As a fan of 2016’s Layers of Fear, Observer has been on my to-do list for quite some time now. When it was out on Xbox’s lovely Game Pass, I thought “Now is my chance!” and, as is my experience with many titles available on Game Pass, I continued focusing on the games I actually paid for with what little spare time it seems I have. So there it sat, installed but unattended to like many before it. Fast forward to the pandemic stricken year of 2020, a year that is three years closer to the 2084 setting than Observer’s initial release in 2017. With my minty fresh Xbox Series X in hand, I wanted to finally take the plunge into the role of the Observer, Detective Daniel Lazarski, played by the now late Rutger Hauer. Observer: System Redux is a next-generation exclusive version of the title that reworks the graphics, fine-tunes the gameplay, and adds additional elements to the narrative. Having never played the original, I do not have much to compare it against outside of clips I have watched, but going in blind on this type of game makes all the difference for the impact it can have, as I view the increasingly popular psychedelic horror titles as typically a one and done kind of playthrough. So take your pill, clear your mind, and jack-in to our Observer: System Redux review.
*Note: The below paragraph lightly details some of the introduction of the game, so some spoilers may be present.
As I mentioned, the year is 2084. This year, like much of the game’s themes, is a slight homage to George Orwell’s 1984, where life is rough for the poor and ultimately better for those in power via class. Our cyber-dystopia is riddled with a beautiful bleakness, as rain daunts the night and neon lights the way. Our Observer, Detective Daniel Lazarski, awaits orders in his car when suddenly a cryptic call is received by his estranged son Adam. It is brief, and non-telling. Something about it drives Dan to investigate further. Upon tracing the call, he arrives at its origin. It came from the low-end, high-towering apartment district known as The Stacks. Nothing good comes out of The Stacks, so Dan continues, doing the fatherly thing of making sure his son is well. After making his way to Adam’s apartment, a headless body is found, and a lockdown is triggered. Whose body is this? What caused the lockdown? Where is Adam? With no way to reach his police command during the lockdown, Detective Lazarski does what he does best and begins an investigation.
One of the potential reasons for the lockdown is the possibility of a phage outbreak. The phage is a disease that is usually fatal to those with cybernetic enhancements, one of many situations including wars that have put the world, and specifically Poland, in the dystopic state we see here. You begin your journey by going some good old fashioned door-to-door questioning. Those that live at this complex are locked in their units without any choice to leave due to the lockdown, so you begin to pry for information as you work on your current objective towards your next clue. The simple questioning only goes so far, and Dan has the tools of the future that are anything but old-fashioned. With optical enhancements, Detective Lazarski can use bio-vision, EM vision, and night vision at will. Bio-vision is used for scanning organic materials, like bodies, body parts, blood, and more. The EM vision is on the other side of the spectrum, allowing Dan to access information on digital tools like pin pads, cybernetics, computers, and more. The night vision is for, well, seeing in the dark, not scanning it. These are the basis for your interactive gameplay, as there is no “immediate” action so to speak of, like shooting or attacking. You investigate, decipher, and freely move about the complex to do so. Like Layers of Fear before it, Bloober Team is all about the interactive immersion here. And the world built within System Redux is the hard evidence to prove that.
I can’t lie, my first half an hour with the game was not a satisfactory one. Now, this initial short session was prior to a patch that came out within a week of launch, but not on launch day. Before that patch, I felt as though there was a constant foggy look to the visuals, and it looked nothing like the trailer that touted next-gen technology. While I still had some issues with the technology behind the game (more on that later) the patch seemed to iron out some of my initial concerns, as well as me easing into the controls more, which too were initially off-putting. The halls of this section of The Stacks are poverty-stricken, with digital distractions lining every hall to pull your eyes away from the decay. The courtyard is crowded by crows, but there is beauty to be found in the neon reflections that trace the many puddles. It is easy to get lost in this building, especially the basement, but exploration is the key to having a higher-level experience. Those that answer their doors for questioning almost always had something of interest to say, which is only furthered by your choice of the response being an option. But some doors lead to new mysteries, whether there were locks that needed passwords, nosey neighbors giving you the in on a side quest, or even some of the live-ins giving you a breadcrumb of a clue as you continue on your trail. While the main story was interesting on its own, I really got pulled into the side quests.
I think I missed one of the several side quests, but the ones I did finish were brilliant. They rope you in with these subtle nods to something deeper being afoot, with each being a self-contained, scary look at dystopian living. One of the key draws in a lot of points, whether it is the mainline or the side missions, is using your Dream Eater. The Dream Eater is the most powerful tool of the Observers, one that allows them to perform neural interrogations. For those suspects or victims that have neural chip implants, Dan can hack into the chip and see deep into the recess of their minds. In an Inception-like way, this allows Dan to find information that the person of interest may not be willing to give up, or even be in a position not to give up, as (against his superiors best wishes) Detective Lazarski can also hack the chips post-mortem. These neural interrogations give way to some of the most visually gripping scenes of the game, where things take a bit more of a Layers of Fear-esque cybernetic trip. The visuals are mind-bending and trippy does not even begin to describe them. It is quite the experience, especially when rocking a good headset, which amplifies the experience. These sequences are both a testament and test of the game's upgraded enhancements.
I say test because, in one of the side missions, one that was present in the base version of the game, I am positive my textures did not load correctly. I went back and forth on questioning the very low, almost coloring book look of the scene, but towards the end of that case, I opted to look up that segment on YouTube. I could not find a System Redux version of the scene, but the original 2017 version appeared a lot crisper and more detailed, which is a bummer as there is no way to just replay that section. For reference, below is one of my screenshots as well as a screengrab from this video. I truly hope this was not intentional, as this was one of the worst looking portions of the game.
Everything else looked pretty damn great. There are lots of great reflections and lighting that showcase the next generation feel, and the frames were running very smooth aside from the occasional hiccup between floors rendering. That is unless you want to play at 4K on Xbox Series X. Here are where my biggest gripes with the System Redux release come, as it was evidently not truly ready for release. I say that because the game is touted as Ray Tracing ready, as well as 4K/60 FPS, and that is just not the case currently on Series X. I have seen other outlets report that the PS5 version is outshining that of the XSX, and I can see why. There currently is no option for a Ray Tracing toggle, but it does not appear that it is actively working in all areas. Some, like the below shot I captured personally, show just jaw-dropping visuals, while other areas seem to be lackluster in comparison. XSX also has a 4K toggle, which means it is not running at 4K unless you turn that on, which hurts the framerate dramatically. This was a huge disappointment. At the time of this writing, it seems they are working on a fix per an announcement made on their Twitter account, but as I mentioned earlier, I am one and done with these kinds of titles. These enhancements are some of the biggest factors going into creating a re-release, so it is shocking to me that they were not ready to go at launch.
I ran into some other graphical and technical issues along the way, though some are hard to confirm as part of being in a cyber world means digital, glitchy effects are often intentional. The lighting, for one, seems to occasionally cast the “foggy” overlay that was more consistent before the patch. I played on three different sets and calibrated for HDR and such each time, and still found it to be an issue from time to time. This fog just seemed to lower the detail in certain areas, but it may be intentional as I can see it present in some of the trailers. Your interaction pointer is hard to manage sometimes, making it difficult to grab a necessary item or open a drawer or door. The visual effects can be intentionally jarring, but at one point one of the effects got stuck on a loop, and it was not caused by desynchronization (which requires Dan to take a pill or his sanity takes a hit.) This effect was a sort of zoom and stretch across the screen, one that implies and induces panic. I had to catch a checkpoint and back out to the main menu for it to stop, as it started giving me a bit of motion sickness, which does not happen often if ever to me while playing games. Outside of that, some areas appeared too dark (again, I calibrated within the game and the Xbox in general), and other little glitches were occasional.
Though that may seem like a long list, my experience with Observer: System Redux was very positive, especially as someone with no prior connection to the original release. The visuals, when working as intended, were stunning. The long stretches of halls with photorealistic lighting were awe-inspiring, and the smooth effects of the Dream Eater sections were easy to be terrified by because of their ability to immerse the player. The sound design is top-notch, and I again recommend playing with headphones, if not surround sound. There are plenty of smaller details to be heard. Footsteps, rain, thunder, moans, roars, you name it. And the music is stellar too. Whether a scary, underlying track is playing to boost the grip the game has you, or a hip-hop beat plays in the distance from a room, or from the mangled memories of someone’s neural implant, the music stands out as an important part of the formula. Let us not forget the voice acting. It is all done very well, with our lead in Rutger Hauer filling the role of a tired, broken officer near perfectly, something reminiscent of Stellan Skarsgård’s lead character in the Mini-series River. Though some of his lines are oddly paced and a bit on the soft side volume-wise, his tone and emotion fit the bill just right. Though I am not familiar with his other work, it is great to see that this will forever be a fond immortalization of him.
The narrative and world of Observer does so many things right. They deliver on a lot of cyberpunk tropes in their own, decisive ways. From topics like virtual reality, A.I, hyper-sexual desires, splicing, and more, there are a lot of themes that they deliver on. There is a twist and turn sort of story that reveals much about Dan and the world around him, while he ends up pursuing a villain fit for the Hannibal television series if it took place in the future. Every move you take is being watched or judged by someone, corporate or otherwise. Everyone has their own motives and justifications for the life they live. Dan has a troubled past and not much of a care for the present. It’s bleak, it is grim, but it is real in a lot of ways. While I was not overly thrilled with the ending I received, or the alternate for that matter, I was still left satisfied with the project as a whole.
Unlike Detective Lazarski, Bloober Team can and has changed their past, bringing their cyberpunk hit Observer into the next generation mostly optimized for the next generation of consoles as Observer: System Redux. While I am not thrilled about its somewhat lack of fully delivering on their promises in terms of next-generation performance, I am all the more glad to have finally experienced this game. It does look, sound, and run great, but just not maybe as well as was intended (for now.) The story, environments, and mostly open exploration make this a great interactive experience, one that will manage to wow most new players, and presumably those who had a liking to the original release as well. Next time you are in the mood for some hard-hitting, crime thriller goodness, then look no further than Observer: System Redux. Just check before you buy and see if they corrected the 4K/Raytracing confusion before you do.
*Note: A copy of the title was provided for the purposes of the review
FINAL SCORE: 8/10
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