Cyberpunk 2077: 7 curses and 5 graces

So, the dust settled. Cyberpunk 2077 has been around for some months now and the whole “hype-disgraceful launch-backlash” cycle seems to be letting up. I have been taking my time playing it and finally completed the game’s main quest last night. Not only that, but also every side quest I felt like doing.

It is still difficult to share a final impression about this game. Firstly, because Cyberpunk 2077 is still “being developed”, in a sense. Patches are shipping all the time, a major update is expected soon and the game has as many bugs as there are cockroaches in Night City. Not to mention the fact that, to some players, it’s simply unplayable at its current state. (Somehow, I could play it through with only 5 crashes on a Playstation 4 Slim, which makes me fear for my soul). In other words, if I write a verdict now, it might change in some weeks, when the “final game” is finally available.

Secondly, because of the issues the game has in its treatment of some minorized groups, especially trans people and people with epilepsy. After playing the game, I must say that, in my opinion, most of the concerns and problems were more related to how the game marketed itself than the actual content it brings. Nevertheless, it seems safer to wait until more people have played this game and listen to their opinion and their feelings about how they might have been portrayed in Cyberpunk 2077. Which is also why I highly recommend this review, written by a trans woman.

The in-game ad that sparkled the controversy about the portrayal of trans people.

And last but not least, because this game was produced under a cruel and unfair corporate culture — which is probably why it is in such a poor state. And this has a direct impact in the quality of the final product, rendering it harder to review than “just a regular game”, since many of the choices might have been taken forcefully and in a rushed way, making judgements on that unfair to the hundreds of people who worked on this project.

With all that being said, I decided that, instead of a review, I would simply tell 7 things that really annoyed me in the game, curses. But also 5 that really made Cyberpunk 2077 an experience worth having, saving graces.

The 7 curses

1) People call you. All the time.

You have to shoot a small army of gangsters, but Regina Jones needs you to answer the holo. NOW!

Since texting has become a common practice, there are only a few situations when it’s acceptable to call someone without previously asking if they are available to speak. And those situations are, but a few exceptions, always something very unpleasant, from telemarketing to bad news. Well, this etiquette seems to have been lost somewhen between now and 2077. You get calls from a lot of characters during the whole game. And it doesn’t matter if you’re busy, talking to another character or having an epic battle. The phone will ring until you answer and the person calling will say everything they want once you do.

As if that was not annoying enough, those calls are triggered by your geographic position in the game. Meaning that, if you are close to a region where a quest from a character can be done, they will call you to let you know about it. But considering that, normally, you only visit places in a game when you have something important to do there, this means those calls will almost always be inconvenient. Did I mention that A LOT of characters you never met or got introduced to will also call you? Because they will… Fun fact: the characters CAN actually text you. You get a lot of texts from them. But someone decided that inconvenient calls would make the game more fun, it seems. I hope this person gets called during every meal and while having sex for the next two months.

2) Things are triggered without warning or reason

See the yellow icon over the NPCs head? Once that turns to red, he will attack you.

This might belong in the bug pile, but as far as I can see, it all happens by design. Some of the quests in the game are triggered simply because you stepped in the place where that quest starts. Some NPCs become hostile just because you hack a device close to them — even if that device is a vending machine that clearly does not belong to them. Some police officers might start shooting at you just because your gun is not holstered.

Now combine all that and you have one more thing being triggered: the player’s rage. Imagine, for example, that you are in the middle of a stealth quest. You must go a long and complicated way without being seen by an army of enemies. All that while in a condition in which you can not use a weapon or defend yourself. Seems trivial, right? Now, imagine that in the middle of the only possible way to go without being noticed by the enemies, you meet a mobster, who a fixer wants you to kill. The guy just appears there, very angry and shooting at you. Now, if you run, you trigger the NPCs you are trying to hide from. You also can not shoot the mobster back because you are unable to use weapons. So, basically, a mess. A very annoying one. And one that could be avoided by two simple design choices:

· Making quests be activated only if the player takes a proactive action towards that (this is why it’s called ACTIVATE. You have to be active in order to do so, it should never happen passively);

· Not localizing multiple quests in the exact same spot of the map. And this should not be a challenge, since the map is huge.

3) The controls

The controller scheme: it can turn your life to hell and can’t be changed.

The button used to crouch/stand is the same button that skips dialogue lines or cutscenes. Imagine how many times, after “stealthing” your way to that super important NPC and finally being able to talk to them, you try to stand up — so as to look them in the face, not the crotch — and then misses a key part of an important dialogue. Yes, it will happen a lot. And the game has no conversation log to make up for that.

Why didn’t I change it? Because it is not possible. And as if that was not enough, there are some very important actions during combat — like healing and launching grenades — that can go in the exact same “slot” among your abilities. In the end of the day, this leads to situations like “tap to attack, hold to heal”. The joy of trying to heal during a boss battle and dying with a grenade exploding in your face is something that only Cyberpunk 2077 can grant you…

4) Gunplay is so bad it should be called “guntoil”

Don’t be fooled by this GIF. You won’t kill enemies that easy with that weapon. But it will be as shaky as it looks.

If you ever played games with really tight and precise gunplay, like Apex Legends, for example, Cyberpunk 2077 might really hurt you. Starting with the fact that the first guns in the game barely have an aim. The almost invisible crosshair doesn’t help either, because it doesn’t correspond to where the projectile will land exactly. Recoil is not “trackable”, and you end up with the gun in a new random position after every shot — not only a vertical drift, as it’s usual, for example. And the zoom in or aiming mode, so common in FPS games, actually makes the UI elements disappear, leaving you alone with a gun that will, almost certainly, fire the wrong target. It’s like shooting in the dark.

Now, it is also true that you can develop your character to have better gunplay. As well as finding or crafting better guns. After 6 hours playing, I already had pistols with projectiles that could chase enemies. After 10, I had sniper rifles with a fully usable scope. But this is only because I decided to do so. And because I was patient enough to endure the first quests being shot precisely by the AI while I tried to shoot without any meaningful result or guidance.

And even with all the enhancements, sometimes shooting still feels a little too “loose”. This is actually why I ended up using blades for most of the first third of the game: they spared me from the frustration. But on the other hand, it really made me wonder: why did they decide to make this game an FPS if gunplay is not one of the main focuses? I guess we’ll never know…

5) It is realistic only in boring ways

You will spend a lot of time in elevators. And be sure to press the right floor in the panel.

When you are typing on a word processor, there is a lot of stuff that simulates a typewriter, its predecessor. Still, it doesn’t jam and you don’t have to worry about carriage returns. This is why it’s a good simulation and a good tool: because it immerses the user in a familiar setting, but removes the problems it had. This is why it works.

Something similar happens with UX in games. This is why we have fast travel: so you don’t have to run the whole world just to give that item back to an NPC you met at the beginning of the game. This is why you can carry more itens than a person would normally be able to: because the items serve the purpose of gameplay, not of physical objects in a physical reality — Death Stranding is an exception to all of this because the game is also a commentary on all that, but I digress…

All that being said, Cyberpunk 2077 decided to turn its back to most of those lessons. And without the aesthetic purposes of Death Stranding, for example, it just feels annoying. See all those skyscrapers there? They have elevators! And once you enter them, you have to wait, sometimes a full minute, to reach the desired floor. Nothing happens. The games just wants you to wait. Driving will become a hustle, because, unlike most of the games involving cars, the direction is inverted when you need to move backwards. Parking a real car between two others is sometimes less annoying than taking a U-turn after passing through an exit. You want to cross the street? Wait for the green light, otherwise you have high chances of being hit by a car. A lot of realism… in a world in which people can upload their souls and minds to cyberspace. All we ever needed.

6) Smoking is still a thing in 2077

She is completely made out of chrome and voiced by Grimes. Nothing could be less organic, still, she smokes a paper cigarette.

There are a plethora of legal and illegal drugs in the game. There is a condition called cyberpsychosis, which happens when a person becomes dependent on their body implants and robotics. There is a character with more than 90% of their body transformed into “chrome”. And just sniffing something similar to an asthma pump, you can even heal yourself!

Still, for some reason, people insist on smoking paper cigarettes and tobacco all the time. And a lot. Sometimes it feels like we are playing Fallout 4, with the difference that that game draws inspiration from the 50s, while Cyberpunk 2077 has nothing to do with that. And as if almost every character smoking wasn’t enough, the screenplay decides to make it a big deal for the players too, who must, more than once, decide if they are going to smoke or not. Ashtrays are a common item to be collected everywhere. And since people light cigarettes in the middle of a conversation all the time, it’s also common for them to blow all the smoke in your face while at it. This is not only annoying, it feels old and dated. That could, of course, be a nod to Blade Runner, with which the game shares its genre. But while Ridley’s Scott masterpiece is an explicit homage to Noir Movies, Cyberpunk 2077 only uses this setting as one of the many living in the game. And smoking is pervasive in all of them. Maybe it’s just me. But when I see that future, running on silicon circuits, chrome and plastic, I tend to think that it smells more like a medical practice (even so that all keeps functioning well) than the living room of Patricia and Selma, Marge Simpson’s sisters.

7) In a world of lust, you actually don’t get laid a lot…

Sex is all around. All the time.

Like it should be in a cyberpunk dystopia, Night City is saturated with advertisement. 80% of it involves sex: be it an extremely sexualized poster to sell a soft drink or “Mr. Stud” itself, a male robot to have sex with.

On top that, the marketing and positioning of a game that brags about letting you customize your genitals and even be a transgender person — not exactly, though, as commented in this text, previously linked. So, the big disappointment happens once you step out there, in this ultra sexualized world and find out that you actually can’t have a lot of sex. The truth is you almost never have sex, except for a few sex workers with whom you can have that kind of interactions and characters with whom you can develop a relationship. And you thought that “sex after marriage” was a religious thing, right?

One of the excuses for that might be the fact that consoles restrict sex a lot. To say it clearly, sex is completely banned from Nintendo, Xbox and Playstation networks. Violence seems to be OK for them, though. In any case, there is a chance that the company which made Cyberpunk 2077 didn’t want to lose the opportunity to release their game on consoles just because they would have sex on it. Understandable. Although, in that case, also not sure why to make it so pervasive along the whole setting.

But even in a relationship and complying with the medium’s censorship, things get worse. First of all, only four characters in the whole game are available to have a relationship with you. It’s fair to say that they all have complex and deep storylines, and that might be the reason why there are only four “datable” ones. Still, it does not make sense that they — and, again, a few, random and not so easily findable sex workers — are your only options to get laid.

There’s more: once you choose a gender for your character — assigned by the female or male coded voice — that selection goes down to two. Because yes, that’s how binary sex in 2077 looks like: there are two straight characters and two gay ones. And their preferences remain so regardless of what you do. Once you chose your gender, it’s sealed. And here I must add that thanks to this, one of the best endings in the game — the best, in my humble opinion — is reserved exclusively to a male coded character. Dystopic as it may be, this future looks very much like most of present society: sex is all they talk about because they never really get to have it.

The 5 saving graces

1) References, references, and more references

You know that motrorcycle from a cyberpunk anime…

Any creative work that knows and understands its ecosystem is a better one. And Cyberpunk goes the extra mile at that. From Ghost in the Shell to Matrix, from Deus Ex to The Office… even a Microsoft Office virtual assistant finds its way into this game. And a good one.

The floor of character who’s being haunted by “the dead”? Almost the same as that in “The Shining”. A character who gives you spiritual advice? Almost a clone from Blade Runner’s “Pris”. It is also possible to say that the giant ad of a Japanese woman in that movie inspires a huge part of the plot in Cyberpunk 2077.

Detroit: Become Human is visually quoted in a whole cutscene. There is an easter egg from Death Stranding and Kojima makes a cameo appearance. Even Persona games found their way here, with the whole Tarot journey not only mirroring the hero’s journey but also becoming part of the gameplay. And just wait until you see that Akira bike…

2) You can follow your heart!

You will really become attached to characters and feel that they have emotional responses towards you.

Seldom in a game I was so rewarded for listening to my guts. Think about that character that you want to help or know better… It is worth it! The quests and storylines associated to the NPCs who seem interesting are more appealing than the other ones. And pursuing them reveals details and depth in a way that few other games can.

I am talking about fully new gameplay dynamics, like piloting something like a war tank or having a full underwater mission. Or a complete change of genre, like turning the game into a detective story. If you are curious enough, you might even testify one of the most impactful moments I have ever seen in the medium — I will just say that it involves the recording of a “brain dance”, the VR movies people “watch” in 2077.

The game features a vintage rock band for a reason: just like Roxette used to sing, “listen to your heart”. You will not regret it. And if you do that the whole way, you will almost surely get a good ending.

3) It feels like home

Above, São Paulo’s Japan Town (Liberdade). Below, Night City’s Japan Town.

It is a dystopian future. In a city that doesn’t even exist (it would be somewhere in central California if it did). But somehow, it feels extremely familiar. Being a Brazilian and having lived most of my life in São Paulo, Night City feels almost nostalgic. The northern side of Watson, for example, feels exactly like some northern and western districts from São Paulo. While the flashy streets of Heywood look like the fancy neighborhoods of Jardins or Pinheiros. The Megabuilding, which combines private and public areas? I baptized it Copan – a famous building designed by Oscar Niemeyer in São Paulo. The chaos of bridges and streets and even an unfinished monorail — which is probably a fast travel system that didn’t get ready on time — make it almost a perfect parody. Sometimes, wandering around was, literally, going home.

But even if you have never been to São Paulo, Night City will have something familiar to you. Maybe the badlands remind you of trailer camps you go with your family on summer. Maybe the skyscrapers and their catwalks remind you of the nearest corporate district. Or maybe you just have to visit an Asian restaurant in Kabuki, where the cook will remind you immediately of some neighborhood diner. It is really impressive that a game about an inexistent place, in extreme conditions, reminds us so much of home, wherever that is.

4) Difficulty progression feels (mostly) good

This is the setting of one of the most difficult parts of the game. But also one of the best level designs and use of kills.

In general, the game never offers a challenge that you can’t face. And they feel great. Especially because they are not too easy either. Which means that during the whole game, you will be in a flow, not frustrated by how hard it is, but also not bored because it’s a walk in the park.

I must observe here that curses 2 and 4 can really mess that up. But if you save you progress every now and then and be prepared to try different approaches to a situation, you will get by. Also, this tends to get much more balanced after the first third of the game.

It feels really good to play a game where difficulty and challenge are there, but never become the main character, you know?

5) Your decisions do have (some) impact in the world

What would you to say to someone who is depressed and could potentially harm themselves?

Again, we must separate marketing from facts. The whole idea that everything depends on your choices and every dialogue line might change the story forever is a lie. And a big one. Mostly, the choices you take are merely narrative and don’t change too much in the game. But there are some few changes that, even if not as great as advertised, do make Cyberpunk 2077 a great experience. So, for example, many side quests have two or three different endings. Normally, you only get that diversity for the ending of a game, but here, they are pretty common. Of course they won’t change your whole gameplay, but depending on what you decide to do, — sometimes under pressure — you might get special items, weapons or even special lore details.

Some quests go so deep in that sense, that you might end up crying. Also, if you are meddling with celebrities or public opinion, your choices might change the ads you see on billboards and screens around town. And your skill levels in many categories allow you to say exclusive dialogues lines, which might open up new sub-quests and unfoldings. It’s less than they said you could do, but more than you normally get. And, again, a great experience.

So, if you are ready to face the curses to bath in the graces, Night City is waiting for you. And I am looking forward to hear your stories about your time there!

Game Design Student. Fiction is as real as reality has fictions. Based in Cologne, Germany.