Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty Review – One Last Ride

    Title: Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty
    Developer: CD Projekt Red
    Release Date: September 26, 2023
    Reviewed On: PS5
    Publisher: CD Projekt Red
    Genre: RPG, Sci-Fi, FPS, Dystopian

When I reviewed Cyberpunk 2077‘s current-generation port, along with its massive Patch 1.5 update, I had a lot to say about the state of the game. It still felt like it was supposed to be bigger, but it was getting closer to the original vision the team wanted from the beginning. However, at the time, Phantom Liberty hadn’t yet been announced, but after its reveal, it’s clear CD Projekt RED is willing to make it right with players and deliver a memorable experience amidst a rocky launch.

Before jumping straight into the Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty content, this DLC is accompanied by Patch 2.0, which will not affect the score of this review, as it is a free update. While there’s not much to talk about, I applaud the developer for finally nailing character progression. The perk system previously felt almost extraneous because nearly every perk worth taking was a base-tier unlock, so there was no incentive to invest in half of the ability scores. The perks are not only arranged with character-building in mind, but they’re actually worth taking. It’s a massive improvement to a system that felt like an afterthought the last time I played.

The other additions are an improved police system that makes smarter decisions and massively improved vehicular combat. Both of these changes are…fine, but strangely, neither plays into the Phantom Liberty content since it takes place over a relatively small map area. I’m happy that the core game has received these improvements, but they definitely feel a bit too late in this case.

The final improvement is so small that it almost frustrated me, and that was an “improvement” to the love interest system. In the base game, unless you chose to romance Panam, your chosen love interest would basically exit the plot after you’d finished their questline until the ending content. While the stories were good, there wouldn’t be much to do with the characters afterward. The development team claims that this has been fixed to some degree, but in my playthrough, this just amounted to Kerry texting me a few times as I explored Dogtown. It’s cute but so small that it’s almost not worth mentioning.

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Phantom Liberty, on the other hand, is the exact opposite.

Player character V receives a call from a mysterious woman called Songbird, imploring him to come to the old Night City stadium that’s been blocked off as part of the border for the seceded Dogtown district. Once he arrives, she appears – as a digital ghost, the same as Johnny Silverhand – and informs him that she’s actually on a plane with the president of the New United States. And that plane is about to crash into Dogtown, with V being the only one she trusts to minimize the loss of life.

She helps him sneak through the old parking garage and infiltrate Dogtown in a sequence that reminded me of climbing through the abandoned Aperture facility in Portal 2 and tells him to head for the roof of the stadium so he can see where the plane is about to come down. Taking both of them by surprise, the process is accelerated when the nearby military police aerial defense cannons fire on the plane, and it crashes several hundred meters away. Now, it’s up to V to make it there and help get President Rosalind Myers out alive. The first two hours of Phantom Liberty are an incredible rollercoaster unto themselves.

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This sounds like a pretty basic premise, but this story gets far more complicated very quickly. Not a single character in Phantom Liberty is exactly who they say they are, as befits the “spy thriller” label that the development team has proudly applied to this story. After rescuing the president, Songbird goes missing, and V has to team up with underground FIA Agent Solomon Reed (portrayed by Idris Elba) to figure out what happened to her and how they can rescue her from forces that would use her insane netrunning abilities against the New United States.

Every one of these characters messed with my expectations in the best possible way, keeping me guessing at their true motivations and never going quite where I expected. As good as Idris Elba is as Reed, absolutely delivering as the pragmatic, detached agent who slowly remembers what it’s like to have human connections, I want to especially highlight Minjie Zhang as Songbird. She completely nails the character’s vulnerability and facade, truly testing both V and the player to see how far they’ll go for her.

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The district of Dogtown has a unique, run-down flavor from the rest of Night City. It’s less of a slum and more of a half-opulent ruin – many of the electronic signs are half-out and ruined. Yet, the centerpieces are the enormous stadium, two huge skyscrapers, and a futuristic nightclub in a giant neon pyramid. It feels chaotic but also alive, and its compact size helps this. Having less empty space makes each part of it feel more memorable and minimizes long travel times.

While the amount of extra side content looks smaller in quantity, it is hugely made up for by the quality of all ten new gigs and a dozen or so new sidequests. Each of them is much more in-depth than the basic “go here, kill this guy” side gigs from the base game, and they also all contain difficult choices that never amount to easy morality. Each decision V makes will have consequences, and absolutely nothing is in black and white. After most of them, you’ll even get a follow-up, telling the player how their choices affected the people involved.

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This extends to the entire main plot of Phantom Liberty, which prominently features trust and betrayal as its central themes. You quickly learn just how divided the four main characters – President Myers, Songbird, Solomon Reed, and Reed’s former partner Alex – are in their motivations, and given that all four of them are counting on V, the player is inevitably going to have to choose which of them are the most trustworthy. My choices changed many times, even during the final moments of the last mission.

These themes even extend to the new ending that Phantom Liberty adds to the main Cyberpunk 2077 experience. Since the last review, I’ve also seen all of the original game’s endings, and every one of them has stuck with me because there simply isn’t a way to make everyone happy. That still applies in the new Tower ending, which is, on some levels, the most hopeful finale, but still managed to emotionally crush me several times over.

In fact, I really can’t stress enough how emotionally difficult this new story manages to be. There are so many games that take all of the teeth out of player choice by making it evident that one option is the “good” one and the other is “evil.” What Cyberpunk 2077 as a whole excels at is forcing players to consider which option they take will result in the least harm for themselves. Given that the writing and quest teams came up with more than a dozen new scenarios to make me bite my nails with indecision, it is a testament to Phantom Liberty genuinely focusing on the very best parts of the original game.

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Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty marks the end of the lengthy and dramatic story of Cyberpunk 2077. This expansion brilliantly highlights what fans were hoping for in the initial release, but seeing it finally realized showcases so much more. The themes explored through the new story, sidequests, and quality-of-life updates provided a memorable conclusion to this cyberpunk adventure.

Wake the f*** up, Samurai. We’ve got a city to burn.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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