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Cyberpunk 2077 – Phantom Liberty: The Kotaku Review

Even as Cyberpunk 2077’s Phantom Liberty expansion tells a new, mostly standalone story, there are multiple points throughout when V, the protagonist of CD Projekt Red’s long-troubled RPG, reflects on the job that got them into this mess: the heist on Konpeki Plaza. While Cyberpunk 2077 and now Phantom Liberty have many branching paths to pick from as you shape your character, that job gone wrong, in which V lost their best friend Jackie and got the ghost of rocker-boy-turned-terrorist Johnny Silverhand stuck into their head, is a universal constant.

Phantom Liberty calls back to this job multiple times, and it’s clear that even as my V is facing a possible life-saving solution to the synthetic parasite in his head, he can’t quite forget the mistakes he’s made that got him here. In that way, V felt like an extension of myself in Cyberpunk 2077, a game that I’ve gone from having a begrudging, rose-colored appreciation of in 2020, to legitimately liking in 2022 after finishing a year-long replay/retrospective of it for a podcast.

Now, after playing Phantom Liberty, coupled with the major updates in the 2.0 patch, I’m starting to feel like I might love it, and it’s taken an additional three years of development time, fixes, tweaks, and this expansion to reach that point. But Phantom Liberty is the only expansion we’re getting, and given just how good it is, I can’t help but mourn the game we could’ve gotten, and wish that I could look forward to more.

I don’t think I’m ready to go yet. But I have to accept that this, the game as it is now, is what Cyberpunk 2077 is and always will be. And like V, I can’t stop thinking about how I got here, and the roller coaster of frustration and fulfillment this game’s given me over the past three years.

One of Cyberpunk 2077’s main themes was that the natural endgame of late-stage capitalism is for corporations to own every facet of our lives. Phantom Liberty further posits that patriotism is just as much a poison that can rot people away from the inside, inspiring the same blind devotion that people evince for the brands they love or the jobs that put food on their table. Its self-contained story feels much more precise in the things it wants to say than the base game did in all its open-world glut, and by extension feels like it elevates 2077’s own themes, which were already strong when the game was at its best.

Phantom Liberty kicks off when V hears from Songbird, a netrunner employed by the president of the New United States of America, both of whom are about to crash-land in Dogtown, a new district in Cyberpunk 2077’s open world that is walled off from the rest of the already-dangerous city. But V’s busy dying to an AI construct in their head and has no time to deal with the petty squabbles of government figures. Songbird claims she can save V from their fate and proves herself to be one of the most capable netrunners the game’s ever shown, even making V’s in-head Keanu Reeves shut up for a spell.

Eventually shit goes wrong, and the president asks you to reach out to Solomon Reed, a sleeper agent for the NUSA who’s been in Night City for several years and is played by Luther / Sonic the Hedgehog 2 actor Idris Elba, who puts his whole Idrussy into the performance as a tortured, devoted-to-a-fault spy. He eventually leads you to Alex, a fellow Night City agent who is not so pleased to be called back into the line of duty, and now you’ve got a new crew and a recipe for a dramatic spy thriller.

Phantom Liberty is pretty disruptive to 2077’s story, and even if I do like its characters, themes, and the new ending it adds, I do have trouble reconciling it as a “conclusion” to the game’s story when it takes so many storylines and characters off the board to tell a different tale. The new ending route, which we won’t spoil here, especially feels like a “what if” scenario, even though I find its exploration of V and their story fascinating in a way I’ll probably write about some other time. But I appreciate how tied Phantom Liberty feels thematically to 2077, even with some of the original game’s most impactful characters kept at arm’s length for the majority of the expansion.

Even Johnny Silverhand, who is an incessant chatterbox in the main game, is used more sparingly in Phantom Liberty. It gives new characters time to shine, but the lines Silverhand does enjoy are some of the most compelling writing Reeves’ character has had. Johnny is a military veteran, so he’s primed for his usual grandstanding and looking down his nose at everyone involved, including V for getting caught up in the whole mess. But Phantom Liberty had me willing to hear the bastard out.

In the main game, my V and Silverhand butted heads over his constant dismissive attitude toward everyone just trying to get by in Night City’s hellscape. We found common ground by the end, and the gradual enemies-to-friends relationship between my V and Johnny was paramount to why Cyberpunk 2077 landed so well for me. But in Phantom Liberty, I found him actually insightful. His dismissiveness here didn’t come from a self-righteous place, but from real, long-held disillusionment over a country that was happy to feed him into the machine and a desire to protect V from any such exploitation.

Johnny isn’t the only character making that case. Just about everyone in Phantom Liberty has been chewed up, spit out, or devoured by the NUSA and its president. Solomon and Songbird are two sides of the same coin, with one holding on to his devotion to his country with conviction, even in the face of some gutting betrayals, and the other willing to do anything in her power to break the chains. For much of Phantom Liberty’s runtime V is a passive observer, here to get their cure and walk away. But by spending time with each of the NUSA agents, I saw them for the people they were, in a way their president refused to. As I watched, three people who clearly cared about each other were forced into impossible situations by a country that only viewed them as tools to be used, discarded, then fished out of the trash when it was convenient.

Upon reaching Phantom Liberty’s main crossroads, I faced one of the hardest choices I’ve made in all of Cyberpunk 2077. It wasn’t because I didn’t have conviction in what I wanted to do, but because I had spent enough time with each of these spies to understand the ramifications for each, as well as for myself. What started as a chance to save V’s life had become a web of interconnected fates far more complicated, impossible to carelessly barrel through without weighing on my conscience.

Dogtown is one of the best realizations of the Night City setting in Cyberpunk 2077. Much as with the narrative, Phantom Liberty’s smaller scope does a lot for the open world of Cyberpunk 2077, making Dogtown the most believable-feeling district of the city. The citizens in this small slice of the map actually seem like they live in Dogtown, rather than simply walk around it to trick you into thinking they do. It’s all smoke and mirrors, of course, but all video games are.

Small instances like finding people gathered around a memorial tree in a small settlement or playing basketball on a court while you’re being interrogated by Idris Elba add to the feeling that Dogtown is a populated area, rather than a series of streets to tear through in your sick cars while people walk by. The smaller scale makes happening upon moments like this more frequent, and the stories of Dogtown start forming in my head as I drive by.

Even with Dogtown being a fraction of the size of Night City’s map, it has a lot crammed in. I really enjoyed the majority of the side-quests, which alternate between being far-reaching in their consequence and meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Whether wheeling and dealing for political power at the behest of Mr. Hands or finding someone whose brain was broken by a VR simulation into thinking they were their favorite actor, Phantom Liberty makes the most of the setting with minimal open-world glut creating dead space.

All of this is elevated by the big 2.0 update that’s come out alongside Phantom Liberty. We shared a lengthy discussion on that already, but the patch essentially guts the original game’s progression and equipment systems. Each skill tree now offers a more tangible playstyle to craft, rather than only making numbers go up with each subsequent level. My V is a stealth-based hacker, and before, that largely boiled down to sneaking and turning people’s synthetic eyes off. Now, I can turn invisible with a new cyberware implant, sprint while crouched to get to cover more quickly than a strength-based character could dream of, or land precise headshots with a silenced pistol thanks to a perk that practically aimbots at an enemy’s cranium when I look down sights.

Between Phantom Liberty and the 2.0 update, Cyberpunk 2077 has never felt more accommodating to me as a stealth player. There’s a lengthy, action-filled setpiece in the expansion’s opening hour that culminates in a pretty great boss fight against a tank-like war machine. The tools I had as a high-level character who filled out the “Cool” stealth skill tree were more than enough to take on some real heavy artillery, letting me turn invisible when I had to find new cover and slow down time to aim at its weak points. So many boss fights in Cyberpunk 2077 felt exclusively intended for a version of V who could shoot real good and withstand big hits. Thanks to 2.0’s changes, my V who excels in the shadows still feels viable when dragged into the spotlight.

Even with all the changes from 2.0, some blemishes from the main game bleed into Phantom Liberty. The most notable is the game’s insistence on making you wait real-world time for quests to activate, which interrupts progress constantly. Sure, you can use the game’s time skip mechanic to jump forward until the game is satisfied, but a few times you’re not told a specific time you’ll have to wait, and it’s exhausting trying to trick the game into letting you continue.

When I was in the thick of Phantom Liberty’s story, I ended up leaving Dogtown and heading back to my boyfriend Kerry’s mansion to sleep just to pass however much time the game arbitrarily decided I needed to. I understand the intention behind this design decision is to make it feel like the world is alive and not entirely centered around me, but for fuck’s sake, let me do the thing I came here to do.

That aside, as a stealth player, I felt especially rewarded by Phantom Liberty’s spy thriller focus, because it turns out there are a lot of transferable skills between being a spy and being a merc who snaps necks and smooth talks through situations. Some of the expansion’s best moments happen when it leans in hard on tried-and-true genre tropes, but with a Cyberpunk twist.

One of the standout sections had myself and Solomon attending a party thrown by a Dogtown gang leader. I shook hands and put on a fake smile as we gathered intel, but also had to talk to a pair of criminals to collect enough data on them to recreate their images and mannerisms for a digital disguise. This meant playing a casino game with them while also sweet talking so they’d stay at the table long enough for me to capture enough data. The game captured this high-stakes, high-tension moment with the suave direction of a spy thriller.

This confidence to delve into different genres in Cyberpunk 2077’s world is what makes Phantom Liberty’s finality for the game all the more bittersweet, because it only makes me wonder what other stories V could inhabit. But perhaps V isn’t the most appropriate avatar for further stories, when their mortality and race against the clock is so paramount. Even as Phantom Liberty ties itself to that story and riffs on it, it still feels beholden to it. It’s comforting that Phantom Liberty doesn’t feel flippant or like it’s dismissing the gravity of the original game’s high stakes, but it does mean that everything V does has to tie back into it. So as much as I’m not quite ready to move on from my gay, fashionista, stealthy, hacker merc and his trashbag rocker boyfriend Kerry Eurodyne, maybe it is time to go.

As Phantom Liberty brings Cyberpunk 2077 to a close, there are a lot of questions as to whether or not CD Projekt Red “saved” a game that was once so busted it was taken off the PlayStation Store. Some might argue it was always good, but even as a person who a couple thousand words ago said he loves the game, I can’t back that. And even now, it has issues that no amount of gutting its systems can fix.

For example, my skill tree for a stealth-driven build giving me tangible tools doesn’t address Cyberpunk 2077’s weird stereotyping of almost every non-named minority character (and some named ones, too), or get the game to do anything more than recreate dehumanizing capitalist advertisements without ever actually critiquing them. Allowing you to change your appearance and doubling down on the fluidity of form doesn’t change that V’s pronouns are determined by their voice, which you can’t change alongside every other facet of their appearance.

So much of Cyberpunk 2077’s inherent problems arise from its deeply rooted cynicism. It creates an elaborate show of how corporations have commodified every aspect of our lives, then often only says, “Well that was fucked up, huh?” and moves onto the next atrocity V has to witness and possibly take part in. Phantom Liberty builds upon this by observing how a person’s devotion to their country can have the same decaying effect, but much like the base game, any expressions of hope only sneak in at the eleventh hour through its human connections. Very little truly changes, we just survive as best we can.

Not even all the cyberware in my head can hack through Night City’s systemic problems to snap their necks. But I can talk to Songbird about growing up in Brooklyn, and we can daydream in one of the small safe spaces in Dogtown about the life she wants outside of the NUSA’s clutches. I can dance with Alex to the jukebox in her bar as she dreams of retiring, no longer stuck in Night City on the whims of political leaders who’ve forgotten her. I can go home to Kerry and he can play me a song from his next record. And maybe if I get to the end and Songbird’s methods can’t save me, I’ll find my own salvation, or die trying.

I’m sure CD Projekt Red has plenty of tweaks and changes they’d still like to implement, were it possible. But that’s not the video game industry. At a certain point, if it’s not a live-service game, you have to put down the hammer and chisel and move onto the next thing. Whatever end goal the studio had at the project’s outset, it’s now done all it can. Taken all together, Cyberpunk’s post-launch updates constitute more than most studios could afford, and perhaps more than the game felt like it deserved in 2020. But I suppose that’s what happens when, despite everything, your game sells 20 million copies: You get a second chance to create something closer to what you probably wanted to release in the first place.

Not many big-budget misfires are so lucky. Whereas Mass Effect: Andromeda was abandoned by EA and had its DLC canceled, Cyberpunk 2077 finally feels closer to the game people wanted. But this is only after three years’ of patching, and dropping support for PS4 and Xbox One versions which probably shouldn’t have existed in the first place.

It’s ironic that a game about the vice grip of capitalism was so beholden to it that it launched the way it did three years ago. Cyberpunk 2077 was always trying to comment on and satirize the same forces that cut it off at the knees. The game’s development cycle was plagued with stories of developers crunching leading up to launch, and layoffs when CD Projekt Red realized it hadn’t scaled properly for all its projects. And the inclination to call the developers behind Cyberpunk 2077 incompetent simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny when, after years of work, they’ve managed to raise their game to new heights. That CD Projekt Red wasn’t able to release the game in this state to begin with speaks more to systemic issues in how video games are made, released, maintained, and consumed. It’s a shame it took churning staff through the grinder and years of additional work to get it there.

This cannot continue, but some days my cynicism takes over and I fear the machine can’t be stopped. Cyberpunk 2077 is all about showing how the gristmill comes for us all, but to its detriment, it often falls into the same cynicism I tend to feel when things are relentlessly hard. We can’t give in to that, and like V, I sometimes find comfort in those around me, who are being crushed under the heel of every system that chews us up and spits us out, but still, in the face of everything, never stop believing that a better world is possible.

Phantom Liberty is a succinct summation of the best parts of Cyberpunk 2077 and all the strife it took to reach this point. It reflects on V’s story in a new, insightful way, and it’s maddening that it’s as good as it is, because I feel like I just got here. There aren’t many games that’ve made me feel such a push and pull, so maybe it’s fitting to watch it self-destruct in a spectacular explosion just as it course corrects. Much like V, my time in Night City is limited. I better make the most of it.

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