Cyberpunk 2077's Retrofuturistic World Is Worth Exploring Beneath the Flaws

CD Projekt Red's game has a plot and world that'll keep players engaged, even if there are still bugs.

My character in CD Projekt Red's Cyberpunk 2077 has short pink hair, is holding a gun, and wearing a snakeskin blazer in this screenshot from the game.
I had to work extra hard to look this cool.
Photo: CD Projekt Red

When Cyberpunk 2077 came out last December, all eyes were on what I like to call “the little game that couldn’t.” CD Projekt Red’s long-anticipated dive into the cyberpunk genre was laden with bugs, glitches, and reports of horrible work conditions for the development team. Six months later, enough patches have come out to make the game (mostly) playable. But is it good cyberpunk?

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I decided to finally dip my toe into Cyberpunk 2077, after waiting several months for the game mechanics to catch up with its own vision. I’m still in the middle of my first playthrough but overall I’m more satisfied than I thought I would be. Players tale on the role of “V,” a mercenary in the corporate-fueled world of Night City. It’s a filthy, no-holds-barred dystopia where American and Japanese esthetics have intertwined, becoming a dark and grim San Fransokyo. The character of V is customizable in appearance, cybernetics, and origin—I chose the corporate backstory, because “Opulence!”—although the look doesn’t matter much because the video game is in first-person. (I played as a feminine-presenting character, so I’ll be using she/her pronouns from here on).

Note: Below this paragraph will be minor spoilers for the main storyline. If you’re not wanting to know anything, TLDR; it’s got its issues but is worth a play, especially because you can get it for pretty cheap. The PS4 edition, which is by far the buggiest, is discounted at many stores right now. It’s available for $28 at Walmart and Best Buy (Xbox One copies are still around $40-$60). It recently returned to the Playstation Store for $50 too—although it comes with a disclaimer that playing on the PS4 is “not recommended.” I don’t care about occasional bugs, so I shelled out for the cheaper version.

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After botching a heist and witnessing a murder, V lands smack-dab in the middle of a massive conspiracy involving the head of Arakasa Corporation. She ends up on the run from Arasaka’s goons while also working with one of them to expose Arasaka’s corruption. She eventually finds herself with an unwanted guest sharing her brain: terrorist Johnny Silverhand, played by our favorite and yours, Keanu Reeves. He’s a ghost in the machine, a virtual dead man trapped inside her head—and he’ll eventually destroy her mind unless they figure out how to remove him together, so they become a “buddy cop” duo that’s both fun and frustrating. It’s great to see him pop up and crack wise at whatever V is doing; the banter between them is entertaining but it can also feel like, from that point on, the game isn’t about you anymore. It’s the Keanu Reeves Show. Which, I mean, OK he’s great. But he’s not V. He’s not me.

The main plot feels familiar, but it’s interesting enough to follow. V is a mercenary trying to remove a digital virus that’s killing her and does so by teaming up with different factions (and romance-able NPCs) who all deliver a piece of the “fix me” puzzle. In the process, she learns the truth about Arasaka’s work on preserving the digital consciousness—something they’re employing to “help” people with the Relic... and also control them through its more accurate name, Soulkiller. There’s some spoiler stuff with artificial intelligence and the definition of the Self that I won’t get into because it gets convoluted.

Apparently so...
Apparently so...
Screenshot: CD Projekt Red
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Several missions in the game feel like echoes of other stories, although it’s likely unintentional. The bioengineer you seek out in the wilderness reminds me of “The Glowing Sea” mission from Fallout 4. The sex “Dollhouse” filled with humans whose minds are programmable is straight outta, well, Dollhouse. And let’s not forget how most facets of the cyberpunk genre, including this iteration, owe much to classic anime (like Akira) and Blade Runner. None of these things make it bad—J.R.R. Tolkien carries a huge presence in modern fantasy, including in CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher series—but if you’re looking for original storytelling, you’re not going to find it here. I’d be hesitant to even call this pure science fiction, to be honest; it’s not speculative of a world that could be, at least not anymore. I’d call this more of a retrofuturistic piece, a tribute to the best of 1980s sci-fi.

Where Cyberpunk 2077 shines is in the little details. Night City is gorgeous, at least when it’s not buggy. The eye line is filled with towering skyscrapers, creepy alleyways with side quests, digital display overlays, and passersby wearing all sorts of cybernetic enhancements. I often found myself avoiding Fast Travel (a service I usually employ liberally) because I didn’t want to miss anything. I also appreciate a video game with combat-free missions—especially sci-fi games, given how much they rely on gunplay. It’s why I enjoy playing Detroit: Become Human way, way, way more than the game deserves.

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One of the things I didn’t like about Watch Dogs: Legion was how all of the missions were the same: talk to a person, shoot some people, “hack all the things.” Cyberpunk 2077 gives players ample opportunity to interact with characters and the world in ways that don’t involve shootouts. Most missions have plenty of stealth options; several of them can be accomplished with no fighting at all. Plus, there are a lot of main and side quests where it’s just you and people. No fighting. No fleeing. Just being. Meeting a contact at the docks, and talking. Helping a former cop with his PTSD. Investigating a crime scene using someone’s virtual memory.

One that really stood out to me happened pretty early in the game. V is asked to attend the funeral of a friend who was killed during the failed heist. She spends her time searching for the right item to put on his ofrenda—going through his garage and reminiscing—and working to make amends between his mother and his girlfriend. She’s then given the option to make a speech, which you as the player customize depending on how you choose to remember him, and then she goes around the bar drinking shots in his honor. Once again, just being. It wasn’t as exciting as the “Citadel” party in Mass Effect 3, or as emotional as the epilogue in The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, but it was still appreciated. As a gamer, I like a little ebb with my flow. Not only does it give me a chance to breathe, but it plays better into the genre as a whole. Cyberpunk isn’t just sci-fi, it’s film noir.

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Hey, hey buddy. How are you eating that?
Hey, hey buddy. How are you eating that?
Screenshot: CD Projekt Red

Am I enjoying the game? Yes. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t say it’s impossible to separate the art from the artist—by which I mean the game company, CD Projekt Red, and the messy product they produced. Even with months of patches and bug fixes, there are still a lot of goofs in this thing. Examples include: missing art on billboards, delayed rendering on buildings and characters, character designs repeating in the same locations, cars getting stuck all the time. My favorite bug has to be when I have V sip some alcohol and she’ll stay drunk (with blurry, shifting vision) until I quit and reload the game. You heard it here first, kids, don’t drink and game. Your face will freeze like that.

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You still can’t customize your character’s look beyond cybernetics after they’re created—even something as simple as changing your hairstyle seems beyond Cyberpunk 2077's reach. The edgelord content—with its emphasis on sex jokes, body horror, and exploitation of women—borders on cringe, when it’s not outright racist or transphobic. And let’s not forget the months of grueling crunch and other awful work conditions, much of which has been reported by our sister site, Kotaku. I don’t mention these things to shame folks for playing Cyberpunk 2077—I’m still playing it right now—I bring them up because it’s important to understand the full story behind the media we consume and to call out the things that don’t work, even if some things do.

I’ve just entered act three of Cyberpunk 2077, which means I’m probably getting ready for my “five days until retirement” moment. And even though I’ve already written this piece, I’m going to keep playing. Not only to see what happens, but also because it’s a world I’m genuinely having fun in. If you’ve been clamoring to see yourself in the world of Blade Runner, Cowboy Bebop, Ergo Proxy, or (the non-Scarlett Johansson) Ghost in the Shell, Cyberpunk 2077 might be one of the best things out there. It’s not perfect, and maybe something else will come along someday that addresses the game’s many misfires. But for now, it’s a fun time. I like putting on some stupid shades, hopping on my buddy’s motorcycle, and riding off into the chrome-lined sunset—at least until I crash into an invisible wall because it hasn’t rendered yet.

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DISCUSSION

By
acgilson

This genre is one of my favorites in gaming, largely to preteen me losing my damn mind for a month playing Shadowrun on Sega.

Anywho, adult me had zero expectations for this game but was infinitely hopeful of it when it dropped.

I played it on an Xbox one off all things (I have a 4 year old and gaming has gone by the wayside over the years) and it simply was the highlight of last year’s bullshit.

I spent probably 100 hours dicking around on side quests, hanging out in bars, listening to the music, stealing cars, etc., Before spending another 60 hours slow rolling the main plot.

Oh yeah, it was buggy.

But I didn’t care. It gave me this weird social connection I had been missing for months up to that point.

Maybe it hit a goldilocks zone for me in this stage of my life, but I gotta say, it’s up there with Starflight II and Shadowrun as far as games that took me away from my own self to get to be something else for a while.