A Cyberpunk Thriller Worth Setting Your Sights On
Technology truly is a wonderful thing. It educates us, entertains us, helps us maintain and establish relationships, saves lives, and so, so much more. It’s not at all a stretch to say that technology serves as the epicenter of my own life, as I’m sure it does for most of us. I really don’t know where I would be without all of the wonderful advancements in technology that we’ve seen so far, and I genuinely look forward to the many technological advancements that I, and many others, will be able to benefit from in the future.
Technology is also kind of terrifying, though. I don’t like fear-mongering, and I’m no conspiracy theorist, so I won’t waste your time elaborating too much on this. Instead, I’ll just say that some people have certain fears regarding our rapidly evolving technological world, and at least some of it is justified. Observer: System Redux is a game that revels in that fear. It takes the bits and pieces of technological anxiety that people drop through conversation, hungrily mashes them all together and grows it into a terrifying entity of its own. Whether it’s something that could most likely never happen, something that already happened, or something that is bound to happen in the future, if it’s related to technology then System Redux not only most likely touches upon it, but does so in the most frightening way that it knows how. Which is why this game is so great.
No Sector for Old Men
The world of Observer already had a very detailed history, and System Redux only adds to that. It’s also compelling enough to make me wish that I could just sit here and dissect the game’s lore instead of writing a standard review. I probably shouldn’t do that, though, so, instead, I’ll just lay down the basics for you. System Redux takes place in 2084, in a highly futuristic version of Krakow, Poland that is trying to recover after having been torn asunder by the nanophage—an extremely deadly disease that can only be contracted by cybernetically modified humans (which is almost the entire human population by this point).
The game begins with protagonist Daniel Lazarski, who works for the Krakow Police Department as an Observer—special KPD agents equipped with implants that allow them to interrogate people by directly plugging into their minds—receiving a call for help from his borderline-estranged son and tracking him down to a dilapidated apartment complex in a not-so-great part of town. Once inside of the building, Lazarski actually does manage to find his son…’s decapitated body and then subsequently finds himself trapped inside the building due to an unexpected lockdown. Determined to prove to himself that the bloody, headless corpse in his son’s apartment somehow isn’t his son, and unable to go anywhere else, Lazarski begins exploring the apartment complex—entirely unaware of the horrors awaiting him further inside.
I apologize for droning on so much about the story before actually giving my opinion on it—I know that it’s even worse than usual in this review. But I think that it says something important about this game’s story. System Redux isn’t a terribly long game—an initial run will probably take you somewhere between 7 – 10 hours depending on playstyle—but every single frame of this game is begging to tell a story, and most of the time doesn’t take “no” for an answer.
Throughout my entire time with System Redux, I could never shake the feeling that it was firing on all cylinders to deliver multiple, detailed, narratives to me all at the same time. Not only are you being fed Lazarski’s own morbid, desperate tale, but a lot of the game’s story felt like a cautionary tale as well. The cyberpunk genre was something entirely unimaginable when it first broke ground in the 80s, but that’s not necessarily the case 40 years later. Our world, while looking nothing like Observer‘s, is quickly approaching the point where a merging of the biological and technological feels like a possibility. Heck, in some cases it already is—and once you become aware of that, the game’s story becomes all the more frightening.
System Redux has plenty of narrative prowess, and it isn’t afraid to show it off. But not everything about its storytelling is perfect. For me, the biggest issue lies within its presentation. It doesn’t take long to realize that certain parts of this game thrive on surrealism and that the further you get into the game the more often surrealism comes into play. Now, I’m not saying that surrealism is bad or anything. It’s an exceptional tool when used correctly, and, System Redux does use it correctly in multiple instances. What specifically bothered me were the few parts where the story was so heavily drenched in surrealism that it did little more than muddle things. It’s not a huge problem given that Bloober Team demonstrates multiple times throughout the game that they know how to properly use surrealism, but the few parts where it was used to “help the player come to their own conclusion” left me frustrated because of how badly it contradicted the straightforward nature indicative of the bulk of the game’s story.
Gears for Fears
Most of the time, when someone calls a game “unique” it’s because it attempts to do something that other games within the same genre don’t. System Redux, on the other hand, is unique for the opposite reason. Despite being a psychological horror game (which it very much is), it doesn’t go out of its way to constantly remind the player that it is one. There aren’t any dubious traps lying in wait for any unsuspecting cops that might be lurking around, you don’t have to worry about monsters tracking you down as you explore. The only “mandatory” survival element in the game—the sporadic use of a medication called syncrozine—doesn’t even appear to punish the player if ignored outside of making the screen look weird (which is actually pretty annoying, so you might as well comply). About 95% of this is essentially an entirely danger-free, gorgeously rendered walking simulator with light puzzle elements and areas that the player is free to examine—both with their own eyes and Lazarski’s electronic and bio matter-specific optical sensors—at their leisure. And, yet, the game somehow still doesn’t feel safe.
System Redux succeeds in being scary because it doesn’t go out of its way to spook the player at every twist and turn. Instead, much like this genre suggests it would, it scares players by messing with their psyche. A perfect example of this is the classic “turn around and someone’s right behind you” trope, which this game does exactly one time in the beginning. One time. But that one time was so effective that I spent the rest of the game preparing myself to get jumped each and every time I examined something important. The game didn’t need to consistently sneak up on me because, by making me think that it was going to, and prodding me with a myriad of auditory red herrings every so often, it had already brilliantly claimed victory over me.
Everyone Likes an Upgrade
So, it’s time to finally answer the question that you’ve probably been asking the entire time you’ve been reading this: just what is a “system redux?” Well, I’m not sure. But I do know what makes Observer: System Redux different from the original game! I’ve already mentioned once that the game looks gorgeous, but that’s still a bit of an understatement. System Redux goes above and beyond in terms of making the game look good. So good, in fact, that I can say with certainty that it’s the best-looking game that I’ve played all year.
System Redux also tweaks existing content—by doing things like shortening dream eater sequences (which still felt a bit long)—and, most importantly, adding in brand-new content! Now, taking a pre-existing game and trying to add new things into it without damaging the integrity of the original product can be difficult. Oftentimes, games circumvent this problem by creating entirely new areas for players to explore. But not System Redux! Instead, it just places the three new cases smack-dab in the middle of the storyline that was already there. Well, it does that with two of them, at least. One of them’s actually pretty easy to miss.
As I’ve already said, placing new content atop old content is a risky move. It’s incredibly easy to mess up the flow of a game if you just start shoehorning in content that wasn’t originally there. Fortunately, Bloober Team didn’t shoehorn anything in so much as they gracefully intertwined both new and old together. That might sound hyperbolic, but I can assure you that it isn’t. You see, System Redux is my first time playing through Observer in any capacity. I knew that this version had new content, but, to me, everything was new. Still, I wanted to make sure that I hit as much of the new content as I could, so I, having forgotten the names of the new cases, looked them up again. And, you know what? I had already started two of them. This game was so good at seamlessly adding in new content that I hadn’t even noticed that it was new; I literally thought that it was part of the game. And if that isn’t a mark of quality, then I don’t know what is.
A Redux You Can Really Lose Yourself In
Observer: System Redux is a very high-quality psychological horror title, and truly one-of-a-kind (not counting the original, of course). While it may not provide players with many of the normal horror tropes and mechanics—choosing instead to almost entirely submerge them in atmosphere alone—it still manages to create a consistently unnerving environment, happily coated in a gorgeous cyberpunk aesthetic. So long as you don’t mind a more hands-off approach to horror, System Redux will absolutely not let you down.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 5, Xbox One ; Publisher: Anshar Studios; Developer: Bloober Team ; Players: 1 ; Released: November 11, 2020 ; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRP: $29.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Observer: System Redux provided by the publisher.