Are Bloober Team the kings of psychological horror games? They’ve put out a few that have become streaming reaction classics like the two Layers of Fear games and Blair Witch, but there’s one that seems to get overlooked a little… even with the late, great Rutger Hauer bringing gravitas to the lead character. Maybe to partly remedy the visibility, maybe to pay homage to Hauer’s performance, and possibly to cash in on the cyberpunk infatuation in gaming right now, 2017’s Observer has been given an overhaul to release on the latest generation of consoles (as well as an updated version on PC). Boasting improved visuals, additional content and enhanced gameplay, Observer: System Redux is the definitive edition of their sci-fi detective chiller. Will it drive players towards more in the genre, or is it likely to scare people away?
Inhabiting the body and brain of Daniel Lazarski (voiced and modelled on Rutger Hauer), you’re playing the part of a detective in Krakow in 2084. He’s no ordinary officer though, he’s part of the Observer unit, tasked with hacking into people’s minds via neural implant to discover their motives and secrets, put in place after an outbreak of the nanophage – a deadly disease that affects cybernetic implants. Called out to a slum tenement on a routine investigation, Lazarski finds a decapitated corpse in an apartment with all the signs pointing to it being his son, Adam. Taking this somewhat personally, he triggers a search of the whole building that spirals into near madness as Dan peels back the layers of secrets the tenants are hiding as he hunts for the killer. What’s real and what’s illusion? What’s fact and what’s fiction? It’s hard to tell in his world, which might be a consequence of mind hacking dead people.
Observer: System Redux slants heavily towards first person investigation. Each area or crime scene is designed to be explored and scanned with Lazarski’s tech and bio vision modes, clues examined to figure out what’s happened, physics puzzles to be completed, and ultimately all combining to discover where to go to next. Find everything necessary to propel the story forward and his case book will update with the next objective, and off he trots. Or rather shuffles, movement in this is deliberately slow. Come across a body – alive or dead – and there’s usually a neural link to plug into so that you can figure out the person’s last moves or uncover more information. This is where the psychological horror kicks in because exploring the nooks and crannies of a dying mind is not pleasant. Memories are unnerving, bizarre and in some cases, terrifying. Not to mention that Dan’s being hunted through some of them by an horrific monster intent of stomping him out of existence. The game excels in creating unnerving scenarios and causing huge amounts of disorientation, as well as more than a few jump scares.
Flitting between real life and dreamlike states wouldn’t be so bad if there was a clear boundary, but the tenement is so dank, oppressive and creepy that sometimes it’s hard to say what’s worse – wandering around in someone’s head, or wandering the basement of the building. The visual style is distinct and impressive. As the mental stress takes its toll on Daniel and his stabilising meds become less effective, it feels as if the fake and real begin to blend, and that really begins to mess with your perceptions. It’s mentally taxing for the player as well. At very few times does Observer: System Redux let up with the tension, and that makes it a tough game to play through. You’re constantly on edge, preparing yourself for whatever’s going to be thrown your way next. Occasionally there’s respite with a secondary case that might have some dark humour or something a little more hopeful in its outcome, but soon enough it’s back to the dingy, cloying and decaying atmosphere that hangs in every corridor.
For the release on PS5 and Series X there’s been a graphical overhaul with the inclusion of ray tracing so that the dark corridors look… well, more dark. There’s a lot of greens, browns and blacks rendered on screen so it’s not the palette getting the attention, though it is all pin sharp. In the off chance there’s an area with windows and unbroken mirrors, the reflections come into their own and provide that additional level of authenticity. Barring a couple of sections where something is being rendered in the background, it’s largely very smooth, and the loading is zippy enough that the mandatory stealth parts with insta-fail come across as less frustrating than they usually would be. On the PS5 version the adaptive triggers get a look in when grabbing handles to open doors and cupboards, as well as the haptic feedback that signals everything from heartbeats to footsteps. The real bonus though are additional cases to investigate offering up a couple of intriguing tales that flesh out what is a depressing vision of the future of humanity.
Coming with the improvements are a few issues though. Some of the physics parts like to do their own thing and need a reload to make everything behave. A number of times progression was blocked because a wire got trapped in the floor and wouldn’t stretch far enough, or a button prompt wouldn’t activate. The enemy AI in the stealth sections is a bit unpredictable too – sometimes it does what’s needed and stalks the rooms and corridors; other times it gets stuck in an animation loop and poses no threat, or fails to see you even if you’re practically tickling its balls. The latter aren’t necessarily bad bugs for those that hate that kind of hide and seek gameplay! Arguably the worst issue affects the PS5 where putting the game into rest mode causes a system wide shutdown. It might have been a clever trick of fourth wall breaking in Observer: System Redux if it wasn’t so annoying and potentially damaging.
If wandering to a location, painstakingly analysing the environment, then being pulled into a twisted recreation of someone’s last memories is your idea of fun, I’d suggest some form of therapy. Observer: System Redux is not fun in any sense of the word. However, as a sci-fi tale that explores questions of existentiality; looks at where we’re prepared to let our quality of life drop to; considers whether a fully connected world would be isolating; and is strung together by a father’s unrequited love for his son – it works well. Hauer’s delivery suits the character, there are quite a lot of optional bits to find and collect, and the decisions you’ll make throughout will provide the context of which ever ending you get. Just be aware it’s heavy going and the constant assault on your senses can be draining.
A PS5 review copy of Observer: System Redux was provided by Bloober’s PR team, and the game is available now on PS5, Xbox Series X and PC for around £25 depending on platform.