It kind of goes without saying the “Cyberpunk” aesthetic is very IN right now. We are merely a few short days away from the release of Cyberpunk 2077 at the time of writing after all. And yet with all the Cyberpunk imagery out there, nothing has quite scratched that Blade Runner itch I so desire.
Now, I never played the original release of Observer, but when the opportunity to play Observer: System Redux came up and I saw a few screenshots, I was all in. It looked exactly like the Blade Runner aesthetic I wanted with the noir narrative to match. It just may have overdone it a bit.
Observer: System Redux was developed by Bloober Team and Anshar Studios and published by Bloober Team SA. It was released on November 10, 2020 for PC, Xbox Series X/S, and PlayStation 5. The PC version was played for this review.
Observer: System Redux kind of markets itself as a horror game, and that is a little true. It certainly has elements of its modern horror contemporaries like Amnesia and Alien: Isolation, where you are very much at the mercy of the monster that hunts you. Unlike those games, the monster is the least scary part. The actual world you navigate is far more disturbing than any creepy crawly.
Observer’s plot is very much in line with what I expected. The story follows Daniel Lazarski, a detective who has license to hack into the minds of the digitally augmented populace in order to investigate their memories. Lazarski must investigate a call from his son that comes from the projects of 2084 Krakow, Poland. When the complex locks down over fear of a nanophage outbreak (a digital plague similar to the novel Snow Crash) Lazarski must work quickly to solve a series of murders and find his son.
As Observer is a detective story I will not reveal much more of the plot beyond that, but suffice to say there are many ugly characters and places to interact with. This is where I found most of the horror. The project you must investigate is dilapidated to say the least with massive holes in the walls, dripping ceilings, and an attendant who is more machine now than man.
While I skulked from unit to unit interviewing tenants via the holo terminals (Ring cameras) I was becoming increasingly unnerved by my surroundings. By the time I was investigating the memories of the not-always-living residents I was solidly prepared for terror. The plot that unfurls is not anything particularly special, but it was certainly engaging enough that I was excited/terrified to uncover more.
For the most part Observer is reminiscent of the investigative point-and-click adventures of the past. With the exception of a few stealth sections most of the game is spent walking around, interviewing people, and solving puzzles. Unlike other “walking simulators” I never found this to be a chore. The movement options are varied enough and the locations close enough that I never felt irritated by navigation. It may also help that I wasn’t sure I really wanted to see the basement.
With the exception of one puzzle I found the game did a pretty good job of giving me all the information to figure out what to do next. And it is pretty well documented that I am not very smart. That being said, I do love to investigate me a crime scene and Observer has plenty of those to dig through. Lazarski has Predator vision and can switch between different filters to locate different kinds of evidence like electronic or biological. This makes it pretty hard to miss any pieces of evidence but still gave me the satisfaction that I was a smart guy (I’m not).
The only real gripe I have with Observer’s gameplay is its dialogue segments. Similar to an RPG there are small dialogue trees while interacting with the locals, but all options will be exhausted before the conversation is over so there is not any real reason to have them. I would much rather listen to the scripted dialogue than have it stop every few seconds in order for me to hit a button. Observer is not the only game to commit this crime, but it is a crime nonetheless.
Close Your Eyes
Observer’s look and feel are its real selling points, and they sell the hell out of it. While the character models aren’t anything special, the environments are absolutely breathtaking, especially if you have a ray tracing capable card. Observer is often jaw dropping to look at. It really, truly feels like it could have come from the Blade Runner universe.
It doesn’t hurt either that Daniel Lazarski is voiced by the late, great Rutger Hauer. While Hauer’s presence is a welcome one I actually found him to be one of the weakest vocal performers in the game. He rarely seems concerned about the events unfolding and mostly comes across as bored.
The apartment complex you investigate looks and feels suitably gross and the small amount of outdoor areas you get to see just ooze 80s cyber nostalgia. Once the game delves deeper into its digital memory investigation the visuals get fittingly more surreal. At points I felt reminded of games like Control or even Superhot. Observer rarely repeats itself in this area and frequently left me reeling.
Unfortunately, Observer’s greatest strength is also its weakness. During the memory sequences the visuals get so distorted and strobe-like that I actually started to suffer. I’m not one who has photosensitivity, but this game quite frequently left me in actual physical pain. I cannot stress enough how much of a downside this is for me. As much as I wanted to keep playing I was reminded about how much of a physical chore it was going to be to do so. In a matter of an hour or so I would feel the type of ocular distress normally reserved for twelve-hour gaming sessions. It really dragged the entire experience down for me.
So, I have spent most of this review lighting up Observer: System Redux as a shining beacon in the bustling cyberpunk genre, and it is. The story is engaging and filled with noir goodness, the gameplay added to the feeling I was a memory hacking detective, and the visuals felt straight out of one of my favorite 80s movies. But the absolutely relentless and aggressive lights and patterns that invade the game a few hours in made it a hard game to finish. Because of this I still recommend it, but with a large and bold asterisk.
Review copy provided by Bloober Team SA for PC. Screenshots provided by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Bloober Team SA.