OBSERVER: SYSTEM REDUX Review: It Masterfully Builds Tension - Only To Deflate Itself
In his 3 Bloody Knife review, Dyllon Graham calls Observer: System Redux a psychological horror video game that failed to produce any of the anticipated thrills and chills.
When I take time to consider the video games that left the largest impression on me, I often think about the impact that the opening scenes create. Like storming the beach in Ghost of Tsushima, the opening cinematic seamlessly giving way to controller operated, chaotic combat. Or craning your neck as Link, mouth agape as you attempt to take in all of the wonder that is the Great Plateau, in Breath of the Wild. If I can be immediately hooked by combat, intrigued by the world, or wowed by spectacle, I find that I become far more lenient on any future stumbling that games inevitably run into.
Much to my chagrin, Observer: System Redux (2017) by developer Bloober Team didn’t fall into this category. With Bloober Team’s lineage as extraordinary horror developers, I fully expected wall to wall thrills and chills in a setting typically untouched by the genre. However, my expectations were let down as Observer front loaded itself with heavy exposition and sluggish gameplay that ultimately worked to deflate any tension that the game's best mechanics built. Of course, Observer isn’t without some shine as there are glints of a well oiled machine if you’re willing to wait for it to get up to speed.
It’s 2084. The world remains broken by a plague called the "Nanophage"; a disease that seeks out individuals spliced with cybernetic prosthetics and enhancements, slowly tearing away their flesh and ultimately resulting in death. In addition to and because of the Nanophage, war has broken out between the east and the west, allowing a mega corporation, Chiron, to seize control of Poland and in turn create the Fifth Polish Republic. This brings us to our main protagonist, Daniel Lazarski voiced by Rutger Hauer. As the story begins, Daniel is woken from a haze by his Police Chief via his car transmitter. Promptly, he is reminded to take his regular regimen of Synchrozine, a drug that helps his body modifications to continue functioning well with his organic body. Shortly into the dialogue with his Chief, the power in his futuristic squad car begins to flicker, a familiar voice pushing through the static. It’s his son. The two are clearly estranged, Adam is in some sort of distress and the stage is set as Daniel springs to action.
Daniel traces the distress call to an apartment building bolstering “C Class” residents inside. Navigating in first-person, Daniel arrives at the room designated for his son and finds the door ajar. After entering the room, Daniel slowly approaches what appears to be a body and upon uncovering it, the building undergoes a precautionary lockdown. This is where players are introduced to the core gameplay mechanics. Daniel has enhancements that allow him to scan his surroundings for either technological devices or organic material like blood or bodies. Each mode tints your screen a specific hue highlighting any points of interest while adding the information to your case log. This is most of what the early game entails: walking, scanning, deciphering, and logging information. Following your escape from the machinations of Adam’s room, you find the rest of the building still locked down, a fail safe installed by Chiron Corporation to prevent the spread of any potential Nanophage outbreaks. Daniel goes door to door, interrogating the residents of the building through their apartment door intercoms, trying to deduce what is truly going on with his son. This is the second core tenet of the game.
You’re entirely alone, wandering the halls of an all but derelict building, searching for answers from ghosts, while running from your own.
Observer: System Redux is a relatively claustrophobic and solitary experience that lacks combat and quick-time events. The only humans you encounter are the superintendent of the building, Janus, and the victims of the murders you’re investigating. Apart from this, all interactions are without the physical presence of other human beings. You’re entirely alone, wandering the halls of an all but derelict building, searching for answers from ghosts, while running from your own. As the cold opening transitions into the tedious trudge of scanning every little item, be it wire or blood splatter, I found my early intrigue contorting into boredom. However, Daniel receiving a call from his son, post-mortem, was bold and fascinating. I was enraptured in what that call could mean in a nearly entirely cybernetic world. Yet, it all quickly fades to the background as conversations with the neighboring residents piled up and occluded the primary narrative from memory. The ramblings of paranoid tenants and abusive fathers almost seemed to smother the premise of the game for me, dithering on a bit longer than I would have preferred.
The dialogue isn’t poorly written. Through your discussions, it’s easy to get a clear sense of how the dystopian future has truly played out for the poorer C Class citizens that are struggling with corporate oppression. Through computer logs, you’ll uncover how controversial the future of body modification is and how religion has evolved to combat or condemn the act of enhancement. A rich world exists around Daniel and that world is gripped by more problems than it has solutions, drawing striking parallels to our society today. Perhaps the dense exposition and dialogue wouldn’t have felt so heavy had Observer not taken place primarily in an apartment building, ultimately creating a disconnect between the world we are asked to suspend disbelief for and the world we are actually exploring. Cybernetic enhancements and their religious vilification aren’t physically represented in much of what you see, forcing their explanation to be direct instead of intelligently inferred by the player in how the world is built around you. Luckily, this pacing issue doesn’t last through the entirety of the game.
Eventually, the ongoing investigation leaves Daniel with no further clues. Only so much information can be gleaned from scanning his surroundings, and Daniel is left to connect in alternative ways to his case. Daniel tugs a claw-tipped cable from his wrist and plugs himself into a port on the base of a victims skull. He has to see the truth for himself. He needs to observe it. Get it? Observer?
This is where Observer: System Redux shines. As Daniel synchronizes his mind with the target, he begins to relive their memories and experiences. He becomes steeped in the echoes of their former life, but the images are muddled and unclear. Memories rapidly cycle, never landing on anything for too long, like an immersive 360-degree slide projector moving far too fast. While in other moments, the unconscious, unwaking mind unleashes it’s nightmares upon Daniel as he delves deeper. Tension truly arises here as things become increasingly unpredictable, unstable and even deadly, standing in stark contrast to the safety felt when Daniel is in the waking world. This is where we see Bloober Team, return to their roots, leveraging their Horror pedigree to immerse the player in truly uncomfortable and spine chilling hallucinations. After experiencing my first taste of these grotesque sequences, they acted as important tentpoles that helped motivate me to press forward, even when things got quiet.
As the story and investigation plays out, the requirement for Daniel to observe memories increases, the risks grow more perverse, and the terror grows exponentially, leading into an action packed two-hour finale. The trip to surmount the front half of Observer: System Redux is arduous and dense, but much like moving a boulder up-hill, once you reach the apex, the narrative begins to pick up momentum.
It raises important critiques as to how reckless humanity often becomes in their pursuit of evolution.
My playthroughs of Observer: System Redux were on the Playstation 5 and PC platforms. Surprisingly, the Playstation 5 version is littered with bugs and errors, some feeling oddly difficult to overlook. The opening film that precedes the title screen has audio that cuts in and out, as if it were a disc skipping. On more than one occasion I had to reload a prior checkpoint because a prompt that was needed to progress simply wouldn’t show up. At other times, the center cursor would indicate there was someone to speak to below the floor or through a wall. Perhaps this was due to characters being hidden off screen when they weren’t in use, but it definitely felt odd.
Visually, it's a stunning game. Chipped paint textures, flake off of the unkempt walls with incredibly high quality, nearing photorealism. Light was appropriately placed, amplified and bounced to immerse players in the futuristic setting. All the details and quality seems to make sense given the game’s nearly static location, meaning location scale could be dialed back for a more visually dense experience. It is worth noting that during my Playstation 5 playthrough, I experienced frequent moments where the game bogged, dipping the framerate under the strain of fast movement or multiple light sources. This was without the Ray Tracing option turned on.
The audio design was phenomenal. The late Rutger Haur masterfully delivers his voicelines as Daniel Lazarski without missing a beat, making him a believable, foul-mouthed old man. A futuristic John Wayne if you will. Even the faceless apartment building tenants were convincingly portrayed to elevate the narrative. The cybernetic special effects and horror filled moments were also on point and sure to contribute to quite a few jump scares. Unfortunately, the dynamic variation between the extremely quiet moments and the loudest moments is so great that like with old cable television shows, I found myself turning the television up for dialogue, only to turn it way down when things ramped up.
Undoubtedly, my time with Observer: System Redux is painted by preference and expectations. What I expected to be a horror thriller turned out to be a slow burn horror game that I had to talk myself into continuing and I’m glad I did, because what it evolves into is indeed greater than its individual contrasting parts. I find it a shame that the neural connection sequences built such suspense and fear, only for them to deflate as you come back to earth, as consequences or threat of death don’t exist when investigating. Narratively, the game isn’t necessarily asking new questions, but raises important critiques as to how reckless humanity often becomes in their pursuit of evolution, forcing the player to observe and confront the consequences of the fallout. If you enjoy the futuristic cyberpunk setting or Bloober Team's prior projects, I think this is a game you can justify devoting the six to ten hours of time to complete.
Observer: System Redux is a psychological horror video game developed by Bloober Team and published by Aspyr. It's available to play on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Steam and the Epic Games Store.