OBSERVER: SYSTEM REDUX review

Observer: System Redux is a remastered version of Bloober Team’s 2017 first-person horror, set in a dark, cyberpunk future Krakow. It’s a future where it’s strange to not have implants and the world is often reduced to digital analysis and numbers, rather than the actual material or world as it exists.

Players take on the role of the titular Observer, one Daniel Lazarski. An Observer is specialist interrogator, straddling the line between corporate rat and crime-scene investigator, able to literally plug themselves into another person to obtain information the other person refuses or is unable to give. Lazarski encounters a strange message from his long-absent son and traces his son to a shady part of the city. The story is all about mystery surrounding his son’s absence or possible murder and the building being inhabited by some kind of monster.

Yes, monster.

There were three things that were important to me when I first came across this game and its remaster:

First: It stars Rutger goddamn Hauer, who famously played the terrifying android villain, Roy Batty in the original Blade Runner film. That film, of course, is central to many creators and fans’ ideas of what cyberpunk should look and feel like: draped in darkness and rain, punctured by aggressive marketing staining the walls of corporate monolithic skyscrapers representative of their power, flying cars and advanced technology rudely stitched to an obviously divided society – where cleanliness is next to opulence and poverty is the norm.

Second: From the visuals and sound, it was clear the game captured that image. The game takes place on one dark night and, of course, it’s raining.

Third: The updated visuals. As I said, this is a remaster of the game. It was designed to be a launch title for the next-gen consoles to show off their visual capabilities, particularly in regard to texture quality, 4K resolution and ray-tracing. The difference is striking:

Having never experienced 4K resolution or ray-tracing, I was eager to see what those concepts meant on my next-gen console. Seeing a dark cyberpunk game lean into doing just that obviously excited me. Thus, it also carried an element of being a tech demo for the new systems.

This was merely what got me excited for the Remaster specifically – but what truly captured my interest was its mixing horror and cyberpunk. The question was how far it delivered on all of these.

Setup and start

The game begins with Daniel arriving at the seedy apartment building, where he is introduced to the only other person you’ll see in person in the game: a janitor, who is a veteran of recent large scale war, covered in poorly implemented cybernetics. He speaks slowly and seems often confused, but slowly warms up to Daniel throughout the game and proves a valuable side-kick.

Daniel finds the room his son supposedly contacted Daniel from and finds a corpse with its head torn completely off. After having an anxiety attack, Daniel attempts to examine the crime scene – while doing so, the entire building goes under a quarantine lockdown.

When this happened, I laughed – see, there’s a vague “plague” that infects people with cybernetics and the government has begun locking down buildings where it supposedly detects such outbreaks. This results in every one – except Daniel – being locked behind their doors. I found this a clever way to isolate Daniel, reduce the need to render lots of NPCs, maintain the aesthetic of the game, and yet retain interesting characters (even if they only make brief appearances and are never seen, only heard).

And so Daniel must solve the mysteries in this quarantined building – including what tripped off the lockdown.

Mechanics

Controlling Daniel is easy enough and with DualSense support on PS5 it becomes fascinatingly tactile: You move objects and open doors, and you can feel that satisfying “click” as you hold down the adaptive triggers – it truly feels like opening a closed door.

However, as with most first-person horror games, Daniel still feels a little stiff. Movement still felt like I was sometimes dragging him through molasses. This doesn’t really effect the game, since it forces you to really examine the world around you and there is a sprint feature.

The game primarily has the player do 4 things:

  • Engage in conversations with the janitor and the building’s tenants;
  • Conduct crime scene investigations using Daniel’s cybernetic tools – which are really just colour filters that detect objects he examines or picks up for use later to progress the story;
  • Explore the labyrinthian building;
  • Avoid being caught and murdered by … well, I don’t want to spoil it.

Thankfully the game relies more on conversations and investigations than it does hiding from scary enemies. However, don’t let that fool you into thinking this game is not terrifying.

The sound of terror

As is obvious, the game is absolutely stunning. It delivers on its visual fidelity, offering graphics modes including the ability to turn ray-tracing on or off. (Strangely, it seems the Xbox Series X version does not have ray-tracing?)

The visuals help create the tense, nightmarish atmosphere – where incredible technology is fused in all its eldritch horror glory with decay and rot. You always feel dirty wandering the halls – not merely because it is scummy but because it feels “wrong”. That seems to me intentional, since the now boring discussion of “how far will we go before we lose our humanity” is central to cyberpunk aesthetics – but the game does not make loud noises about it. Instead, it’s merely an undercurrent rather than a flood – coming out in conversations, how Daniel is himself the outcome of that fusion, how the plague only exists because of crossing that line, that corporations have the power they do because everyone bought in to chipping away at their humanity to fill it with chrome.

This is a far more elegant treatment than having characters annoyingly shout it into your character’s face.

While it doesn’t shout this theme in your face, it’s the central melody playing throughout the game in terms of theme.

Aside from the visuals, the game captures this with its fantastic audio design. It simply must be played with headphones.

Combining this, Bloober Team’s signature clever and gorgeous level design and dream sequences are back in full force here – which, whether people hated or loved it, was universally praised in Layers of Fear. It is Lynchian in its effectiveness, soul-stopping and heartpounding. The sequences mix fear and confusion, horror and awe. See, Daniel “illegally” jacks into the minds of corpses which his machines advices against – each time he does so, he witnesses snippets of the person’s life and these take on a terrifying, apocalyptic, Eldritch edge, normal days are turned into nightmares, night clubs become hunting grounds, offices become war zones.

If you can find a compilation of these moments and watch them in 4K with headphones, you should: Truly these sequences are some of the most memorable I’ve ever had in gaming.

I was not only awed by the visual-auditory experience but how clever the design was: sometimes these are puzzle sequences and the developers found clever ways to telegraph the rules of the sequence you’re in. Truly: developers are wizards.

A satisfying beginning to next-gen horror

Rutger Hauer’s performance as the lead gives it an edge I don’t think they could’ve got elsewhere. Not only is he memorable for his role in the most iconic cyberpunk film, but he also leaned into horror in his last years – his performance in Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block remains perhaps his best.

The entire visual and auditory experience is one of the best horror and video game experiences I’ve had.

The story and its twists and turns make for a great exploration of cyberpunk and horror themes, accompanied by great performances all around, in a deeply unsettling world – mired in darkness, filth, depravity, vanity and flesh.

I found this to be a perfect way to show off the power of my console, while also being – more importantly – one of the best horror experiences I’ve had in a long time.   

(Available on most platforms. Played on Playstation 5: Review code provided by publisher.)