(CYBERPUNK 2077 is out now for PC, Stadia, PS4, PS5, Xbox, and Xbox Series X/S. Distributor provided review copy.)
Eight years is a long time, especially in game development. When CD Projekt RED first announced their next game would be an adaptation of the iconic CYBERPUNK series, Barack Obama was still President of the United States. Now, after years of development, including horrendous working conditions and a disastrous launch, CYBERPUNK 2077 is finally out. Was it worth the wait?
Well, yes, and no, and I’m not entirely sure the game is complete even now.
Into the city
Set in the fictional megalopolis of Night City, CYBERPUNK 2077 follows the story of V, a young netrunner out to make a name for themselves. When a routine gig goes sour, V finds themselves in the dog-eat-dog world of criminals and warring factions as a nomad without a tribe. Coupled together with punk-rocker-turned-terrorist Johnny Silverhand (Keanu Reeves), V must take on the entire city if they truly want to become the stuff of legend.
The basic setup is classic Cyberpunk, complete with double-crosses, corporate colonialism, and perversions of bodily autonomy. It’s a deeply troubling, dystopian world that, at best, feels intoxicating to explore. When CYBERPUNK works, it delivers a deep dive into one of the most tense, moodiest, and wholly believable alternate realities available.
Nowhere is this as evident as driving around Night City, exploring the hellish landscape once the sun has set. Colossal building rise into the horizon, covering the sky and flooding the landscape with neon lights and gaudy advertisements. The sense of scale is imposing, and it’s remarkably easy to lose yourself in the capitalist nightmare.
Equally impressive are the outskirts and endless trashfields beyond the city limits. Inspired by hellscapes found worldwide, they’re just as distressing here as in reality.
In your image
Each playthrough begins with a character creation, including selecting three different “life paths.” These are nomad, Corpo, and street kid, but none of them affect the story beyond the opening tutorial and the occasional dialog choice.
Much of the character creation process feels oddly limited, even as the basic RPG-mechanics from the tabletop version carry over. Stats like body, mind, tech, and cool each govern different abilities, but they’re not particularly well explained, especially in the beginning. Tech, for example, will help you override doors later on in the game, but it’s not something you’ll pick up when initially building the character.
The same goes for your looks. By default, V is a white, straight person, either male or female. There’s an option to craft them into any race and gender you like, in theory at least. But these options don’t meaningfully affect the story and, worse, are severely limited even as their intentions are good.
For example, the game allows you to pick genitalia from two different sets and multiple different sizes. At first, this feels like the kind of freedom RPG’s have waited for all this time. But V can’t decide on their gender themselves, and instead, you’re limited to two binary choices, both tied to the pitch of your voice. There’s the masculine, making you a man, and feminine, making you a woman. On top of that, what’s between your legs matters as well. Want to play a trans-man or woman? Tough.
Love for only a few
You might ask why something like this even matters, and the answer is because it is possible. But because it is possible and leads nowhere, CYBERPUNK draws attention to a shortcoming easily remedied. As a genre, Cyberpunk is more than just flashy lights, fast cars, and a weird fixation on yellow peril. It is at best about transhumanism, moving beyond our limitations, exploring the consciousness, and tearing down conservative values like binary gender norms.
Introducing the possibility of deciding your gender and body from the very beginning means that someone in development thought of this and implemented it accordingly. But limiting it again means that at another point, someone else pulled it a step back, closing off the option to explore something exciting. This tug and pull is everywhere in the final product, like opposing sides fighting for the soul of the game.
As with any modern RPG, there are romance options and one night stands, each limited to one of the two available genders. This, in particular, is a disappointment, as there are multiple great storylines involving well-written characters (Judy and Panam especially), who remain locked away based on the game hosting an unwelcome gender reveal party for you.
It also means that as an RPG, CYBERPUNK limits itself to a single, CIS-viewpoint, detracting from its open world and mission statement of telling a story about change. By design, V remains the same throughout the narrative, and the lack of character customization beyond the opening menu underlines this further. Once you’ve made your initial choice, you’re stuck with that for good.
In a world of open modification and AI spirits, this seems awfully dated.
Even running on a high-end PC, playing CYBERPUNK is a chore thanks to a wild assortment of bugs. While only a few are game breaking, they are consistently present, breaking immersion at every turn. From disappearing assets to broken dialog to missions just plain not loading, CYBERPUNK is in desperate need of a couple more QA passes.
It’s not like technical issues are unforgivable; just look at Bethesda, who haven’t shipped a single game that works on launch. But CYBERPUNK’s problems extend beyond the surface and into the foundations. Level and mission designs are often contradictory with one another, some referencing things that haven’t happened yet, or giving you information that doesn’t make sense because you’ve chosen different paths earlier in the game.
Still, it could be worse. The PlayStation and Xbox versions don’t work at all currently.
Other missions will repeat boss fights because the narrative design can’t keep up with the massive amounts of material at hand. Earlier on my first playthrough, I encountered a seedy brothel owner, who was guilty of abusing the women working for him. After an exchange of pleasentries, I ended up splitting his skull with my katana, like one does. Six hours later, a random sidequest brought me face to face with him again. Alive and well with no indication or clue how it was possible. I can only guess the missions were written by different teams, but at such different times they didn’t know of the overlap.
If this were a singular event, it would be easily brushed off. But CYBERPUNK comes loaded with problems like this, be it in missions, dialog, or the world in general.
Said continuity stumbles further in the dialog between V and Reeves’ Silverhand. The wanna-be punk rocker will often pipe in with his opinions and views on the world, offering the player insight and heckling them to make the wrong decisions. In theory, it’s a great idea, saddling the lead character with a Jiminy Cricket from hell, but in practice, it’s still unfinished.
When you first meet him, Johnny comes off as a cocksure egomaniac, complete with the kind of baggage people like that carry. Within minutes, he’s dictating the terms for another assault on Arisaka tower, the main Corpo highrise dominating the skyline. Moments later, he’ll mourn the loss of a lover he once had, tenderly sharing a moment with V. Sometimes it’s just the way Reeves reads his lines. There’s rarely a case where the material and the performance match. The misses are notable, because when everything is in sync the results are as good as Reeves has ever been.
I’d like to think that with some course correcting, Johnny’s storyline will make more sense. Right now, it feels like the production only had limited access to Reeves and they recorded what they could, but every new addition makes the pre-canned options feel even more incoherent.
Singular moments are impressive though. A flashback to Johnny’s glory days is fantastic, and there are some great, nuanced touches involving his friends and lovers calling out the toxic masculinity he oozes. It’s just that they rarely connect and often come so far apart that most lose the weight of their message in turn.
CYBERPUNK’s depiction of the Japanese culture, or any culture, really, is superficial at best and insulting at worst. How much that has to do with cut content and a rushed production is uncertain because some moments genuinely speak of an awareness that the rest of the game doesn’t follow up.
Most notable is the Arasaka clan, the main antagonists of the game. Everything in Night City is either owned or dominated by them, and each aspect of your plight ties into something they’ve done over the last hundred years. It’s a shame, then, that none of them develop beyond simple caricatures, not even Goro Takemura, bodyguard turned vigilante. Instead, they remain typical archetypes reserved for western depictions of Japan, where the women are either mysterious and erotic or cold and distant, and the men speak of nothing but honor and tradition like their life depended on it.
On top of that, every minority character speaks with a pronounced accent, dropping in random words in a foreign language, just enough to make it clear that they’re different.
Even Takemura, who the game luckily doesn’t refer to as a ronin at any point, speaks in parables and haikus until V ridicules him to stop.
Early on, CYBERPUNK breaks away from this in a hugely effective scene, where two generations of the dynasty argue over its direction. The younger one sees conquering the west through corporate imperialism as the path forward. In comparison, the older one feels that such an action would eventually cause them to lose their own cultural identity in the process. It’s a terrific moment, not least because it’s one of the very few that ties into the themes the game wants to deal with but never does.
It’s such a shame that it’s the only moment in the entire game that shows such self-awareness. Almost immediately afterward, CYBERPUNK picks a dull narrative of revenge and never looks back at what could have been.
Instead, the game settles on a series of stereotypes from every culture, gender, and sexual orientation without a single meaningful thing to say about them. Curiously, these stereotypes don’t extend to CIS-gendered white folks. Most notable is that in a story where sexual violence is everywhere, I didn’t spot a single instance where a presumed male character was its target. This extends from background chatter to entire story missions, complete with graphic depictions of violence, rape, and mutilations. All directed at women.
Equally embarrassing is the inclusion of the Haitian “Voodoo Boys,” who play right into the hands of old racist tropes. Granted, CYBERPUNK tries to have it both ways by implying that the name isn’t one of their choosing, but it also doesn’t elaborate on this before you never interact with them again. Out of all the sidequests and groups in the game, they remain a complete one-off without a larger purpose.
To play or not to play.
The reason all this stands out is that, at the moment, CYBERPUNK 2077 just isn’t very fun to play. It has elements that work superbly, and moments of greatness hint at a much better product, but it’s severely lacking as a complete package.
Not because it isn’t ambitious or that it’s a terrible game, but because it can’t focus on what kind of a game it wants to be. There are elements from numerous inspirations, including RAGE, DISHONORED, DEUS EX, and even BORDERLANDS, but none meld together into a complete whole.
Sneaking is fun in theory, but marred by terrible and unpredictable AI. Shooting looks incredible, but the bullet-sponge enemies do little to make them actually feel like fun. The less said about driving, the better. Again, any one of these things on their own, working as it should, would be enough. But in putting all three together and half-assing all of them just draws attention to the wrong things.
Instead, every time the game starts to sag, and it often does due to poor pacing, the mind wanders. And it wanders to the hugely political, timely, and explosive themes that CYBERPUNK plays with, and you can’t help but wonder. Why does it play it so conservatively and safe with some of them? Why is it so invested in attempting to shock the player with overtly sexual advertising and content but refuses to leap into depicting something we haven’t seen before?
And try as you might block them out, CYBERPUNK 2077 is a wild, in-your-face ride when it wants to be, forcing the bleak dystopia right into your retinas. It openly lifts from every pop-culture product it can think of, though most of its DNA it owes to the 1999 cult classic STRANGE DAYS. But in doing so, it loses its personality, which remains oddly tame and subdued.
I can’t help but wonder if the eight-year development cycle is to blame. There’s no telling at the present what kind of a product CYBERPUNK originally was, but my money is on a linear action-adventure game with light role-playing mechanics. Because those elements, the strictly railroaded story beats, work the best. They’re tight, well written, and the ticking clock serving as the games MacGuffin all feel polished.
Everything else, from the pointless fetch quests to the underdeveloped racing to the mindless cop missions, all feel like late-to-the-game filler—none of which elaborate or flesh out Night City.
I wish I liked CYBERPUNK more than I do. I always have a soft spot for ambitious games, those with a clear point of view and a desire to say it even at the cost of everything else. But this isn’t it. Instead, CYBERPUNK has the voice and the flair, but no meaningful lyrics to scream, and like Johnny Silverhand, it goes out in a great looking but pointless blaze of glory. Forgotten as soon as the cinders have died out.
As of publication, CD Projekt has announced their intention to salvage the game from its unplayable state on the consoles. Maybe, in six months or more, it will enjoy a kind of revival. With all the bugs fixed, and hopefully the narrative smoothed out, CYBERPUNK can return with a clearer voice. I, for one, am rooting for it.