A remaster of Xbox One’s Observer may seem an odd choice for the launch of the Series X|S. It’s a game that’s been out for barely three years, and it’s far from the blockbuster system-seller that Demon’s Souls was and is. But, having spent so much time in Observer: System Redux’s world, the remastering makes complete and utter sense, and should lift it to the summit of your game backlog.
Observer is a game about immersion. The people of Observer’s world all lose themselves in virtual constructs; your character, Daniel Lazarski (Rutger Hauer) is employed to lose himself in the consciousness of others as the titular Observer – the game itself has been built, from the ground up, to deliver immersion to whomever plays it. With the release of the Series X|S, all of these elements have been amplified, and Observer: System Redux becomes an exemplar of telling a story and keeping the player locked within it.
If there were flaws in the original, it was that the stealth sections infuriated and the game world didn’t reward exploration enough. Observer: System Redux has given Bloober Team the opportunity to file down the stealth to become silky smooth. Where it was once unfair, it’s now forgiving but tense, and it achieves what was originally intended: to offer much-needed gameplay to the on-rails sections. And while the apartment complex of the original Observer was atmospheric, it lacked the content to make deep, systematic exploration worthwhile. That’s been resolved with three new mini-cases and their resulting neural interrogations, amounting to probably twenty minutes each. The apartment complex in Observer: System Redux is that little bit deeper and richer as a result, with more to see and collect.
But the real kicker for Observer: System Redux on Series X|S is the fidelity boost. This is an astonishing-looking game; better than most triple-A games. The addition of ray-tracing, HDR lighting (in particular), 4K textures, new character models, improved animations – they all combine to make Observer oppressively beautiful. Sure, it’s all slathered in darkness, neon and flickering holograms, allowing the artists to hide some of the rougher edges, but the combination of all these effects is entirely successful, and makes Observer: System Redux one of the most immersive Xbox experiences yet.
It’s for all of these reasons that a remaster of Observer on the Series X|S feels right. It may not have the box office appeal of a Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed or Demon’s Souls, but it’s a calling card for what the Series X|S can achieve, and the experiences we may well get out of it in the future. It genuinely makes you excited for the possibilities.
That’s the lowdown for people who may have played Observer before. If you’re in that group, hopefully you now have a gist of whether a refined version of the game is enough to warrant plugging yourself back in.
For those who haven’t come across Observer before, you deserve a primer. This is a horror game, set in a cyberpunk world. You play Daniel Lazarski, an investigator on the hunt for his son in an apartment complex within Krakow. You work from crime scene to crime scene on your son’s trail, using your Dream Eater to hack into the memories of victims and suspects. These neural interrogations play out as Kafka-esque nightmares, full of memorable but horrific scenes, and you’ll come out of the other side with an inkling of the direction in which you need to go.
This is primarily a narrative adventure, and there’s no combat to be found. You could brand it with the terrible ‘walking simulator’ misnomer, but there’s too much exploration, crime-scene investigation and puzzling (including the previously mentioned stealth) for that to feel appropriate. You will spend almost all of your time in the single apartment complex, and the walls will feel like they’re closing in, thanks to the effects of the drugs you take, the hallucinations that come with them, the too appropriate themes of lockdown, and the very real monsters that soon get your scent.
It’s not for everyone, as it’s lacking in twitchy, traditional gameplay. It’s also an intense experience to play. Nobody is particularly friendly, and you will be very alone in a shifting, futuristic haunted house. There’s also little in the way of hand-holding – a concession to the immersion – which might lead to rage-quitting, as the correct turning or room eludes you (a basement sequence in particular is a labyrinth). But if you survived Layers of Fear, have a stern disposition or love horror and narrative games, Observer is an easy recommendation.
It’s easy to get carried away, as there are still some wrinkles that a remaster can’t completely remove. For our tastes, the neural interrogations can feel like hallucinations for hallucination’s sake, particularly as they can stretch on for a long old while. They are undeniably memorable, and produce some of the game’s lasting images – a towering pigeon, a crowd of people with television-heads, a shimmering deer wandering the halls – but they also feel too long for the minimal character development or evidence they deliver. We would have loved it if they just felt narratively vital, rather than a pure rollercoaster.
The crime scene investigations, too, feel a bit patchy. You get two filters to apply on a crime scene: one is for biological matter, the other for technology. But while it feels great to be given free reign of a crime scene and to flick between these lenses, we never really felt like we were building a bigger picture, or that we had any agency in forming the conclusions. You could imagine a more satisfying interpretation of them, and we’ve played a fair few detective sims that come to better conclusions.
These are very personal reactions to the sections. We remember reading reviews at the time of the original’s release, and reactions to the Dream Eater sections in particular were gushing, so you may well find that they become highlights.
We don’t want to spend too much time nitpicking, as the originality of Observer: System Redux and the relentless, overwhelming immersion make it so easy to recommend. Keeping to the one apartment complex may have been a production decision, but it creates a sense of place and a mental map that will live long in the memory. The audio and visual design, too, juiced up by the Series X|S, only heightens the experience. As one of Rutger Hauer’s final performances, it’s affectingly downbeat and ragged. There’s a wonderful sequence that harks back to one of his older films.
Observer: System Redux on Xbox is an example of the ideal remaster. The best bits are amplified; in this case the mangled, filthy cyberpunk visuals and the immersion in a grotesque horror story. Equally, the worst bits are excised, as the terrible stealth sections and the thin exploration are left on the neurosurgeon’s floor. What you’re left with is an emphatic horror title, an easy recommendation to the acquainted and unacquainted, and an experience that will live long in the memory.