Observer: System Redux Review: The Other Polish Cyberpunk Game
I’ll just go ahead and say it. Observer: System Redux is a Blade Runner video game. Created by Bloober Team, best known for the Layers of Fear series, this title turns away from the paranormal and instead embraces the horrors of technology. I might compare this game to SOMA, another horrific vision of the future I loved. Observer is far from perfect. But I think it captures the cyberpunk horror genre perfectly.
Observer: System Redux is just about the darkest cyberpunk portrayal you can possibly portray. Set in a world ravaged by disease, war, poverty, and corporatocracy, the game takes place in cyber-Krakow, under control of the megacorporation Chiron. As is typical in the cyberpunk genre, everything is terrible, but also runs unsettlingly parallel to the current world.
Bloober Team have created an exceedingly dark and depressing cyberpunk setting. You spend the game in a ramshackle cyber-apartment, the type where the lowest members of cyber-society (about ~90% of the population) are allowed to live. Everyone who isn’t dead or dying remains locked in their apartment due to the fear of catching the Nanophage, a disease that causes cybernetic implants to turn on the host. To put it simply, it’s not going well. Observer is about as grim as the future gets before it resembles that of The Matrix. The best place for a cyberpunk horror to be.
Ironically, the protagonist portrayed by Blade Runner actor Rutger Hauer is basically an elderly blade runner. You play as Daniel Lazarski who is an Observer. A corporate cop with special “Dream Eater” cybernetics that lets him connect to other brains, you, Dan, and the citizenry alike are all well aware that Dan is in the business of Doing Bad Things. And yet Rutger Hauer is such a charming person that he can’t help but make you like Dan.
Observer starts with Dan getting a call from his estranged son, Adam. Heading into an impoverished apartment complex in order to find him, the whole building is suddenly locked down. Searching his apartment he gets a lead on whatever horrible dealings Adam was up to, along with a decapitated body and a trail of other bodies. And from there the story begins.
The aesthetic of Observer was literally overwhelming. The flickering screens and crackling sounds and visual filters of this intensely cyberpunk world gave me a headache for a while. Some more detailed settings would have made the experience a lot easier for me to get into. The headache wore off after the first hour or so, but it doesn’t change that Observer turns chromatic aberration into chromatic abomination.
Which sort of makes it extremely accurate to the genre. Cyberpunk isn’t supposed to be an ideal, it is supposed to suck. It’s supposed to make your eyes ache and brain fog from staring at screens and artificial lights every waking hour. The idea of a cyberpunk world is one that has been drained of all humanity, where people have to consume drugs or media nonstop or they commit suicide (kind of like Ready Player One). The world of Observer is dark, oppressive, and disgusting. It works great in a horror setting.
Observer is a pretty accurate title seeing as much of the game has you perusing areas for evidence. Exploration is indeed a lot of fun, and the labyrinthine apartment buildings of which you are locked is a fascinating and stressful place. But ultimately, gameplay boils down to looking around for clues. Not a whole lot of puzzles beyond that.
There really isn’t much action to be had in Observer. Not that there needs to be, this isn’t really that kind of game. That changes, however, when you jack into another person’s mind. Detective Dan has a cord in his cyber-hand that he can somewhat violently push into the cyber-brain of suspects or victims. When this happens, he enters a chaotic version of their memories. Corridors with hostile architecture and impossible space where you pop in and out of without much control, sort of like The Evil Within. And somehow, there’s a creature that follows you in.
I won’t go into much detail about it. All I’ll say is that for a monster with many eyes, it’s certainly not great at looking. Observer is a fairly slow paced game, so a monster that could sprint after you would be unfair. But the gameplay sequences that have you hiding from the thing are suspenseful, but not all doo difficult. While this part could use some adjustments, it’s certainly not a terrible issue and does not diminish the game experience.
This game is great. I can’t say I was a fan of the gameplay. But it captures the grim and horrible future of corporatocracy, and the pacification of the entire world by means of giving them an Oculus Rift to play around with. The story of Observer is a small scale thing, which I have come to appreciate more than a save-the-whole-world narrative. For all its quirks, Observer is one of the best cyberpunk games I’ve ever played. Video games typically aren’t great about portraying cyberpunk as intended, but this one certainly does.