Observer: System Redux – Game Review

I first played Observer back in 2017, a few months after it launched. I didn’t stick with it long, as some awful performance issues on PS4 and frustrating stealth sequences lowered my interest enough to throw it on the backlog. 

The game never truly fell off of my radar though, and I always wanted to give it another shot. Observer’s world, with its blend of cyberpunk and horror, were right up my alley. It’s exactly the kind of dark sci-fi setting I usually gravitate to. But enough time passed, and when a remaster of the game was announced for PS5 and Xbox Series X, I decided I could wait a little longer.

I’m really glad I did.

Observer: System Redux is not without issue. On Xbox Series X it still has performance hitches—though now we are talking about dips below 60fps, rather than the single digit slideshows I was subjected to on PS4. 

It still has enough unwanted Game Over screens to feel disruptive, but the fast loading on the new consoles will get you back into the action more quickly. The stealth sequences are smoothed out quite a bit, but I’d be happier to see fail states removed from the game entirely. They don’t add anything to the horror or tension of the game at all. Observer is much better at setting a mood and tone before walking you into effective, scripted jump scares.

Complaints aside, this is an improved version of a game that was already promising. Observer tells the story of Dan Lazarski, an augmented detective that can jump into the minds of suspects via microchip implants. After a bizarre call from his estranged son, Dan makes his way to his son’s apartment complex. Shortly after entering the building, it goes on lockdown, leaving him no choice but to search for answers.

As you explore the complex, you can ring doorbells and speak to the tenants, get to know the landlord, and open up a variety of side cases. Outside of some intentionally locked doors, you’re given access to most of the building early on, allowing for a good chunk of non-linear detective work.

This is where the game is at its best. System Redux adds 3 side cases, and those, plus the originals are all worth pursuing. Each story features some new cyberpunk future dystopian nightmare, from body snatching, to black market organ donors, and creepy sex robots. Each side case adds a new wrinkle to Observer’s grimey underworld, building around lore that makes it feel like a real lived-in environment.

Dan is voiced by the late Rutger Hauer. While his performance as a sort of gravelly, tired detective feels phoned in at first, I grew to love it in the end. Dan is an endearing, mumbling old dad, cracking lame jokes under his breath to the tenants he’s interrogating, and genuinely trying his best to help people in a shitty situation. It lends credence and a little needed warmth to a world that’s almost entirely dark.

This bit of humanity, alongside the non-linear investigation and world-building side cases, made this far and away my favorite of developer Bloober Team’s horror games. Layers of Fear (and in fact many similar horror games) tended to get lost in the spectacle of trying to scare the player. But it’s the immersion in the world and the series of small stories that will stick with me here.

In fact, my biggest qualm with the updated version of Observer, now that many other issues are fixed, is that the back third of the game just isn’t as strong as the rest of it. As the lines between what is real and what is imagined become blurred for Dan, the story begins to drift down a linear path of surreal visual noise. It has direct visual references to Layers of Fear, and it starts to feel as slight and forgettable as many of the sequences from that game.

To illustrate my point, while I could tell you a story about all the different cases in the early sections of the game, when I replayed the ending sequence to see the alternate ending, it felt like I was doing some of it for the first time. I literally played this section of the game 20 minutes prior and I’d already forgotten what it looked like.

Perhaps it’s for the best that the weak sections of the game are forgettable and the detective work in the first two-thirds is what I will take away with me. Observer is a game worth playing, and even if the ending falters a bit, I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who thinks the idea of cyberpunk horror sounds cool.

Now that most of the frustrating edges are sanded off (outside of one drawn out stealth sequence early on and a couple quick trial-and-error moments later on) and this remake standing as one of the few fully next-gen games at PS5 and Xbox Series X launch, if you have the means, there is no better time to give this game a shot. I was so glad I did, and happy I waited to play this version of the game.

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