STAFF REVIEW of Observer: System Redux (Xbox Series X)

Wednesday, August 18, 2021.
by Adam Dileva

Observer: System Redux Box art I actually quite enjoyed the original release of >observer_ back in 2017 when I initially reviewed it. It was a very unique take on the cyberpunk genre, mixing detective work, abstract sequences and a future that really isn’t that farfetched of an idea at the rate our world is going these days. The game got a new facelift, added mechanics and more and renamed itself Observer: System Redux back in late 2020. While I never got around to playing System Redux when it released, it recently just got an update to make use of next-gen systems on Xbox Series X|S, so of course I had to go through it one more time on my Xbox Series X to see what all the fuss about having an improved edition is all about.

Before I delve into the game itself, much of this will be from my original >observer_ review, as the core game itself hasn’t changed much aside from some new cases, mechanics and of course improved visual fidelity. If you’ve played the original >observer_ before and want to know if it’s worth going through once more, it’s more than a simple pretty paint job.

On an Xbox Series X you can expect 4K resolution, 60FPS, many upgraded textures, ray-tracing, HDR lighting and even new models and animations. The original game looked great at the time on Xbox One, so you can tell that Bloober Team has taken the time and effort to make it stand out even more on the latest consoles. You can swap the ray-tracing and more in the options on the fly, noting the differences, and with everything turned on, Observer: System Redux is quite impressive to take all in. The most notable change is obviously going to be the graphic fidelity and loading time, vastly improved from its original release. The lighting is much better, ray-tracing adds more realism to the water effects and reflections, and some models seem even more realistic. While it all seemed familiar, it certainly did perform and look much better than I remember.

Other than these improvements, Bloober Team also says that there are new mechanics, redesigned stealth (which was my most hated aspect of the original game and still is), quality of life improvements and even three new side cases that are optional, adding roughly about 20% length to the overall playtime should you do everything. If you’re unable to get into doorways the normal way, you might need to hack and decrypt the circuits to gain access. As for the improved stealth, I couldn’t tell you what was changed, as the sections where you required it were still terrible and frustrating to get through.

The bulk of the new ‘meat’ though comes in the form of the three new cases: Errant Signal, Her Fearful Symmetry and It Runs in the Family. I don’t want to give anything about these new cases away as to not spoil them for potential original players experiencing them for the first time, but I was more than impressed. These new cases were very unique and actually more memorable than some of the campaign cases itself, well worth replaying for.

Observer: System Redux tells the story about Daniel Lazarski, voiced and by the late Rutger Hauer, investigating an apartment block in Krakow set in 2084 looking for his son. This is the future and set in the cyberpunk genre, so you can expect a lot of neon, electronica and some truly unique imagery once you delve into people’s minds as Dan tries to find clues about his estranged son.

You see, Observer is attempting to be a physiological thriller, and while there may only be a handful of jump scares, some of the abstract imagery could be classified as horror. Observer feels fresh, as if they were trying to do something new, and even though there’s a handful of faults, I kept having to play until the story came to a conclusion and the credits rolled, even for a second time when I knew the outcome already.

Observer simply asks: What would you do if your fears got hacked and used against you? It’s an odd question, as I know what fears I have and what scares me, but what other twisted things could possibly be in other people’s heads? Daniel Lazarski works for a corporate funded ‘police’ unit whose sole function is to hack into suspects minds, known as an Observer. This is achieved easily, as it seems nearly everyone has had some sort of cybernetic implants, making the Chrion Corporation a super power that runs nearly everything in this digital focused world.

There’s been a digital outbreak, simply known as the Nanophage, which brings the digital dependent civilization practically to its knees. Observers are meant to be used to investigate crimes, easily finding the truth, as you can’t hide information that’s in your mind when hacked, using the evidence against you. It’s a scary vision of a world that could be, and possibly in our lifetime.

Observer begins with Daniel sitting in his car, receiving a troubling call from his distant son with no real explanation before the call ends. He tracks down his whereabouts to rundown apartment building in the seedy part of the city. This building seems to house some nasty people, and as you investigate further in search of your son you’ll uncover some troubling situations and people, which you’ll need to interact with and solve what’s going on. I don’t want to go much more into the narrative, as the story that unfolds was quite interesting, even if it only lasts around six or so hours depending on how many side cases you pursue.

You play in first person, and at its core I would best describe it as a puzzle/detective/exploration game. The majority of your gameplay in the beginning will be based around searching the apartment complex for clues and investigating crime scenes. There’s the odd dialogue choices you get to make when conversing with people, but they are only minor. There’s no weapons or combat, as a good portion of your experience will be inside the minds of others.

Your overall mission is to find your missing son, but in these slums people don’t cooperate with Observers, so you won’t find much help, leaving you mostly on your own to solve the mystery, following the smallest leads and clues. There’s no overlay map in the game, so you’ll routinely become lost, even when you find the apartment maps plastered on the wall. Luckily you’ll eventually become accustomed to the building’s layout, but it will take some time of aimlessly wandering around until you feel comfortable navigating the multi-floor building. Nearly every door is locked with no means in, so if you’re lucky, you’ll have one of the neighbors answer the door via their telecom and actually talk to you. This reinforces the fear the citizens have of the Nanophage and also the isolation many of us have been dealing with for the past two years.

Eventually you’ll come across crime scenes that need to be investigated, which brings in one of the main mechanics to Observer. To search the scene for clues, you’ll need to use your three different vision modes, each with its unique function. Right Bumper allows you to see cybernetic items, like implants, wires and anything else digital based. Left Bumper is your Biogenic vision which allows you to examine biological material, namely blood, in search of clues. Clicking in the Right Stick allows for some subtle night vision, something that will come in handy in the near pitch black basement.

I was stuck in the very first room for a while, as there isn’t a lot of explanation teaching you how to properly use your different vision modes. Once you get the hang of it and what to look for, you’ll feel like a digital version of Batman in no time, knowing what to look for with the glowing outlines of objects that can be scanned or interacted with. Using these visions basically blurs everything else I your vision except the cybernetic or biogenic objects, based on which view your using.

Scanning these items, objects, clues and people is where you’ll put your case together, learning more about your objective or how to find out where to go next. There are even a few sidequests that you can partake in if you’re adapt enough at finding and solving certain puzzles and clues. While this adds a little more length to the gameplay, they are completely optional. There’s even a mini retro game to play should you find all of the terminals hidden throughout.

Where things gets weird is when you hack into someone’s mind. The main idea behind Observer is hacking into people’s subconscious, so you’ll experience imagery like you’ve never seen before. You’ll witness events of what’s happened in their past, their fears, memories and more. Many of these sequences won’t make sense in a traditional way, and there’s a lot of symbolism that takes place, but to say that these sections are ‘weird’ is putting it lightly.

If you’ve ever wondered what a subconscious looks like in visual form, I would suspect Observer: System Redux does a great job at trying to visualize that concept. Some is extremely disturbing, horrifying and plain confusing, but one hell of an experience. There’s only a handful of these sequences, so I don’t want to spoil them, but I will say that the level design, even though mostly linear, is very memorable and unique to anything else I’ve ever experienced.

Reality can be distorted in the mind, and that’s the case here as well. Sometimes you’ll have to solve a puzzle, some of which are done in a very clever way. For example, there’s an endless hallway that seems to repeat itself every time you walk through the door, but you’ll notice a TV off to the side shows a picture of a specific doorway, so you go that way instead. The next time you walk through the door it shows a different doorway, which is your clue to follow this specific ‘path’. Do so successfully and you’ll make your way out of the never ending hallway, fail and you’re doomed to be forever wandering aimlessly in someone’s mind.

Later on there will be some hacking sections where you’re pursued by a creature, and while I completely understand why due to the narrative, these sections were more tiresome than enjoyable. I get why these took place, but always dreaded knowing that I had to avoid a hulking creature trying to find me as these stealth sections simply aren’t fun, even with the so called “redesigned stealth”. To say that these mind hack sections can disorientate you is an understatement; remember, there are no rules in someone’s mind, and you need to let go and accept that.

Visually, Observer: System Redux is quite impressive, even more so when you realize how small the team that originally developed it was. The world is completely believable, as you see the bright cyber influences at nearly every corner counteract with the dark and dirty real world. While everything does look quite well in 4K/60FPS, there were times of some minor slowdown, even on an Xbox Series X. Nowhere near as obviously as it was on Xbox One, but just noticeable enough to realize it’s happening at times.

Sound design is worth noting as well, as the background ambiance completely fits the mood and backdrop, and some of the voice acting is done quite well. I say some though with regret. Daniel is voiced by the one and only Rutger Hauer, which has quite a film pedigree, so there’s no question to his acting ability, but there were quite a few times where the delivery of some lines felt completely flat and monotone, not really feeling fit for some of the situations he was in and how he delivered the lines. That’s not to say it’s all bad, but it’s not perfect.

Observer: System Redux is a very unique title, as it’s heavily narrative driven and contains some of the most visceral and unique imagery I’ve ever experienced in a game. Some of the mind sequences are quite horrifying and paint a light on a future that, in all honesty, isn’t really that far off from our reality. Even though it may be wrapped in a science fiction cyberpunk offering, the experience within is a very dark one.

The gameplay elements may be basic and not exciting on their own, but it’s more about the journey you undertake than reaching the end point. The level design is brilliant and some of the experiences are very memorable even though it has flaws, namely the forced stealth sections. If you’re into the cyberpunk genre and want to experience something completely unique and twisted, look no further than Observer: System Redux, especially if you have an Xbox Series X or S to get the best visual experience unlike any other.

Overall: 8.2 / 10
Gameplay: 7.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.5 / 10
Sound: 7.0 / 10


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