Observer: System Redux, developed by Bloober Team, is the definitive edition of Observer, a cyberpunk psychological horror game originally released in 2017. Now, it has not only been remastered for the current generation of consoles, but this definitive edition has landed on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, bringing a selection of extra side missions as well as impressively improved visuals. I wanted to take this opportunity to try out the critically appraised Observer: System Redux, especially whilst I’m looking for that cyberpunk fix after being so heavily disappointed by Cyberpunk 2077.
Set in Krakow, Poland, Observer: System Redux takes place in the year 2084, shortly after a ‘digital plague’ called the Nanophage wiped out thousands of lives, resulting in a drug epidemic and a war. Krakow is now under the rule of Chiron, a megacorporation who stepped in to take control of things. Our lead character is Daniel Lazarski, played by late Blade Runner legend Rutger Hauer. He’s an Observer, part of a police unit equipped with Dream Eaters that can hack into people’s minds as a form of interrogation. One day, Daniel receives a disturbing call from his estranged son, Adam, who seems to be mixed up in some trouble. Daniel decides to investigate and traces the call back to a tenement building where drug and hologram addicts, known as Class C citizens, are segregated. Here, Daniel finds a decapitated corpse in Adam’s apartment and is unable to identify the body. When the building is thrown into lockdown due to an unknown cause, Daniel decides to investigate by interviewing its catalogue of strange residents.
What I loved about Observer: System Redux is that the gameplay is mostly confined to one building. It doesn’t overwhelm you with a fancy open world or send you on a linear path from one location to another. You’re instead given free roam of the apartment building, which is wholly yours to explore at your own pace and you can go in whichever direction you want. But Observer proves it doesn’t need a large space to build its world, through NPC dialogue and terminal entries, you can find out more about this dark cyberpunk world. Nothing feels like forced exposition either; you’re not fed back story through unnatural dialogue. No one explains anything to you as if it’s the first time you’ve heard it. Much like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, you’ll learn the meanings of technical phrases as you go along by putting together the jigsaw. When interviewing residents, you can select your questions via a dialogue tree, but it’s important to pick the ones you really want to ask first as sometimes the conversation will move on before you have a chance to ask them all.
Each floor of the apartment building has a map to tell you where you are and what rooms are on that floor, though other than this you’re given very little direction on where to go next. But if you’ve been concentrating on the conversations with NPCs and keeping up to date with your mission objectives, it should be pretty self explanatory where you should be going. And if in doubt, find somewhere you haven’t been before. Daniel’s augmented vision is equipped with Electromagnetic Vision, so that he can scan electronics, and Bio vision, which allows him to scan biological objects such as blood and hair. These will provide him with clues and evidence during his investigation.
Observer: System Redux requires precision when investigating the apartment building; a lot of informative evidence is hidden in drawers or cupboards which Daniel can interact with (albeit a bit awkwardly, you use the joystick to open doors which feels immersive when it works, but when it doesn’t either swings open and comically smacks Daniel in the face or leaves you scrabbling at the door handle to get it to work). There is also a heavy amount of puzzle-solving needed to work out the codes for various doors, with Adam’s apartment in the start of the game giving off a clue for what’s to come when the code needed to progress can be found in the title of a certain dystopian book. Observer really challenged me with this aspect and I absolutely adored how there’s very little handholding involved when investigating the building. The mission objectives will take note of the very obvious points mentioned during his investigation, but other than that you’re on your own. Which is great, I love that in a detective game.
Daniel’s main tool is his Dream Eater, which allows him to breach people’s minds. He can do this when he comes across a witness, usually they are injured or dead. Each dreamscape that Daniel traverses once inside a person’s mind is different to the last, revolving around a particular theme based on who that person was. Most of these levels contain a puzzle that Daniel must solve in order to get what he needs and leave. The best way to describe these sections would be that they make you feel like your fumbling your way through a fever dream, or suffering a bad acid trip. Compression artifact effects are used to give these areas a dream-like feel and the developers have done a really good job of bringing up that feeling of wandering around a corrupted program with its trippy visuals and strange sounds. Nothing is clear and the information is stagnated, occasionally intermingled with Daniel’s own experiences and thoughts. This is where the horror of Observer: System Redux truly shines, no longer held back by the limitations of real life. You’ll be stumbling around a maze most of the time, with things being thrown at you and paths alternating as you progress. You’ll be thrown from one memory to another and forced to face the demons of whoever’s mind you’re infiltrating.
Daniel is defenseless throughout Observer: System Redux, though there is the odd stealth section thrown in where the objective is to evade a hulking monster. This felt like an afterthought and a cheap way to force in a little extra tension here and there. A bit like the Dream Eater sections, they can also go on for a little too long and become a boring chore after a while. The problem is, stealth is not in the game frequently enough for it to become a real problem, but this also means it could have easily just not been included. With stealth sections, I always say either go big or go home. Too many games will throw them into one level as an odd one-off. The first of these encounters happens over half way through the game, and I died because I wasn’t expecting to suddenly encounter an enemy so far into my playthrough. They’re also not very well built stealth sections; the monster seems to have a very short routine when searching, making it really easy to work out where he’s going next so you can duck away. I also found it really easy just to run through these parts of the game; once you make it half way across the room you can just leg it the rest of the way once your objective is complete. Although the stealth sections have been improved in this definitive edition, I still feel like this should have either been a larger part of the gameplay or simply taken out all together.
Once out of a person’s mind, Daniel must take Synchronize to re-stabilise his stress levels (and possibly also to help him with those headaches from all the doors that have swung open on his face), otherwise his vision becomes distorted and begins to break away from reality. Synchronize can be found throughout the map and I feel like you’re never in a compromised position where you’re low on it unless you’ve been really neglectful in collecting it. But it is a constant reminder of how Daniel is constantly teetering on the edge of breaking down due to his work, and how far he continues to push himself for the sake of his son. You can also collect Nanophage cards, radio-controlled cars and roses on your journey, which gives an extra challenge for completionists.
And, as well as providing documents for you to read through for some extra backstory on this dystopian world, terminals also have a mini-game called With Fire and Sword, which I may have become a little too distracted by rather than finding my son. Each terminal you find will unlock a new level, and it can get really tricky towards the later levels. With Fire and Sword is an action puzzle game which requires you to move a prince round the map to save a princess from a spider-infested nest. The catch is, she’ll only let you save her once you’ve collected all the coins. When you walk into the spider’s line of site, they will follow you which means you can’t backtrack, but fear not as there are flame-lit swords scattered across the room which you can use to slay them. Never mind Adam, I have two more levels to go on With Fire and Sword and need to find those terminals!
Designed on the Unreal Engine 4, Observer: System Redux looks and feels amazing to play. Each room is filled with a tremendous amount of detail and the game oozes with atmosphere, similar to that of SOMA and Alien: Isolation. Daniel sometimes struggles to differentiate from what’s real and what’s not, the lines between reality and the technical simulations of people’s minds are consistently blurred with glitches and distorted visuals bleeding into the real world. This remaster has 4K textures, better character models, particle effects and improved lighting, as well as HDR and ray tracing for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X versions. I loved the retro particle effects that make it feel like you’re walking through a simulation, it really tapped into the feeling that the virtual world is bleeding into the real one.
The small details in this game are brilliant at painting a picture of the world Daniel lives in without us needing to step foot outside the apartment complex. The building is dingy and on the brink of collapse, the crumbling walls are a reminder of a past war and its easy to see this place as a home for drug addicts. Throughout the building, Daniel will encounter some of the worst crimes known to man, from human trafficking to organ harvesting, a consistent reminder that this place is the bottom of society. There’s even a children’s book called ‘Nanophage & I’ which you will pick up in variation locations on the map, each time the child illustrated on the front will become more deformed and demonic -looking. It’s easy to see where Observer: System Redux draws its inspiration from, having huge Silent Hill vibes and even referencing P.T. If the rumours are true and Bloober Team really are working on a Silent Hill project, they are the right choice for it.
The only downside to the visuals would be that the darkness of the game sometimes makes it really difficult to see anything, this is especially evident in the stealth sections as you’re often steering away from the lit centre of the room and lurking around in the shadows. I was often fumbling around in the dark, stuck on an object or piece of furniture that I couldn’t see whilst trying to evade the monster. The night vision effect is only really useful in pitch black areas, otherwise it just makes it even more difficult to see anything. This gets especially tiresome towards the end of the game where Daniel’s night vision stops working, and turning up the brightness in the options menu doesn’t improve anything.
The sound effects complement the visuals perfectly. They were glitchy in parts, but even that felt like it could have been intentional when the game is made to look like a corrupted file. Observer: System Redux is best played with headphones on, even better when equipped with surround sound to fully benefit from the great audio editing. Even with no enemies nearby, you’re constantly pushed into a jumpy state of checking behind you as the building groans and falls apart, it feels like its own monstrous character at times, constantly shifting and growling. Some audio effects were a little cliché, with babies crying and explicit sexual noises being used in plenty of psychological horror games to create a feeling of uneasiness, but this is essentially nitpicking and the game wasn’t ruined from these being included. And the score is great too, with enough variation to prevent it from sounding competitive and it really brought me back to the sci-fi classic films of the past. Composer, Arkadiusz Reikowski, was influenced by the likes of Akira, Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner when crafted Observer‘s incredibly immersive score, using an analogue synthesizer to get the atmosphere just right.
Of course, Observer’s main source of inspiration comes from Blade Runner and other cyberpunk classics. It stays true to the genre with its themes of AI consciousness, capitalism and police corruption. The storyline feels a little sketchy during the beginning and middle of the game. The building is thrown into lockdown for an unknown reason shortly after Daniel discovers the body in Adam’s apartment, though this could be due to a Nanophage outbreak and doesn’t seem related to the murder. Whilst investigating the cause as well as locating the murderer, the player will have conversations with a wide range of colourful characters. Although you never see them asides from their eyes peering through the intercom, the dialogue is well-written enough for each interviewee to have their own well-fledged personality. Without spoiling anything, the reveal of the murderer fell slightly flat, his identity is unrelated to anything revealed in the game up until that point and his backstory felt incredibly silly. But towards the end, things that didn’t seem to be linked with each other are slowly stitched together to reveal an end twist that really paid off. With two endings for the player to choose from, neither of them felt right or wrong and both were utterly miserable, which is just so cyberpunk.
I’m a big fan of the cyberpunk genre, detective stories and horror games, but had never heard of Observer’s existence until this remaster was announced. But it’s no wonder this masterpiece is so underrated when the likes of Horizon Zero Dawn, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, Nier: Automata and so many other spectacular games came out that one year. Unfortunately, it seemed to have been buried under all that greatness, a bit like tears in rain (I’m so sorry for that pun). Which is why I’m glad it’s been given this definitive edition, so that people such as myself could have the opportunity to play it with the fresh new paint job it deserved. But it’s not just visuals that Observer: System Redux improves on, the side missions, although not a major part of the game, do a great job at further building this bleak dystopian world and adding another layer of depth to the themes present throughout the game. Although System Redux doesn’t push this latest generation to its full potential, there’s no denying this definitive edition looks great and is filled to the brim with nail-biting atmosphere.