Cyberpunk: Edgerunners

If, like me, you know anything at all about video games, the name “CD Projekt Red” is probably familiar to you: the development studio responsible for creating the Witcher trilogy before eventually releasing “Cyberpunk 2077”, a video game adaptation of Mike Pondsmith’s Cyberpunk universe that unfortunately released in a pretty unfinished state. Edgerunners is an anime tie-in to that same game produced by Studio Trigger, released 2 years later. While CD Projekt Red have done a commendable job of getting Cyberpunk 2077 into a playable state in the time that has elapsed since its infamously bad launch, it has always been my contention that its story was disappointing regardless of the game’s technical issues; not necessarily because of the futile nature of the Cyberpunk universe itself, but simply because there was a failure to make any of the characters within that universe likeable. The only exception, Jackie (who, by the way, was constantly featured front-and-center in all of the marketing material prior to the game’s release) dies in the fucking intro sequence, leaving you without any sort-of emotional anchor to the story—you don’t care about anyone else, you barely even give a shit about yourself, and so much of the dialogue is so expository that it just isn’t engaging. It struck me that in trying too hard to make the world of Cyberpunk feel authentic, the writers seem to have felt that you, the player, should feel largely alienated from true human connection with other characters within the narrative, but the truth of the matter is that these human connections are absolutely integral for making stories within these kinds-of dystopian universes work at all! That’s part of what defines Cyberpunk as a genre—the chemistry and camaraderie between members of an effective, close-knit team contrasted against dark undertones of hopeless, futile struggle to overcome a rigged system and individual chase after lofty, ultimately doomed dreams, and it’s this particular element which makes Cyberpunk: Edgerunners immediately more engaging than the video game that it spawned from. If you don’t know anything about Cyberpunk, our story takes place in the metropolis of Night City in the year 2076, an autonomous, neon-lit, sprawling city of the future and den of gang violence, organized crime and corporate corruption. Technology has become so advanced and so prevalent that even the most average everyday citizens go about their day-to-day lives with cybernetic implants, but at the end of the day no amount of technological advancement can disguise the fact that Night City is a hellhole where mega corporations and gangs control everything, with regular people forced to carry weapons, install cyberware and go to extremes just for the sake of survival. Edgerunners stars male protagonist David Martinez, a student attending Arasaka Academy at the behest of his mother Gloria, an EMT whose dream is for him to financially succeed and slowly climb to the top of the corporate ladder… but of course, things don’t go quite so smoothly. I won’t say much else about what actually happens in the intro because I don’t want to spoil any of it for you, but I’m sure you can imagine that David eventually ends up becoming a “cyberpunk” or “edgerunner”, professional criminals and mercenaries with super dangerous cyberware who will do anything for money. First and foremost, we should probably address the very important fact that Edgerunners was produced by Studio Trigger and it seriously shows; the artwork, animation, choreography and direction are all absolutely fucking fantastic and super stylistic, with Studio Trigger’s already existing and extremely recognizable sense of artistic style blending perfectly with the Cyberpunk universe’s extreme emphasis on style and attitude resulting in a futuristic dystopia that strikes a perfect balance between and excellently contrasts over-the-top spectacle with somber realism, expertly making you feel a certain way about its own violent, gory visual presentation and subject matter based on the context of what’s happening onscreen. It uses its own over-the-top stylishness as a weapon, emotionally manipulating you into perceiving the world and the story unfolding within it through the lens of rebellion against the system, adrenaline-fueled action, war waged against mega-corporations by teenagers with attitude living their lives on the edge—but ever so slowly, reality creeps up on the characters within that story, characters who have been lulled into a false sense of security under the misguided preconception that they’re special because they chose to fight, or because they dared to chase after the dream of trying to reach the top and be the best. Cyberpunk culture itself—a life defined by the way in which you die, trying to become a legend in a so-called “city of dreams” designed intentionally to feed on your ambition like a parasite while delivering promises of false hope and a life of luxury for those willing to risk everything in order to climb further and further up the ladder—creates a never-ending cycle of tragedy after tragedy, with everyone left dead at the end of each of their individual roads when there was nowhere left for them to keep running to, dead legends separated from their dead peers only by how hard they fought at the end to try and screw that system as much as it screwed them, and all without anyone ever stopping to ask the question of “why?”. Night City creates these scenarios with a scary consistency specifically because the average person’s life is so devoid of purpose, because people feel as though there’s no other way to make it, but what is “making it?” What does it mean to reach the top? What’s up there? If you make it there, will you find the purpose you were looking for; and is making it there a prerequisite for the opportunity to live the life you couldn’t live before at the bottom? Questions like those seem obvious now in their answers to me in reality, because I appreciate what I have and am capable of recognizing what’s truly important to me, but the people in Night City who become cyberpunks are too blinded by desperation to make sense of what is worth fighting for and what isn’t, let alone when it’s time for them to stop; and ultimately, by the time they really do figure out what truly matters, they’ve already lost it. That’s why camaraderie and friendship between characters who legitimately care about eachother is so deeply important to what makes Edgerunners emotionally affecting when contrasted against the video game that inspired it, because the way in which the individual characters within the story lose sight of that human connection and have their own sense of worth dominated by whether or not they can ultimately accomplish their misguided dreams is the entire point of the story; a tragedy and a warning against not only reckless ambition and the danger of allowing desperation to control you, but how the uncontrolled advancement of technology and modernization of the world can drive people to extremes for the sake of trying to make their lives mean something. Though not nearly as exaggerated, we can already see this happening in real life everywhere we look; millions upon millions of people disillusioned with the seemingly hopeless reality that no-one cares about them and their lives don’t mean anything, all because for one reason or another they feel as if there’s no opportunity for them to really live—essentially, the game was rigged from the start. It is scary how powerful this sentiment has grown, and I don’t say that as an attack on the people sharing that sentiment who feel trapped or even to imply that there is no truth in the notion that our own system is screwed up, I say that because of the sheer magnitude at which people are just giving up when compared to how many gave up in the past, which illustrates very well how purposeless so many people are steadily becoming in the modern world. What is the breaking point, exactly, when we’ll end up with an uncontrolled outbreak of tragedies not unlike the ones depicted here as a result of that rampant lack of purpose among the people of today who desperately need something, anything, to keep them moving forward? It all comes back around to the same question from earlier; why keep moving forward? What’s at the end of the road? I am lucky enough to have things and people I care about deeply enough that it motivates me to live life to the fullest I can manage; it isn’t as if I don’t have my own problems and I’m far from being a perfect or ambitious person, but a common sentiment I often see from others is a need to live only for the sake of trying not to let down other people resulting in chronic dissatisfaction with life. That’s what ultimately motivates everything David eventually goes on to do in Cyberpunk: Edgerunners; a desperate need to find fulfillment and meaning in carrying out everyone else’s dreams, to keep on running beyond the end of their road and see through the impossible tasks they couldn’t until it inevitably falls upon the shoulders of another person to either continue or break the cycle of living in the shadow of someone else’s dream. And it makes sense, really. “Cyberpsychosis”, the phenomenon in which those who install too much cyberware lose their humanity and eventually go violently insane, feeds back into the idea that the loss of humanity isn’t just about the cyberware, but instead the reason for installing that cyberware in the first place—to kill dozens if not hundreds of other people doing what they have to in order to survive simply for the sake of using them as stepping stones in an uphill climb, ultimately resulting in the inability to see yourself as being human not just because of the chrome body your mind is housed in, but the atrocities you’ve used that artificial body to commit in the name of your own survival and ambition… not exactly ideal circumstances in the proposed soul search for self-love and personal happiness. Yet each time one of them dies, whatever impact made by the “legend” they leave behind in the wake of that death is almost infinitesimally small when compared against the impressions they made and marks they left upon the people who knew them while they were alive. These are the philosophical viewpoints, warnings and questions that define Cyberpunk: Edgerunners; but of course, that’s not to say the show is perfect. With a somewhat short 10 episode run-time, a common complaint I’ve seen is that Edgerunners feels too short, too fast-paced, and somewhat rushed, and while I don’t necessarily think that pacing is the issue, I do feel as though the writers couldn’t really do justice to the plans they made for the story in the time they had. There’s a distinct separation after the 6th episode between the show’s two different story arcs in the form of a timeskip, and while the events of both do narratively connect with and feed back into one another, the second half’s eventual finale just doesn’t carry the same impact that the first did (and boy does that 6th episode do its job well by the way, it is by far Edgerunner’s best moment and genuinely worth watching the show for alone). If I had to pin it down to a specific thing or things, I’d be most likely to start with on how grandiose of a scale Studio Trigger attempted to eventually end things in the finale of the second act, so much so to the point where—quite frankly and putting all really solid visual spectacle aside—it becomes ridiculous, more like something out of Promare than a down-to-earth gritty dystopian sci-fi. I get why they attempted to do things this way—it’s a logical progression and repetition of what happened at the end of the first act in theory—but it’s not grounded in the same gritty realism and somber perspective that made the first arc’s conclusion so effective! Instead, you feel disconnected from and lose some of your emotional attachment to what’s going on because it’s simply too over-the-top and too action-oriented, with plot feeling as though it needed an elaborate excuse for our hero to suit up in ridiculously overpowered mecha-adjacent cyberware and get into an epic final battle against the mega-corporation he’s been struggling against the whole time. I’m of the strong opinion that the timeskip in-and-of-itself was misguided, because we don’t get to see what happens in the immediate aftermath of David’s trauma and closely follow his personal story in the same way we have been up until that point. Instead, there’s an artificial need the writers have to accelerate the story’s pace of progression in order to get us to the epic finale they were envisioning and show us David as his “cool” adult self, and in the process of doing so they inadvertently alienate us to David because we’re no longer able to identify with him as a character. He becomes far less talkative, far more hard-boiled and you are able to immediately see he’s following the same recklessly destructive path as his predecessor did, disassociating with his own sense of humanity when that was the primary thing which defined him—the ability to be a beacon of positivity and hope in an otherwise hopelessly cynical world. I understand that the intention was always to break down that initially hopeful and idealistic attitude, but we needed to see it break down for ourselves! There needed especially to be more of a specific focus on David as being broken rather than heroic during the finale, more attention given to the internal struggle he’s going through over the course of the show’s second act as opposed to what expository set-up and background is needed in order for the events of the finale to actually happen—episode 7 in particular feels like almost pure exposition, which is especially disappointing when it’s following hot on the heels of the show’s best moment! In general, trying to do all of this shit in the short 4-episode window they had after the first act was just not the way to go—they tried right from the get-go to make an overarching story that couldn’t realistically fit well within their 10-episode time-span, dooming it to end up not having the impact that was originally intended especially when contrasted against how well the first story arc’s ending conveys much the same message and ultimate warning that the writers wanted to convey with the whole show’s plot in its totality; yes, I understand that they wanted to portray David as being a part of a doomed cycle, but the contrast between how raw it is the first time against how seemingly manufactured it is the second time creates a feeling for the viewer of unnecessarily retreading familiar territory regardless of the specific reason as to why. Initially I assumed that the 6th episode would be the turning point for a broader tonal shift of the whole show towards being darker which is what I was hoping for, but instead that newly established somber atmosphere is betrayed for the sake of making things inappropriately heroic and upbeat for too long at the end, resulting in that upbeat energy suddenly being betrayed itself by a stark transition into the tragedy which takes place during the finale. Furthermore, the tragedy isn’t really punctuated by an actual ending sequence that has any major impact; this is a major spoiler, but I just have to mention that…

Major Ending Spoiler
…after I finished watching the show alongside my two buddies, one of them mentioned how much better the ending would’ve been had Lucy removed her astronaut helmet at the end and died on the moon, and holy shit that would have been an absolutely killer ending despite how dark it seems, I would’ve praised them so hard had they actually done that! It feeds back into the overall theme here of “hopeless tragedy” and illustrates how pointless David’s whole struggle to try and let Lucy live her dream was when at the end of the day, he’s not there for any of it which is what she actually wanted. Sure, there’s an argument to be made about how Lucy still has worth and a meaningful life left to live despite the tragedy of David’s death, but that’s not really what I’m talking about here; rather, the argument is about whether or not Lucy sees that kind-of happiness in her future and is willing to fight for it after David’s death, and how I personally think it would’ve made for a far harder and more deeply affecting ending to see her purposefully break the cycle by taking off her helmet and basking in the same sun-rays that David did in the brief moment she has before dying in the vacuum of space. It’s not as though we see any kind-of specific resolution made on her part to try and live the life she’s been given, and I just generally feel like the show ending with her dying in this specific way would’ve been so much more poetic than what we got—apologies if I’ve offended any Lucy stans out there, I do like the character well enough if that’s any consolation (though I’m of the opinion that the relationship dynamic between David and Lucy lacks some of the weight it should as a result of their romance being rushed along too quickly).

All in all though, I still really enjoyed Cyberpunk: Edgerunners despite those issues and got a lot out of it; the disappointing latter half wasn’t disappointing enough for me to actually ruin the experience (though you could argue the lens through which I judge disappointment is biased as a result of having experienced His and Her Circumstances in its raw, unfiltered totality), and instead just left me feeling a bit like episode 6 was the real ending and everything else was essentially just icing on the cake and a tying up of remaining loose ends, an elaborate excuse for Trigger to animate more action sequences and create what is essentially a watered down mecha fight scene in the Cyberpunk universe of all things because, you know, why wouldn’t they want to do that? Jokes aside, what’s good about the show is good enough and what’s bad about the show is tolerable enough that my overall experience with it was very positive, and I’d definitely recommend you watch it yourself if only to experience the 6th episode which is worth the price of admission on its own; legitimately almost all of the philosophical talking points I went over are largely epitomized by everything that happens in that specific part of the show. The music is excellent too by the way (mostly taken from the game) and used really well throughout the show for the most part, in general from a purely visual and auditorial perspective Edgerunners is second to none because, you know, Studio Trigger is Studio Trigger (I’m a fan if that wasn’t already clear, I’m gonna have a fucking field day when the anime adaptation for Dungeon Meshi gets released). All that said, I’ve still got the review for Gangsta to write, Fullmetal Alchemist still on the list to watch and review, and some sleep to catch up on considering it’s almost 9 in the morning right now; thanks so much as always for reading or listening my fellow gamers.

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