I still remember being blown away nearly two decades ago when I watched Akira, Armitage III and Cowboy Bebop for the first time. These three pieces of media were my gateway into the Cyberpunk genre and moulded my perception of what great stories could be told in this future dystopian setting rife with advanced technology, cybernetic implants, and the overwhelming power corporations hold over every piece of our bodies. So when I first laid eyes on the E3 2018 trailer of Cyberpunk 2077 after completing the Blood and Wine expansion of The Witcher 3, I was thrilled to see how CD Projekt Red would tackle the material and create an epic Sci-fi RPG that rivaled all of the adventures I had experienced as Geralt of Rivia. While at times of the story of Cyberpunk 2077 meets those expectations I placed upon it, the same negatives I fear that hindered the Witcher 3 have reared their ugly head yet again.
Cyberpunk 2077 puts player in the role of V, a freelance mercenary living in the bustling megalopolis of Night City. While all the glitz and glamour on the surface may lead you to believe that Night City is a paradise, this isolated world was built from the ground up on power, corruption, and the healthy influence of money obsessed corporations. It’s V’s goal to leave a permanent mark on Night City and its society, showing that even a low life mercenary can become a legend. When a job goes south, V is left for dead, but is later revived through the power of a special biochip implant, an implant that just happens to hold the consciousness of Night City’s most prolific terrorist since the year 2023, Johnny Silverhand.
The heart of CD Projekt Red’s games are without a doubt their characters, and this is no exception with Cyberpunk 2077. Johnny Silverhand, Panam Palmer, River Ward, Judy Alvarez, and Claire Russell are just a few of the characters I grew very attached to over the course of my 40-hour + playthrough and bonded with from their quest lines. Keanu Reeves as Johnny Silverhand was a standout that I believe every player should go out of their way to explore. Johnny has been in the Cyberpunk lore since it’s inception and what makes him such an infectious character to be around is that unlike the other characters who feel built and grounded for 2077’s world, Johnny feels like an insane character ripped straight from an pen and paper RPG session with your best friends. The other characters I’ve mentioned were great vehicles at presenting Night City to me, deepening its lore and showing me how truly dark this society really is without the bright hue of the neon lights.
Night City itself a stunning open world visually. I simply love how well the sci-fi aesthetic pairs with 1950’s brutalist architecture, it’s just so distinct and full of eye candy that does a great job at absorbing you into its setting. As an explorable open world, it’s at the same level of interactivity as The Witcher 3. The eye candy is there to admire, and players are going to be eager to take awesome screenshots in the game’s photo mode, but the variety of activities players can partake in is rather hollow. Outside of your standard range of quests the only real activities to break up the gameplay is more of the same you’ve already been doing. Stop an assault in progress here, break into a place here and steal some files, there’s no real attempt at just creating fun side activities like there was with Gwent in Witcher 3, which honestly surprised me given how CD Projekt Red took that card game and was able to spin it off twice into new titles.
While the cast of side characters excites me and pushes me to get more immersed and involved in Night City, I can’t say the same for my own character. I expected V would be more of a blank slate, a character that I could impart on and influence to make a lasting impact on the society of Night City. In reality, V is written already as his own character, and a bland one at that. The choices you make as V’s pilot aren’t nearly as deep or shape the world in any real meaningful way as I originally believed they would, and that immediately starts with the disappointing way origins are handled.
After creating V’s image, players can choose one of three backstories for the character; Nomad, Street Kid, or Corp. During my playthrough I chose to play as a Nomad and I was excited to see how this origin of deserting my old clan and growing desire to build my own legend in Night City would materialize. Only later I would find out after exploring the other origins, after I completed the main story, that all this choice amounts to is a unique dialogue option that occasionally pops up during certain interactions with side characters. I couldn’t believe that my origin didn’t present itself with even a unique quest line. All V did speaking from his Nomad origin was talk about the loyalty of the clan, how disappointed he was that the clan assimilated into Snake Nation, and how happy he was to discover new companions when I made the decision to become a member of the Aldecaldos. Yet, I never once encountered Snake Nation, never met another person trying to break away from the old clan, nor was I hunted by others for abandoning my old family and joining a new one. Instead, anyone’s V could go through the same story mine did and reach the exact same ending no matter their origin, which harms a lot of the replayability for me.
This feeling of my initial choice not mattering in the grand scheme of the narrative slides further into the overall RPG elements of the quests. When I sided with one individual over another, I expected that I would be locked out of the quest line of the person I wronged and instead explore new quests with the person I sided with. This never occurred though, instead the whole quest chain just ended because I didn’t play nice with all the parties involved. The closest I can describe this feeling is that I’m playing as a character in a tabletop RPG I have customized and tailored to fit my playstyle, but the DM says my character would actually say this, or act this specific way, because it’s the only way their narrative for the campaign holds together. Instead of exploring this new direction I’ve thrown at them, we’re just going to move on to the next encounter because that’s how the module works.
This doesn’t mean that the quests themselves weren’t fun though. I still had a great time working together with River to expose the rotten core of the NCPD, helping Judy to improve the quality of life of the Dolls working at Clouds, and the Aldecaldos quests with Panam were easily my favourite because of how it worked hand-in-hand with my character’s backstory. Even after 40+ hours of play there is a healthy list of quests I’ve yet to complete or start that vary from being serious in material to being outright hilarious. While I now know how this story ends, I’m still interested in finding out what other stories Night City has to offer before I put Cyberpunk down. This game still has its hook in me despite my issues with it, I’m just not in the same hurry as I was with Witcher 3 until I see some new stability patches.
One of the divisive parts of Witcher 3 was how players felt about the games combat and I see that argument coming up again with Cyberpunk 2077. Overall, the gameplay is serviceable, and with the outstanding work from the audio team, everything has a great feeling of impact and punch, but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s all so stiff to control. Just thinking about playing as a netrunner or a stealthy agent in Cyberpunk feels like it would be an annoying affair given how slow the game would go as you find ways to mess with enemies and the surrounding cameras. I mainly played as a guns blazing kind of character, using all the firepower I had to wipe out rooms within seconds. Stack that with my favourite skill tree, Cold Blood, and you feel like a living tank. The more you kill, the more crits you can stack up and the more impervious you become to status effects and damage.
Now I have to address the elephant in the room, performance. Running off an RTX 2080 Super, Ryzen 7 3800X, and a WD Black NVME SSD, I was able to run at ultra settings and nearly lock in at an average framerate of 70 FPS at 1080p with no DLSS or RTX enabled. The game would really only buckle on my PC in the most intensely rendered areas and dip below 60, or hover around there. That’s not the performance I really need to address though, it’s the bugs. Cyberpunk 2077 has launched in a rough state on PC and an unplayable mess on last-gen consoles. I have had to restart progress well over 10 times now because an NPC didn’t acknowledge my progress, an enemy spawned under the floor so I couldn’t kill them, getting stuck in geometry, or the event that was supposed to trigger just decided it wasn’t going to trigger today. Cyberpunk 2077 is an easy game to get enraptured by when everything works how it’s supposed to, but there wasn’t a moment during my playthrough where I really felt comfortable not quick saving because there was always the underlying tension that at any moment this game is just going to break at the seams and make me do everything I just played through all over again.
As someone who never got caught in Cyberpunk’s hype cycle and tried to go into the experience as blind as possible, I find it hard to believe Cyberpunk 2077 could ever have lived up to the massive expectations fans had for the game. I went into this game expecting a sci-fi epic equivalent to the Witcher 3’s story and characters, and I believe that certain parts of this game still reach those heights, albeit with the same negatives that I had for Witcher’s serviceable combat, unintuitive menus, and average open world design.
Devout fans of this game however, propped Cyberpunk 2077 up on a golden pedestal it would never reach without ever playing it, from a studio that has never released a polished mainline game in their signature franchise. The fans aren’t the only ones at fault though. CD Projekt Red plays just as large of a part by enabling this behaviour for better press and feeding into it with empty promises that would never materialize. I understand that during game development it’s inevitable certain things are going to have to be cut in order to make release, but the sheer amount of features and content stripped away from it’s pitched concept makes this game feel similar to the launch of No Man’s Sky all over again.
So now we come back to the subtitle of this review, does a ghost still live within this shell called Cyberpunk 2077? Yes, CD Projekt Red just moved that ghost into a much smaller vessel. Somewhere in the development cycle of Cyberpunk 2077 the massive ambition of the studio hit the raw hard truth of what was realistically possible for them to achieve, and as a result, we have a game that feels rather hollow despite it trying to do so many things all at once. Night City still shines with a wide cast of memorable characters and beautifully executed atmosphere that demonstrates just how good CD Projekt Red is at story telling, it’s just a shame so much of the overall experience is all held together by pieces of scotch tape.