Benjamin Rose, Editor
For a game whose launch was famously beleaguered, Cyberpunk 2077 has done alright, rising like V from a bullet to the head to sell over 20 million copies as of September 2022. Once so bug-ridden that it was removed from the PlayStation Store for nearly seven months, by patch 1.6 Cyberpunk 2077 is largely what it looked to be upon initial PC reviews two years earlier: a fully serviceable, good-not-great RPG that is less a work of art than The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt but in some respects more enjoyable in gameplay. As The Path begins a major rebranding to enhance the quality and efficiency of our site while pivoting to a two-franchise focus, I’ve decided to write a retrospective on the writing of CD Projekt Red’s most maligned redheaded step-child, a game that was hastily made, ludicrously over-hyped, and in the end far better than its detractors concluded but much less than the Neuromancer its developers promised. From the beginning, virtually every aspect of the game has been criticized, from its representation of Asians and trans gender women to its early technical deficiencies.
The latter problems are mostly solved; even on my aging, cash-grab defying PlayStation 4, the game runs smoothly in its current state, no NPCs randomly frozen naked in T-pose. The former problems remain, and go hand in hand with an engaging plot that gestures at excellence in its broad outlines, but in the details never rises above a serviceable seven out of ten, often descending into inconsistent characterization and cliché, issues which have become more apparent since Cyberpunk: Edgerunners excellently exploited the same lore and universe to tell a story of more substance. As Jonathan Wilson notably summed up in his review of Edgerunners, “In many ways, this is the Cyberpunk story the Cyberpunk game wanted to tell and couldn’t.” (Cyberpunk: Edgerunners season 1 review – a psychedelic anime (readysteadycut.com). These are not my original insights but by now a familiar refrain of Cyberpunk 2077 criticism. Once the tech hurdles were cleared, Edgerunners did it better, and even in isolation, the writing of 2077 remains deeply flawed. There’s no patch for that.
Despite its conventional plotline, Edgerunners took the richness of Mike Pondsmith’s universe and told a familiar story of an outlaw’s rise and fall with a level of heart and maturity that its game correspondent lacked (https://thepathwitcher.blog/2022/12/30/cyberpunk-edgerunners-the-drama-of-the-gifted-gonk/). The plot of 2077 is in many ways bolder and bleaker in design than the Romance of David Martinez, but falls apart in the execution under the weight of middling dialogue and a surprisingly badly written role for Keanu Reeves, whose Johnny Silverhand is neither a tragic revolutionary nor a charismatic sociopath but some undistinguished dad rock amalgamation of the two. It is hard, at times, to play Cyberpunk 2077 and escape the obvious: this is a game written by white men from a mostly homogenous and conservative culture attempting to insert a coherent narrative into the fractious and messy world of American diversity. There is nothing directly racist about Cyberpunk 2077 (others, of course, will disagree), but much that is vaguely cringe, from the techno-orientalism of Arasaka, which essentially reduces Takemura to the only sympathetic Asian in the game, to the way these American characters casually toss around the term “cunt” as if they were Britons, to the way in which Jackie peppers his largely English dialogue with random Spanish snippets to remind us he is, in fact, Latino.
As the “cunt” bit would indicate, the script largely hand waves Night City’s rampant misogyny in ways The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt never did. Most of the time that means little; did you expect people to be nice in this universe? Other times, as when Johnny grumbles “I can’t believe you’re helping these whores” during one point in Judy’s questline, the casual contempt for women from a supposedly anti-corporate, anti-oppression character rings strangely off. It fits the 80s notions of masculinity Cyberpunk champions more than 2023, which is to say, along with his taste for power chords, Johnny often seems a very conservative revolutionary terrorist, more Andrew Tate than Zach de la Rocha, another weird example of the developers of 2077 leaning so heavily into reverence for a 40 year old genre that they’ve overlooked the cultural gap in Anglo-American societies between then and now.
The deeper one progresses into the game, the more this seems to be a feature, whatever your musical tastes or attitude to the culture wars might be. For a studio that had shown great ability to deal with weighty themes like sexual violence in The Witcher 3, the entire Evelyn Parker plotline in the main quest felt like a misfire, with neither Evelyn’s rape nor subsequent suicide offering any real insight or gravitas into the experiences of survivors. The much-vaunted “Sinnerman” is another good example, for despite the illusion of depth, that quest really says nothing for, against, or about religion. Starting with the fact that no sincere Christian would ever willfully crucify themselves to make a point (that is, after all, suicide), the Joshua Stephenson plotline seems to want to say something about the impossibility of atonement, the meaninglessness of faith, or the tragedy of mental illness and yet never manages any of these things. Player choice in the questline makes only minor differences, chiefly concerning how much you’re paid for participating in the obscene spectacle. In the end its hard to escape the notion that whoever wrote that one was more interested in mood and shock value than intellectual substance.
This letdown is frequent. Time and again, Cyberpunk 2077 sets up what one would expect to be deeply affecting story beats that just go nowhere, or are structured into the plot in such a way as to be rushed or ill-timed. If one pursues the “Chippin-in” questline and helps Johnny make amends to his old friends, his character seems to mature and become half-way likable by the end. The problem? This line is entirely optional, despite the fact that V’s relationship with the brain-eating Silverhand is supposedly the most important in the game.
There are moments, certainly. Cyberpunk 2077, like its medieval predecessor, is at its absolute best when its gets into the weeds of its side characters’ lives. Each of the four romance option questlines (those of Panam, Judy, River, and Kerry) offers the depth and character work that more substantial plot arcs lack. Kerry in particular is loveable for being completely bonkers, a washed up rockstar with whom your friendship and/or relationship rests entirely on committing multiple felonies over an unlicensed cover song. In the main quest’s one standout, we have Takemura, A Portrait Of Your Dad As A Middle-Aged Samurai, who manages somehow to be both utterly stereotypical and charming in his stone-faced awkwardness. But when juxtaposed with the horrific personal stakes V faces if they fail to enter Mikoshi, as well as the macrocosmic struggle between Hanako and Yorinobu for control of Arasaka, it all feels a bit thin, as if instead of taking The Witcher game trilogy’s path of gradually expanding Geralt’s personal problems to world-historical proportions (https://thepathwitcher.blog/2019/11/14/the-witcher-3-wild-hunt-synopsis/), CD Projekt tried to do both the private and public, the personal and political, all at once in this outing and wound up with a finished version of neither.
This is not abysmal stuff. At its best, the game is bleak, intense, and occasionally poignant; but it is never epic, and while there are few conspicuously bad moments in Cyberpunk 2077, most of the time the game coasts along between the mediocre to better than average range. Time will tell if with the upcoming Phantom Liberty expansion, CD Projekt can harness a bit of fire magic and regain their thunder.