3.5/5 ★ – MIKEYMO's review of Cyberpunk 2077.
Cyberpunk 2077 tries to envelop players with its rebellious punk attitude towards a distant future dystopia known as Night City. The game has the unfortunate task of adapting an entire genre as well as a pre-existing table top franchise into a massive game world. As a result, Cyberpunk 2077’s tone is an unnatural macrocosm of various genre tropes and cliches that lack any sort of nuance or subtlety. Night City, bombards you with overt themes of unfettered capitalism and corporate militarism by peppering the city with cartoonish overly sexualized ads for products ranging from soda cans to cologne. Meanwhile, paramilitaristic organizations have an overbearing presence that is so immediately normalized to the point where it wouldn't be uncommon for an average denizen to discuss Mili-Tech or Arisaka in the same way they might talk about sports. While exploring the open world, you will be forced to listen to radio hosts who present news about violent atrocities with the same energy and enthusiasm as a game show host surprising the winning contestant with a brand new car. The aggressively satirical energy CD Projekt RED injects into Cyberpunk 2077 makes Grand Theft Auto’s brand of satire seem deeply serious and thematically rich. Between the way the world of Cyberpunk 2077 is presented, coupled with its embarrassingly rushed launch, one begins to question whether the developers truly understand the themes it’s trying to present or if they perhaps ran out of time to finesse the tone into something more sophisticated.
Yet—way beneath the surface, Cyberpunk 2077 is not really about anything it pretends to actually be. If CDPR’s depiction of Night City makes you thematically jaded; one can take solace in the fact that the plot is deeply touching on a human level and is empathetic towards those who have to actually have to live within and navigate this dystopia. At its core, Cyberpunk 2077 actually does have something meaningful to say, but it’s hidden among so many terrible fetch quests, open world checklist distractions, and far too many pointless characters that distract from the greatness of its charming characters and narrative highs.
Cyberpunk presents a certain futility to the idea of living a meaningful life when the world itself is designed to strip you of your personality or the free will to live as you please. In the case of the main character V’s narrative, V cannot even die without the meddling of vengeful corporations. The now undead V is accompanied by Johnny Silverhand, played by Keanu Reeves, for the entirety of the game. Silverhand is a virtual consciousness, also deprived of the right to die, with a soul that lives on through the construct of V’s mind. This scenario leans into typical genre themes of transhumanism but it works extremely well from a narrative perspective as Silverhand, along with V, grow together and apart throughout the main narrative. His presence has both V and the player questioning whether life in a capitalist dystopia is truly fruitless or if there is always something to live for. Their all-embracing connection leans into the greatest strength of Cyberpunk 2077—the intimacy of its characters.
Despite being advertised as a role-playing game, Cyberpunk 2077 is essentially an open world action-adventure with RPG elements. The story of Cyberpunk is entirely plot driven from top to bottom. The plot builds up to something truly interesting, but this means the player lacks the ability to make choices that diverge the story and questing in meaningful ways. It is difficult to evaluate the benefits of this kind of storytelling because while it is extremely limited in player choice, especially compared to marketplace competition, it ultimately results in some of the best character relationships in recent memory. These characters are the lifeline that Cyberpunk 2077 desperately needs to keep the game engaging. Especially against the backdrop of an over simplistic dystopia.
Most of the relationships V has are introduced organically via the narrative. Many smaller characters such as quest-giving "Fixers" are only there to use V for capital before moving on and away from the central plot. Where the game lacks subtlety in its thematic presentation, it actually does a great job not overburdening the player with unnecessary characterization for minor characters. As a result, the world feels more believable. V is a mercenary afterall, so she isn’t remotely concerned with mundane conversation from, say, a job-fixer who sends you on a quest or two.
The major characters however, are always three-dimensional and work fantastically in the context of Night City. You can easily juxtapose a loyal industrialist character, such as Takemura, against Silverhand’s one-note anti-establishment attitude. What makes such extreme opposite characters immediately interesting is how they struggle with being dehumanized by the same corporate system that these individuals both seem to love or hate with equal passion. Every major character has their own unique perspective on morality, life, and the constructs of society in Night City, but none of them truly have anything figured out and they all suffer their own brand of consequences of the establishment—no matter how right or wrong they think they are.
This deeply personal connection to the characters continues into Cyberpunk 2077’s fantastic side quest writing. The main narrative begins to introduce you to a healthy handful of side characters while the side quests really develop these character relationships into something great. There is a lot of bespoke content in the side quests with everything from capers against military corporations to sleuthing around town solving murders or playing concerts at a seedy dive bar.
There is a certain confidence to the presentation of the quests in Cyberpunk that sets a high bar for role-playing games to come. In the same way an editor naturally hides cuts in a film, CDPR commonly puts the character into a vibrant location such as Lizzie’s Bar where the player instinctively approaches the bartender and without realizing it, has spontaneously started the dialogue for a quest. You will take a seat and start a conversation with the barkeep which then leads to another character approaching the bar and joining in on the conversation. You agree to talk somewhere more private where, again, you naturally continue the conversation as you walk and talk through the environment as any ordinary bar patron would. Most of the denizens in Night City, including V, come from a peculiar culture and speak in an austere coded manner so having immersive moments such as this provide enough context to understand the setting without every proper noun and colloquialism being explained. The player just picks up on things as they immerse themselves in the world and the game is better for it. No part of the presentation of quests feels static so you can easily get immersed in a lot of these bespoke locations. This is especially emphasized by the constant motion of a scene throughout any conversation.
This leads to both a strength and major criticism of Cyberpunk 2077. While many of the bespoke locations have such a distinct style and attention to detail, so much of Night City is drowned out by an immense amount of unnecessary noise and a complete lack of detail. While there are many great character and plot focused side quests, there is absolutely no distinction between these quests and the endless amount of distracting fetch quests throughout the city. It cannot be overstated how awful this side content is. Most of it has you running around clearing out faceless criminals for the Night City Police Department or killing boring repetitive “cyber psycho's” across the map. It’s not uncommon for open world games to have mindless tasks that amount to nothing more than dots on a map, but Cyberpunk presents these tasks in the worst possible way via an onslaught of phone calls and with cheesy attempts at edgy dialogue that tries to contextualize and justify this complete dribble. This unnecessary need to adhere to open world norms directly hinders the actual strengths of Cyberpunk’s most immersive environments, storylines, and character relationships. While it’s a shame to imagine, it is not unreasonable to think somebody could theoretically complete the entire game without actually playing one of the good side quests because it is hidden among mountains of absolutely effortless time filler side content.
This unnecessary attention towards the mundane parts of Cyberpunk has residual effects throughout the entire experience. The Prologue and Act I stand on its own from a narrative perspective, but being engrossed in a plethora of fetch quests results in dozens of hours void of any meaningful side content. This will likely lead to players either abandoning the game altogether or plowing directly through the main story. Most of the great side content reveals itself near the end of Act II. Considering Act III is an on-the-rails end game point of no return, the pace of the main narrative grinds to a halt while a lot of the Johnny Silverhand subplots begin to open up. These side quests flesh out Johnny Silverhand’s past while introducing some really fun escapades for V and Johnny to get into, but these plots feel so backloaded toward the end of the game that they’re a distraction from V’s race against the clock in context of the main plot.
That disconnection between the needs of the plot against the needs of an open world game results in an unbalanced role playing experience overall. While the player can create a unique character build via attribute categories and perk points for specific skills, there is a lack of synergy between the build choices you are given and its actual usefulness in gameplay. This is easily exemplified in dialogue trees which use optional attribute skill checks as a Trojan Horse for V to add a line or two about the topic at hand, so long as she has a high enough attribute level. However, these so-called skill checks never diverge the outcome of any conversation or quest.
In combat, player choice takes a backseat to the linear level design that the developers outline for you. While a character built around Netrunning is capable of frying enemies with Quick Hacks from a distance, or turning off enemy turrets and cameras, the game struggles to keep up with the different play styles it allegedly offers up. In the Netrunner example, the game presents an interesting approach to combat by allowing a player to hack through an entire level by taking control of the camera system and quick hacking enemies without ever stepping foot into the base. However, the allure of this build falls apart when the enemy NPCs deeper into the level fail to load. This begs the question—why even have cameras throughout a level if you cannot use them for any advantage? It goes without say, that enemies who only spawn in when you are close enough for them to load is extremely immersion breaking.
Almost every major quest with bespoke level design has this issue where a savvy Netrunner is kneecapped by the limitations of the game design not expecting you to play outside of its intended structure.
This is somewhat tolerable as the gunplay and core mechanics of infiltration are relatively fun, but it begins to wear very thin very fast after you’ve snuck around the same types of boring bases with the same mindless AI countless times. Over time, the mechanics of Cyberpunk’s combat become indistinguishable from other generic shooters of the past and present. Likewise, the level design is mundane, pretending to have divergent paths based on character attributes. Yet, for every door that is closed because your Reflex stat is too low, another door—looking the exact same as the first one—opens up because your Tech stat is high enough. Players are never cut out of things for their choice of build nor do they have options in how to tackle any given level. In the end, the player is probably going to just shoot everybody to speed everything along.
Regarding the pace of combat, there is a small gripe worth leaning into because of how much it affects the lack of ease in some encounters. Again, a Netrunner is capable of wiping out an entire enemy base with the right Cyberdeck, RAM regeneration, and powerful Quick Hacks. Yet, the game cannot physically keep up with itself where the hacking UI often fails to load quickly or at all when you are snapping between enemies frying them one by one. A lot of time is spent fighting against the game rather than fighting the AI which gets more and more frustrating as time goes on. This would be akin to a rifle refusing to aim-down-sights every third attempt. Sure, you can get by, but why would somebody want to have this much friction trying to play?
These types of small but frustrating gripes really mount over time as you progress through the game. There are many cases where you begin to question your own sanity; whether you keep experiencing the same minor bugs or if the game is just meant to be that way. Are the objects constantly fading into sight a technical issue or does the game use a strange rendering technique to load assets in? Why are the highways completely empty where the occasional city road is full of cars? While some of this may be intentional, there are just too many minor bugs or weird quirks to the technology under-the-hood. The result of this is a persistent disappointment with Cyberpunk where it’s impossible to single out any one issue as the game never feels like it’s truly functioning to its full technical potential. Most of the game breaking issues have been patched out, but it still has this awkwardness where the bugs and the technology merge into a stilted overall presentation.
Although the saturation of colour comes down to a matter of personal taste, the game conversely, has a distinct visual style with vivid colours oozing through every frame of the city. As mentioned before, many of the environments have an immense attention to detail which can be enhanced and amplified by a sizable amount of graphical options. The sheer amount of graphical tuning is both a gift and a curse as none of the out-of-the-box base settings feel quite right, while fine tuning to get that balance of visual fidelity and performance can be a long winded balancing act. This is because not all areas of Night City are visually or artistically equal while the under-the-hood technical issues make your visual experience different on a moment to moment basis. When you do settle on settings that work for you, the game can be breathtaking.
In the end, Cyberpunk 2077 is an extremely uneven experience where its glimmers of greatness present itself at awkward times while the most ordinary and mundane gameplay systems are suddenly forgotten as you immerse yourself in the lives of V and her loved ones. There are incredibly interesting locations that use impressive graphical capabilities to tell the story of Night City without explaining every minute detail. Outside of these areas, however, are boring, empty, and repetitive streets that are littered with ridiculous ads that handle Cyberpunk’s thematic elements with a juvenile sense of humour. Getting to the core of what makes Cyberpunk 2077 great is a bumpy road that will test the patience of anyone willing to jump into Night City. At its best, Cyberpunk 2077 has you passionately invested in the inner feelings of its fantastic three-dimensional characters; motivating the player to dignify them with the best outcome. At its worst, you fail to care about anything you are doing as you fumble through game design that is really only half baked.
The question remains—is it worth jousting with a game so unsteady? Despite its rough edges, Cyberpunk 2077 is an unpredictable narrative with something to say. Getting through it all has highs and lows but the emotional highs make it worthwhile in the end.