Games

Game Review: Cyberpunk 2077

Cyberpunk 2077 is a game that leaves you longing for more. That’s both a compliment and an echo of my disappointment that it wasn’t fuller and more polished. I loved the game, and in many ways that made me want more from it.

To give you some examples, I spent over an hour creating the perfect, freckled, red-haired female character (my go-to) — and then almost never saw her due to the first-person gameplay. With skill points, I purchased perks so I could craft amazing weapons, only to find that the weapons I crafted were dull and under-leveled. I frequently upgraded my wardrobe and staged Photo Mode shoots all over Night City, yet I had to change clothes when I encountered a boss for better stats. And while the game has a handful of engaging storylines to play through, I found myself longing for fewer mercenary contracts and more multi-quest missions I could really sink my teeth into.

Cyberpunk is a game with a lot of potential and way too much hype, and perhaps that’s why every player has to weigh for themselves whether the game’s successes outweigh its failings. For me, the game was enough. I loved my time with it.

V on a motorcycle in Night City, Cyberpunk 2077 Photo Mode screenshot

When I play a huge RPG like Cyberpunk, I look for a few key features: a customizable character, an immersive world, and a gripping story. Every RPG seems to weigh each of these differently; for example, Skyrim weighs the customization and immersion more heavily than the narrative, while The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt focuses more on immersion and narrative. Weaving these three elements together, each RPG conjures a unique mood.

Cyberpunk has succeeded with all three of these key RPG features, and the world it’s woven is definitely a mood. Though it’s far from a perfect game, I lost myself in its atmosphere in a way I haven’t with any game for a very long time, and that made it truly special to me.

Customization: Making the Game My Own

The first whiff of magic in any RPG is the moment you get to make a choice. It could be in the character customization screen, when you create a hero in your own image — or perhaps conjure someone entirely new that you want to be for the next several hours of your gaming life. Sometimes, the magic happens a little later, when you make your first dialogue choice, or enter a hostile area with guns blazing instead of taking the stealthy approach. Being able to choose who I am and how I play an RPG is, for me, the thing that elevates a video game to a role-playing experience.

Making a Fashion Statement

Cyberpunk starts you off with an elaborate character customization process, where you choose everything from your character V’s hair color (I chose red; my husband chose a deep blue) to their breast or penis size (I’ll keep those customization options to myself, thanks). Once in the game world, you can pick up clothes or buy them at stores, honing your own futuristic fashion sense. I loved pairing feminine mini-skirts and floral leggings with rough and edgy trench coats, bomber jackets, and studded boots. At one point, I even rocked some bright red knee-high boots for a few missions.

V talking to Johnny in knee-high red boots.
V and Johnny Silverhand

The only downsides to this fun customization is that the game is entirely first-person, so I only got to see the V I created when I looked in the mirror (which required button clicks that made me not want to spend the time doing it), when I rode a motorcycle, or in Photo Mode. Also, every clothing item has stats attached to it, with no way to upgrade or transfer the stats. This means that to be powerful in a fight, you have to wear whatever your highest gear happens to be — which is usually a ridiculous outfit that doesn’t reflect your personality or style at all. My husband, playing on the High (3 out of 4, with 4 being the hardest) difficulty setting, tended to wear his toughest gear, which us both laugh at how bizarre he looked. Meanwhile, I usually got away with my fashionable outfits, even if a few items were under-leveled, while playing on Normal (2 out of 4) difficulty.

Choosing a Lifepath

What I enjoyed even more than my character’s appearance was her backstory. Similar to games like BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect, Cyberpunk lets you select from one of a few character backgrounds. In this case, there are three “lifepaths” to choose from: a poor Night City “Street Kid;” a “Nomad” living with a clan outside the city; or an ambitious “Corpo” working for the big, bad corporation Arasaka.

My husband chose Nomad, while I went with Corpo. The backstory gives you a different opening mission to play through, which for me took around an hour. After that, the game rewards your choice with lifepath-specific dialogue choices that pop up very regularly; I loved clicking the dialogue option with the Corpo symbol beside it to see what tidbit of Arasaka-insider knowledge my character would drop next.

Crafting My Journey

The gameplay gives you another level of customization, through skill trees as well as multiple ways to approach a mission. In Cyberpunk, your character V is a hacker and mercenary, who can wield a gun or katana along with cybernetic implants that give her an edge on the competition. In the skill tree, you can put points into various Attributes, such as Body for physical strength, Reflexes for agility, and Technical for hacking and crafting. With enough points in any given Attribute, you can then purchase Perks, or specific skills, related to that trait. For example, my husband put a lot of points into Body so he could tank his way through combat, while I preferred Technical and Intelligence so I could hack and stealth my way through situations.

This choice in combat was hugely rewarding to me, although I found myself scratching my head about how I might create a build that could wield a katana, for example. Cyberpunk teaches you hand-to-hand combat, yet I struggled to find a good time to actually use it. Similarly, despite all my hacking and sneaking, I still encountered combat mechs that felt like forced boss fights where I had no choice but to whip out my weapons.

Another reason I focused on putting points into the Technical Attribute was for Crafting skills. I thought it would be exciting to craft my own gear, be it a pistol or a pair of pants. I also mistakenly believed I would be able to craft things unseen elsewhere in the game. Instead, I only found blueprints for weapons I already had, and when I crafted them with my cherished components and Perks, I was disappointed to discover they were a lower level than the weapons I picked up from enemy encounters. I’ll admit I didn’t end up exploring this arena much after my initial disappointment, so perhaps the crafting experience improves later on. But in the early levels, I found it pointless enough to abandon it.

Going My Own Way

Cyberpunk feels like a game full of personal choice, from the missions you choose to pursue to the dialogue options you select in conversations. Still, some of these so-called choices are deceiving. For example, it seems hard to screw up the main storylines with key characters like Judy and Panam, which means that despite dialogue choices throughout, you are really just playing a pre-set series of missions that will lead you to a similar conclusion no matter what you do. This is typical in RPGs, though. The magic that CD Projekt has concocted here is the near-seamless transition from one mission to the next, the feeling of real relationships developing, and the drive to continue on a journey once it’s begun. By the end of Cyberpunk‘s story, I felt like my ending was a satisfying, authentic close to the way I chose to play.

Immersion: Getting Lost in Night City

As much as I enjoyed open-world RPGs, the “open-world” part sometimes intimidates me. Perhaps this is because I don’t like having to wade through endless fields of tall grass just to get to my next quest objective, no matter how beautifully-rendered the blades of grass may be. Or maybe it’s because so many open-world games are made a little less empty through fetch quest and annoying enemy encounters I’d rather avoid. (Dragon Age: Inquisition was a little like this for me.) But I’m happy to report that Cyberpunk was a pleasant surprise for me. It’s an open-world game, but that world is the size of a single, sprawling city and its immediate surroundings — just enough world to get lost in, without actually feeling lost.

Night City on a rainy night, seen through a car window
Night City on a rainy night

Cyberpunk‘s story takes place in Night City and the desert plains around it, called the Badlands. As a Corpo, I started off in the heart of Night City, where I worked for the corporation Arasaka. As you might guess, the game makes a statement: corporations are bad, and Arasaka is the baddest. After V gets screwed over by the company, she ends up taking on mercenary jobs with her longtime best friend Jackie Welles, one of my favorite characters in the game. A montage of partying it up in Night City introduces you to your new life, and then you’re set loose to explore the city.

A festival of lanterns in Night City
A festival in Night City

The main story missions whisk you from one neighborhood to the next, gradually revealed more and more of the town if you don’t happen to explore it on your own. Although I couldn’t list the neighborhoods off the top of my head, I began to recognize where I was by the vibe each district has. For example, the beautiful and crowded Japantown was a favorite haunt, where I frequently met with allies for missions. Some districts house high-end shops and people in business suits, while some seem rundown and overrun with gang. And though Night City always feels grungy — thanks to pornographic advertisements on billboards and gunshots revealing crimes around every other corner — toward the end of the game I found myself in the hills overlooking the city, where the wealthy and elite lived in their gated estates a la Hollywood.

The game also takes you to the desert outskirts, where you join a Nomad character named Panam in several missions. Being able to escape the bustle of the city to breathe some dusty air once in a while was a relief.

Panam and V in the Badlands having a conversation
Panam and V in the desert

Getting around is its own adventure. Though you start off with a clunky car, within the first few hours of the game you get a motorcycle — or you can buy your own car or bike from several options that pop up throughout the game, each fancier (and more expensive) than the last. Though I typically dislike driving in video games, I found myself enjoying my rides around Night City. Cars were hard for me to navigate, but motorcycles felt right. I could weave through traffic, stop and turn easily, and even see my character in her latest outfit straddling the bike.

The other fun thing about driving is the music. Cyberpunk has a stellar soundtrack, and you can select from several stations while driving. I particularly enjoyed the rock and indie stations, and I had a lovely moment driving back from the Badlands after an incredible mission, where the song and the sunlight and the mood the game had created all worked together for a memorable moment that was all mine. That said, it’s a little cumbersome to press the controller button to change stations while speeding down the highway; my game slowed to a crawl while it loaded the stations, as though struggling with the command. The songs are also repetitive after awhile, and I got tired of hearing the exact same song every time I turned on the Latin music station.

Still, Cyberpunk‘s setting wins for immersion. The balance of environments — all rich with detail and atmosphere — makes it a truly beautiful game. Although I can’t say the dirty streets were my favorite game location ever, I truly felt transported.

Story: Friends & Foes in Night City

As with the Witcher games from CD Projekt, Cyberpunk‘s greatest strength is its storytelling. From the very beginning, when you call your longtime friend Jackie Welles for assistance in the opening mission, you feel part of a living, breathing world inhabited by actual people. This is what CD Projekt does so well — bringing a setting to life with characters you care about.

Black and white portrait of Judy
Judy

The game is packed with interesting companions who join you on your journey through Night City and beyond. The main storyline introduces you to two key characters in the rebellious braindance technician Judy Alvarez and the hotheaded Nomad Panam. I loved them both; Panam in particular became my best friend in the game. After you complete main missions with each of them, they call you on your cellphone to invite you to additional adventures. I chose to complete every possible mission with each of them, and depending on the sex of your character, you may be able to romance them as well.

Panam and V in the Badlands
Panam and V hanging out

I chose to romance someone else, though: River Ward, a Night City cop you meet in an optional side mission. His storyline is one of the best in the game, and it’s him that makes it so special. My favorite side quests in Cyberpunk were the ones that involved key characters, and River’s personal missions give you extended time to get to know him.

Cyberpunk has other characters that call you once in a while or appear in the occasional mission, too. Two favorites for me were the ripperdoc Viktor, who patches you up and tries to keep you alive, and Misty, Jackie’s girlfriend who gives you life advice in the form of Tarot readings. Although you don’t get to go on side missions with these characters, their existence in the world makes the place feel truly alive, and I appreciate the care and detail that went into these smaller characters.

A black and white portrait of Misty
Misty

But perhaps the character who looms largest in V’s mind throughout the game is Johnny Silverhand, a dead rockstar and anarchist who lives on a chip in V’s brain. Without giving away spoilers, I’ll just say that the main storyline is a tug-of-war between V and Johnny over control of V’s mind and body. Depending on how you interact with Johnny, he might feel like a friend or a foe. Whatever the case, his existence in V’s brain is killing her, and she’s on the hunt for a solution to survive. It’s a fascinating story that feels so unique to this world of tech implants — only in a cyberpunk setting could a character have a best friend and enemy who is actually a dead person living on an implant in her brain. And although it seemed a bit gimmicky to me that Johnny is played by famous actor Keanu Reeves, I ended up loving this fact. Reeves’ voice and mannerisms really bring Johnny to life, and at the end of the game, saying goodbye to him was the hardest part of watching the end credits.

A portrait of Johnny Silverhand smoking a cigarette
Johnny Silverhand

I won’t spoil the end game here, but your decisions throughout the game will impact your choices in the end. Because I was torn between two options, I ended up playing one as my canon ending and the other as an alternative ending. After the credits roll, the game dumps you back before the final mission, so you can play through different endings if you like. I also enjoyed watching my husband choose an entirely different ending than either of mine! Just as the opening scenes differ depending on your background, these end-game choices make the Cyberpunk experience feel truly unique.

Have you played Cyberpunk yet, or do you plan to? I’d love to compare playthroughs sometime!

Ashley

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