The funny thing about creating a "living, breathing" videogame world is just how easily it comes unraveled. You spend five years and $300 million trying to make an utterly convincing, absorbing city, and then someone comes along and notices that every NPC crashes into the same street corner, or that children are just weirdly shrunken adults, or that the police just magically appear when you do crimes. It's easy for the illusion to be broken—especially in a game that overpromises, is impossibly ambitious, and gets shoved out the door two years before it's ready. That's Cyberpunk 2077.
Cyberpunk: Edgerunners (opens in new tab), Netflix's new anime spin-off based on the show, doesn't have to deal with any of those problems. With no concerns for immersion or reactivity, it fast forwards through the ultraviolent life of a rando choom, and in the process makes Night City exciting and alive again.
Edgerunners keeps its cast tight: it spends most of its time on young street kid David Martinez and the crew he ends up rolling with, including elite hacker Lucy, and Maine, the Hulk-sized mercenary leader who takes him under his wing. It's your classic dystopian tragedy: angry, desperate for money and purpose in life, innocent David decides to turn to a life of crime—he just happens to do it with a military-grade cybernetic spinal implant that makes him faster than a bullet.
The animators at Studio Trigger, famous for shows like Kill La Kill, are gleefully unsubtle. Edgerunners is full of heads exploding into chunky shards of bone and brain and floppy flaps of skin. The two women with the most screen time, both hackers, conveniently get naked every time they do a hack, and then a few more times for good measure. The animation has a clean-edged modern slickness to it, but its approach to violence and sex are just as trapped in the '80s as Cyberpunk itself.
The ultraviolence is mostly fun, though, and sometimes bleak and off-putting exactly when it should be—there wasn't much chance this spin-off series was going to tackle big questions about the cyberpunk genre. But I was surprised by how much its little snapshots of life in Night City pulled me in. Early on David saunters through his block on the way to school with the precision of someone who's stepped over the same drunk, dodged the same pile of puke, and taken the same shortcut a thousand times; it immediately reminded me of leaving V's apartment in Cyberpunk 2077, but it's so much more effective to watch than to play.
In the show, a few seconds of David walking the same route shows his swagger despite the squalor he lives in and packs in moments of background comedy, like random dudes in VR headsets going to town on cyber fleshlights. When he hits rock bottom, walking that familiar route is an inflection point: the moment he decides something's gotta change. In the game, leaving your apartment and seeing the same NPCs, the same bits of dialogue, just reinforce the artificiality of the world—eventually they're just background noise to sprint past on your way to the next mission.
Heist scenes set on Night City's monorail made me want to boot up the game, jump on a train and watch the city go by through the window (I'm still bitter 2077 doesn't have a working metro system, though modders have done their best to add one). Even the slang I rolled my eyes at in Cyberpunk 2077—every bit of dialogue with choom or gonk or shorthand like corpo or preem—surprisingly didn't bother me in Edgerunners, maybe because I was watching it in Japanese with English subtitles instead of hearing those words spoken out loud. I was absorbed in the world in a way I couldn't be in 2077 when I just wanted to fast forward through dialogue to get back to playing.
Even the sudden, unexpected deaths on the show hit different. They drive home how fucked up Night City is in a way that Cyberpunk 2077 can't, when you're the one instigating them. Even knowing that, watching these characters get snuffed out made me want to seek out vignettes around the city I never found in my aborted couple hours with the game back in 2020.
The smartest thing Cyberpunk: Edgerunners does is build its story around the threat of cyberpsychosis, a psychological condition mentioned in the game but never really focused on. Cyberpunk RPG lore says cyberpsychosis is the violent madness that results from too many augmentations, the brain losing itself to body trauma and turning poor chromed-up chooms into deranged killers.
It's the perfect kick-them-while-they're-down twist for a dystopia: the only way for David to crawl his way out of the gutter is to augment more and more of his body, but too much will make him lose his mind.
The characters end up injecting immunosuppressants to stay sane, upping their dosage the more body parts they replace. Edgerunners makes it clear that for characters like David and Maine, it's not the drugs that are addicting: it's the augmentation and the thirst for the power it brings. This is not a particularly deep revelation (if you want a cyberpunk anime that truly has things to say about the blurring lines between humans and AI, watch Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (opens in new tab)). But it's still better than I expected from a show that begins with a cyborg dude emulsifying 15 cops just to set the tone.
With the news that CD Projekt Red plans to overhaul its magically responsive police and has an expansion out next year, I don't think it's the right time for me to play Cyberpunk 2077 just yet. I'm hoping a few more patches will help Night City maintain its illusion of being a real place, and that the expansion's stories will be able to shine without a cloud of launch day bugs getting in the way.
Edgerunners doesn't exactly have a happy ending, but it did make me optimistic, for the first time, that Cyberpunk still has a city still worth exploring.