn’t work, and I had to move the camera around to find the right angle.

Even after finishing Observer: System Redux, I find myself still thinking about it. Did I make the right choices? What could I have done differently? What did I miss? Multiple endings and varying choices give it some degree of replayability, though the thought of doing those stealth sections again gives me pause. But they’re a very small part of a stellar whole, and don’t diminish the achievement of making a cyberpunk and dystopian-inspired horror game feel refreshingly different in a space where those themes are all too common.

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