Cyberpunk (the franchise, not the genre) is shaping up to be one of the more interesting AAA stories of recent years. I wanted to write a brief about my own experiences with the series, it’s most recent successes (and failures), and where things might go from here.
An important note of context to start off: I am writing this post hot on the heels of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, the first real entry beyond 2077 into the Cyberpunk “cinematic universe” and a resounding all around success. By the time this article comes out this hype likely would have died down (this time I purposely wanted to avoid it, for reasons I’ll elaborate on either). The negative side effect is that much more information may come out between when I write this and when it gets published. If there’s any key info I’m missing here, it’s because it wasn’t around when I wrote it!
I have a (somewhat) interesting history with CD Projekt Red (abbreviated as CDPR for the rest), the developers of Cyberpunk as most of us know it today. Knowing it can help better explain why I feel some of the ways I do.
My first CDPR game was The Witcher 2, back on release. I never finished it but I remember it being a big deal. The first big game from CDPR, really, as the first game in the trilogy was a lot more niche. It was one of the more solid WRPGs of that year, and balanced a good deal between being accessible for the average RPG player but also relying on the difficulty that good old Eastern European RPGs were known for. Of course, the game came out in early 2011. Skyrim came out in November. That settled that.
When The Witcher 3 got announced, it built a lot on the success of 2. For starters, it would be CDPR’s first open world game (the previous ones were nonlinear but not open world). Second, it would be the end of the trilogy — a trilogy where most people only played the second game, but the end nonetheless. It was a game on my radar, but this time it was going up against both Bloodborne and MGSV. At the time, it didn’t seem like it had much of a chance.
Except this time, the comparison was wrong. The Witcher 3 did very well, arguably better than the other two games combined. For MGSV it made sense, given the game’s lukewarm reception… but the success over Bloodborne was genuinely impressive. What happened?
Well, for starters, CDPR earned itself a sterling reputation in the years between 2 and 3. Considered an indie darling (despite being AAA in terms of size) the company garnered a large, diehard fanbase. And, like most large diehard fanbases, they were dedicated to seeing the game succeed.
The Witcher 3, perhaps unsurprisingly given this fact, was released to massive fanfare. I, of course, got curious myself. I bought the game relatively early on in its release, for the PS4 (didn’t have a good enough PC at the time). My initial impressions were, well, not very positive. The game was much bigger, sure — but it mostly consisted of points of interest that were already common in pretty much any major open world game. Combine that with a series of pretty bad glitches and bugs, some straight up breaking important questlines. In fact, for a brief period it was so bad that they considered taking the PS4 version of the game down entirety.
To say it was as bad as Cyberpunk’s launch is a misnomer. But if one was clever enough they could see the writing on the wall: the larger the project CDPR was working on, the more it was prone to bugs. And Cyberpunk promised to be its biggest project yet.
Of course, my complaints about Witcher 3 were muted by its overwhelming praise, and CDPR went from being a indie darling to being the indie darling, one that could do no wrong and was focused on giving its players what they wanted. So when they heard that Cyberpunk was on the horizon, fans all over rejoiced about it like the second coming.
The path to Cyberpunk was a long one. Technically the project was announced before Witcher 3, but at that point it was only a single concept video and a few pieces of art. It remained that way for many years, talked about with only the occasional “When’s Cyberpunk?” post, until finally it was unveiled only a few years before its scheduled release.
When gameplay footage was finally revealed, it actually did pique my interest right from the start. The game seemed to be going for a Fallout/Deus Ex inspired gameplay system, but with a truly open world.. But I wasn’t nearly as excited as… some people. I knew at the end of the day it was the Witcher 3 devs, and I could be getting the same mediocre experience as I got with my last round trip with them. At this point I did indeed beat Witcher 3 all the way through, and while I did learn to appreciate it more than my first attempt it still did not strike me as the “game of the decade” that CDPR fans were espousing it as. In secret — perhaps out of spite — I hoped that Cyberpunk would fail.
There was already some unsettlement pre-release. Reviews for the game came out shockingly late (usually they hit a few weeks in advance, this time was a few days). The reviews were surprisingly vague, with some even mentioning that they only got to play a small portion of the full experience. Some CDPR antagonists like myself began to smile, though most people kept optimistic.
Then came the launch.
Perhaps there has been no greater outpouring of a shitstorm within a span of 24 hours as the initial release of Cyberpunk onto the masses. It became very clear right from the get-go that the game was bugged to hell and back. For PS4 players, the game was straight up unplayable — causing Playstation to make the infamous choice of recalling the game from its platform. Poor performance, audio desync, AI issues — it was like a theme park of messed up nonsense.
Of course, as I heard the news come in, my secret CDPR bias began to reveal itself. Eager as I was to see the fanbase get their just desserts, I decided to make a — on the surface — rather strange decision. You see, in this time after release rumors abound that refunds for the game would be free-flowing and easy to get, much easier than a traditional release. So, wanting to be in the eye of the storm of the chaos first hand, I decided to buy the game. Full price. On Xbox One. Yeah, I don’t really understand why I did it either. But it was this bizarre decision on my part that leads us to the rest of this blog post.
When I booted up the game and made my character, I immediately started to laugh at the issues. My frames dropped to 15 FPS in the intro area, a few items were inaccessible, NPCs stood still and did nothing. And so, I continued to play to see what else was wrong. Then I played again. And played some more. And more. Soon my friends began to ask why I was playing the buggy piece of shit so damn much. It was around this point I realized something odd — despite all its flaws, despite all its issues, I enjoyed Cyberpunk more than Witcher 3. In fact, I enjoyed it a lot.
The next few months I spent trying to decipher what it was that pulled me into the game so damn much, all the while getting ever closer to beating it. And at this point, I feel like I’ve come up with a pretty good answer.
Why Cyberpunk Was Better
Let me start this off by stating the obvious: I am not trying to excuse the state of the Cyberpunk launch. In fact, it was objectively pretty awful. Worst is that most of its issues were likely due to investor and management decisions that then trickled down to effect the creatives themselves. Cyberpunk, quite plainly, bit off a level of magnitude more than it could chew. Some stuff was obvious — for example, infinitely branching story paths were never going to happen in a million years (just like with every other game that’s promised it). Other parts of the game you can tell fell apart due to scope creep: there are so many strange details of zero import, the map is about 3x too large, there are a ton of rumored modes that apparently got cut (multiplayer? VR??). All in all it was a simultaneously hilarious and depressing disaster.
So, like I said — the game on launch was bad. There’s no doubt about it. What I’m trying to say here instead is why I enjoyed it despite all those flaws.
I think the biggest thing, especially in comparison with The Witcher, is the world. The world building and storytelling in Cyberpunk is the one thing I have seen nobody but the deepest contrarians shit on, and for good reason.
Cyberpunk’s world is… interesting, in a good way. The best way to explain this is to think about all the other notable worlds out there: Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Warcraft, Star Wars, etc. These worlds are, of course, filled with danger. The life expectancy in them I imagine is not particularly high. Yet despite this, they are worlds people would wish to live in. Often people daydream about being a space trader on The Outer Rim, or have a little hobbithome, or go to Hogwarts.
Cyberpunk, on the other hand, is a world you would never, ever, want to live in.
A world where sex and violence floods the streets, where Type A investment banking crazies rip themselves apart in corporations, where economic inequality is disastrously high, where the only way to become a hero is to kill a bunch of people and then yourself. There is no occupation you would want to be in Cyberpunk. Working in a corporation? Get your life torn apart by your manager. A ripperdoc? Get kidnapped by a gang. A mercenary? Enjoy the 10 minute long lifespan and cyberpsychosis, buddy.
But here’s the thing: in the context of a videogame, it all tends to make a lot of sense. In most modern military FPS games, you kill enough people to break Geneva Conventions several times over. But in Cyberpunk, that’s the rule. Everybody kills that many people! Everybody makes the same crazy decisions! Everybody ignores traffic signs and drives five times over the speed limit!
This is what’s wild and interesting about Night City. In other more reasonable worlds you usually have to control yourself to be immersed. In Cyberpunk, that lack of self control is the immersion. Contrast this with Witcher, which is more or less generic high fantasy. Yes, there is violence and boobies and sex all the same, but it’s no different from what you might get out of a Game of Thrones or Black Company. Cyberpunk’s world, by contrast, felt genuinely exciting.
And of course, beyond the world, there are those little moments. The initial heist in Konpeki Plaza. The absolute insanity that is the Peralez questline. All the companions who, genuinely, feel like companions. And, of course, the ending — I had gotten the good ending on my first playthrough by simply playing the character, and while it felt a little too focused towards certain companions it overall really felt like a complete experience.
So, I came out of Cyberpunk with a bittersweet feeling. On one hand I genuinely enjoyed the game, on the other I — in good faith — could not recommend it to anybody. I needed something else, some sort of excuse to get people interested, something that kept all the good elements of Cyberpunk but put it in a new light, preferably with the assistance of a team that was much more competent than CDPR.
Here comes Edgerunners.
The Edgerunners Angle
Cyberpunk: Edgerunners is the first step in the so-called “Cyberpunk cinematic universe”, a short anime miniseries written by the Cyberpunk team and developed by Trigger, the animation studio behind Gurren Lagann and Kill La Kill, with music by Silent Hill’s Akira Yamaoka. It was announced relatively soon after the launch of 2077, being produced mostly in tandem.
As soon as I saw the announcement of Edgerunners, I knew this’d be it. Often you get those rare PB&J matchups, like Nier Automata — the combination of Yoko Taro’s writing and Platinum Games’ gameplay — that just feel right. I knew the story was there in Cyberpunk, and I knew Trigger’s art and animation was some of the best I’ve ever seen. But I also knew that 2077 was a disaster and Trigger couldn’t write an engaging plot to save their lives. It felt like a natural combo.
Of course, no one really paid attention during the leadup of Edgerunners. Virtually all the promotional material looked very good, but since everyone was caught up in the disastrous launch and its damage control the last thing anyone was interested in was a Cyberpunk anime. Hell, even in the weeks before the show launched all people could talk about was any of Trigger’s other in development projects. There was no interest.
Part of me was genuinely concerned. I had become a Cyberpunk believer, and while I was still skeptical of CDPR I wanted people to become invested in the same world that I was. It seemed, by all intents and purposes, that things were going to go out in a puff of smoke — that the show was going to be pretty good, but relegated more to an underground hit rather than something more substantive. That wouldn’t have been enough to save Cyberpunk. The series where everything went out in bangs, instead went out with a whimper.
But a few interesting things happened. First of all, the show was good. Very good. Considering what I mentioned before, not entirely surprising. But the second thing — the surprising one — was that it was a huge hit.
Over the span of a week, people became Edgerunners obsessed. The show’s hashtag trended 24/7 for five days. Tens of thousands of pieces of art work were created. 2077, most notably, received enough sales during this time to pass the 20 million lifetime sales mark — making it one of the greatest bounce-backs in sales post launch of any videogame.
So, Edgerunners was a massive, worldwide success. I was happy. CDPR, I presume, was happy. Trigger was happy though perhaps a little anxious by the fact that a 3rd party western title was 10x more popular than any of their original IPs. The question no longer became if Edgerunners would help bring back the Cyberpunk franchise. The question was, instead… would it be enough?
CDPR Under The Trigger
If you were to look under the Edgerunners hashtag during those 5 days, and filter out all the Rebecca and Lucy fan art, you’d notice an interesting pattern. There was a lot of praise for the show, and a lot of praise for Trigger, but rarely any mention of CDPR. Which was strange given the fact that, beyond being the originators of the new franchise, they did have a sizable impact on the production of the show itself (all the writing, as I had mentioned, was done on the CDPR side). This bias began to reveal itself fully when a very particular tweet reared its head in the midst of the fervor.
I can no longer find the tweet now that it’s been awhile since all this occurred, but I’m sure you can find the evidence with enough digging. It was one of those simple “Cyberpunk is good? Always has been” sorts of things. And while that statement is debatable, the response was certainly vitrolic. Filled with long lists of all the launch faults, responses saying “You’re a AAA sympathizer” etc etc, it became clear that people were certainly still mad at CDPR.
To be fair, Trigger deserves the credit it gets. They were the ones who ultimately executed on CDPR’s vision, who created all the character concepts that fans so adore, and their growth through this project is really something to promote. In a lot of ways, Edgerunners feels like Trigger “growing up” — a studio which traditionally focused on (mostly empty) spectacles of action and color now had a framework to bring a complex story and philosophy into the mix, all while keeping the same spectacle. But they did, for the most part, get handed that framework by CDPR. Really it’s this collaboration that should be praised first and foremost — not just between two studios with vastly different focuses, but also ones in vastly different places. It’s Poland and Japan, for god’s sake! You’ve got language, cultural, and geographic barriers all in one bundle! However, they still pulled it off in the end.
But, as usual, I’m not here to make arguments. The simple fact is that Edgerunners was not enough to turn CDPR back into that darling game developer they once were. So, what’s the next step?
Where Do We Go From Here?
Well, the first natural place to go is the game itself. By the time I finished 2077, it was barely on version 1.1 — with the Edgerunners update it was brought to 1.6. So I, of course, decided to play it again. More specifically, I decided to buy it again, since I hadn’t brought my Xbox to the new apartment and heard that the PC version was a whole lot better, anyway.
I’m not entirely certain what was a bug fix in the updates, or what just naturally runs better on PC versus console. But immediately in my first 10 hours of playing I noticed a multitude of fixes. Some were sad, like the removal of the weird “rail grinding” glitch that gave you super speed if you sprinted on a fence. But most of them were sighs of relief, like the improvement of audio syncing and fixing model spawning and placement in cutscenes. Also the loading was much, much faster — though this might be more of a hardware difference. Overall, 1.6 feels like I’m playing a real game. A Bethesda game, maybe, but a real game nonetheless.
Yet despite how much CDPR may fix 2077, I don’t think the series’ future lies in that game. I also don’t think it lies in expansion packs like the upcoming Phantom Liberty. Rather, it lies in things similar to Edgerunners — perhaps not a cinematic universe per say, but a series of new, smaller games or stories which take place in the same world.
Unfortunately, as of this point, it doesn’t look like there’s too much steam left in Cyberpunk. As of me writing this, CDPR just released its “forward-looking” statement on new products in their pipeline. It consists of about 10 new Witcher projects and a single new Cyberpunk game. Looks like the bad guys won this time, boys. But who knows… maybe the future will change again, just like how it did with Edgerunners.