“Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” Review

Photo courtesy of CD Projekt Red

Photo courtesy of CD Projekt Red

I’m a massive fan of the game, “Cyberpunk 2077”, so I’ve been eagerly anticipating the release of the Netflix anime, “Cyberpunk Edgerunners”. Written by the game developer CD Projekt Red and created by Studio Trigger, “Edgerunners” is not a direct sequel or prequel. Instead, it’s more of a companion piece to the game; expanding on many of the themes from the original game.

“Edgerunners”, like the game, has an iconic style and bravado behind it. There’s a copious amount of blood, gore, action, cool 80’s punk hairstyles, neon lights, and more. Behind all that bravado though lies a deeply human and empathetic story about loss and what makes us human. 

Adding to that style is stellar animation and art style. The show is beautiful with incredible character designs and locations. Studio Trigger pulled out all the stops as they bring their A-game. From the brutally stylish action to the slower and more somber moments of reflection between characters, Trigger delivers a stunning show with an excellent interpretation of the art design from the original game.

“Edgerunners” is by far the most faithful video game adaptation of all time as it respects the world and lore of the game to such a significant degree that you can find almost every single location from the show in the Game even down to random streets and back alleys. As someone who played the game, having this added attention to detail helps give the show a much better sense of geography than most other stories set in a fictional city do. 

Though there is perhaps too much of an over-reliance on the locations from the game that it feels strange after a while why we aren’t seeing any truly new locales. The outdoor locations you can’t really get around as there isn’t really anywhere new you can show outside but there are plenty of unexplored indoor places they could’ve delved into. While their accuracy and faithfulness to the geography of the original game is admirable it can also serve as a double-edged sword for people who played the game and wanted to see new sides to Night City

It also closely follows the rules and lore of the game even to the point where specific cybernetic modifications function the same as they do in the game. Most notable is the Sandevistan modification, which allows the user to slow down time essentially. Still, the show provides some creative flair in visualizing how it works to make it more visually appealing.

The show also has exceptional music. Every track perfectly accompanies the scene it’s in which is especially impressive considering most of the soundtrack actually originated from the game. I’m a little indifferent on this aspect as the music is great and the soundtrack from the game is one of my favorites but it becomes distracting at a certain point when they’re playing dozens of songs I already know. 

Even the penultimate song, “I Really Want to Stay at Your House”, which plays in the final scenes of the last episode was from the original soundtrack. While the song is great, it feels a little cheap that even songs that play during some of the most climactic scenes in the show are already in the game. On the other hand, the show gives a lot more emotional weight behind the song but it still would’ve been nice for an original vocal track to play before the credits rolled on the final episode.

Now let’s dig into the meat and potatoes of this show, the story. “Edgerunners” follows a teen as he rises through the ranks of Night City’s mercenary underworld with his lovable group of mercenaries. That elevator pitch may sound fairly simple but the show is decidedly more tragic than that sounds. Getting to the top of the food chain in night city is a path born in blood and sacrifice.

The world of Cyberpunk and Night City exists in a stage of late capitalism where corporations have absolute control over everything and basic commodities are monetized. You have to pay a subscription fee to use your own washer, there are emergency services that only help if you’re under your insurance plan, EMTs will kill and rob you for a quick buck, and your own ashes will be paid for via vending machine.

 Even the prospect of having ownership of your own soul isn’t guaranteed as there is technology that can alter brain waves and memories without laying a finger on the target. Night City is a brutally dystopian city run by the most powerful corporations on earth. There is no escape from the likes of these mega-corporations no matter how hard you try. The extent to which this has affected this world is catastrophic and could be its own article in itself.

Protagonist, David Martinez, is a down-on-his-luck teen whose family barely scrapes up enough to send him to school. It’s made clear that David is itching for a change in his mundane life. He constantly can’t sit still, mopes around without any real sense of purpose, and even suggests leaving school in order to make more money. When a tragedy strikes and presents him with the prospect of the exciting life he so desperately wanted, he immediately latches on and becomes a mercenary joining a crew of lovable misfits.

The show has a charming cast of characters all with distinct designs and personalities but the relationship between David and expert netrunner (hacker) Lucy lies at the core of this story. They are two characters that are seemingly worlds apart both with vastly different upbringings and personalities and yet are united by a common dream to break free from the dystopian world they’re living in, only they have vastly different methods of achieving it. Lucy’s resolution is essentially to escape as her dream is to be on the moon and David’s is to become the best of the best in all of Night City.

It is within this dichotomy that the show delivers both its happiest and most tragic moments. In his relentless quest to leave a mark on the world, David almost foolishly believes that he is in some way special and that no one else was like him because of his almost miraculous ability to use a Sandevistan without succumbing to what is essentially the boogieman of Night City, cyberpsychosis, which occurs when someone replaces too much of their body with cybernetic modifications that it drives them insane.

At the end of the day, “Edgerunners” is a story about dreams and the importance they play in our lives. It reminds me of a passage from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If”, which states “If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim.” David obsesses not only over his dream to be something in this city of dreams but also to live up to the dreams of those around him. At the end of the day, he does fulfill all of those dreams but he gives almost everything in the process.

Warning, spoilers ahead. Skip to the last paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers,

The hallmarks of any good story in the cyberpunk genre are they have a ton of neon lights and they’re sad. In this genre, there are never happy endings and that remains true here. In his pursuit to fulfill the dreams of his mother, his mentor, Maine, and Lucy, David has to give up his mind, body, and soul. Throughout the show, he is constantly warned that he is only human and that he is not as exceptional as he thinks but David rejects that idea and it ends up costing him everything.

In the end, David does in fact get what he wants but it comes with a bittersweet feeling. In order to become the strongest there is, reach the top of Arasaka Tower, and send Lucy to the Moon, he becomes almost unrecognizable to the man he once was. He becomes a cybernetic war machine almost devoid of any human qualities which sends his mind spiraling into cyberpsychosis that eventually gets him killed. 

In the end, he becomes a legend of Night City by storming Arasakan Tower and fighting the most formidable foe in the city, Atom Smasher. Yet, in the context of the video game, David is hardly more than a spec in the sand with little more than a drink named after him at a bar called the Afterlife. His final moments had been done before and after through the likes of Johnny Silverhand and the game’s protagonist, V. Despite becoming a legend though, David doesn’t truly leave a mark like other legends in Night City. He doesn’t destroy a tower in one final stand against the forces of entropy, take down the world wide net in an attempt to repair the world’s shattered social fabric, or single-handedly bring down the world’s largest corporation. 

This is even foreshadowed by the opening song, “This Fire”, by Franz Ferdinand because all the parts of the song that say “I’m gonna burn this city” are edited out. David was never going to burn this city because he simply lacked the conviction to do so. “Cyberpunk” creator, Mike Pondsmith, states that “Cyberpsychosis was never meant to be a “the more cybernetics you get, the crazier you are.” It’s meant to be a scapegoat so feds and corpos don’t have to help people”

So it’s not necessarily David’s overuse of cybernetics that cause his descent but rather his emotional response to the emotional stressors in his life. Throughout the whole show, he is practically living someone else’s dream. After the death of his mom he attempts to rise to the top of Night City just like she wanted (though in a different fashion than she would’ve liked) and after the death of his mentor, Maine, he becomes obsessed with modifying his body to the absolute limit.

He’s given very little time to process and cope with the trauma that he’s gone through just like the viewer and he internalizes that in unhealthy ways which is what ultimately caused his descent into cyperpsychosis. He loses sight of himself and that’s what ultimately causes his mental decline.

Despite all that though, his final moments aren’t that of disappointment or complete insanity, rather he’s laughing and smiling content with what he has done. He realizes that he finally got the exciting and invigorating experience of a lifetime that he so desperately wanted at the beginning of the show. In a finale where David is constantly on the verge of insanity, this moment right before his death gives him a small moment of clarity as he realizes that he got what he truly wanted.

As evidenced by my extended analysis, I could gush about this show and universe all day long I truly think CD Projekt Red and Studio Trigger have stumbled on an untapped gold mine with this universe. I can’t recommend “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners” enough as it has now skyrocketed into being one of my favorite shows. From the music, art design, character work, and more, this show is nearly flawless. 

Score: 9/10