Tanner McEveety ‘22 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Cyberpunk 2077 is an open world video game that was so ridden with glitches upon release that it was practically unplayable. The developers at CD Projekt Red have been working hard to reheat their undercooked meal since their executives took it out of the oven too early, but the underwhelming launch of the game left such a bad taste in the gaming community’s mouths that it’s hard to imagine anyone getting excited about it again. Or at least it would be, if not for Cyberpunk: Edgerunners.
Positioned as a prequel to the game, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners is a Netflix anime that follows David Martinez (Zach Aguilar), an impoverished teenager forced into the punk underbelly of a futuristic dystopia by the death of his mother and the crushing weight of capitalism. There, he follows the mysterious hacker/pickpocket Lucy Kushinada (Emi Lo) into a crew of Edgerunners—cyborgs who run jobs for various clients outside the law—a path that David is repeatedly warned will end with his death.
This premise doesn’t stray too far from Cyberpunk 2077’s, but what makes Edgerunners immediately stand out is the polished, iconic aesthetic of anime studio Trigger, and the director who is practically synonymous with it, Hiroyuki Imaishi. Like most of their other works, the entire show pops with color and effortless flair. Character designs with instantly iconic palettes and silhouettes drip with punk style, and gorgeous background art bring Night City to life with startling vibrance, rivaling Cyberpunk 2077 in detail and atmosphere.
But as with most Trigger anime, the fantastic aesthetic design somehow only gets better when the show starts moving, with consistently well-produced animation throughout. In laid back scenes, characters constantly pose, gesture, and emote, only occasionally devolving into static images with animated mouth flaps. In its bombastic action sequences, lightning-fast cyborgs blur across the screen before exploding in fountains of blood and viscera—Edgerunners is extremely adult, both in terms of gore and gratuitous nudity.
This near-perfect aesthetic can also be found in Trigger’s 2020 show Brand New Animal, which turned out mediocre. What separates the wheat from the chaff is that Cyberpunk: Edgerunners has genuinely good writing. The Cyberpunk setting that Edgerunners is extremely faithful to originated as a complex tabletop-roleplaying game with multiple books and editions, so necessarily, there’s a lot of worldbuilding to do before the viewer is ready for the central conflict of the show. It never gets bogged down in explanation, instead trusting that viewers will gradually pick up on the functions of certain technologies and the futuristic slang. By the end of the show, viewers will grok the setting completely, but still want to see more of what it has to offer.
Each episode is focused and tightly written, allowing character to drive plot and vice versa, swapping between the two approaches at a natural pace. Not to mention, they all end on a gripping note, making the show extremely difficult to not binge. The only thing holding a viewer back from watching the whole series in one sitting is how emotionally devastating individual episodes can be. Viewers are sure to remember a jar of human ashes dispensed like a snack from a vending machine, a jog through an endless desert beneath the blazing sun, and static distortion over characters’ eyes.
That devastation is an achievement made possible by the strong character writing. Right from the beginning, the show grounds itself in the motivations of the two leads, which gives the audience an emotional core of humanity to cling to as it rapidly escalates into insanity. It’s all clearly laid out and dramatized, but never does it lack subtlety, because Cyberpunk: Edgerunners understands what many anime don’t: that people don’t usually say exactly what they mean, even if they’re trying to. As a result, character dynamics and relationships are enchanting to behold, even as they occasionally fall short of the depth that would make them truly last in the viewer’s mind.
It helps that the English cast of the show does an absolutely legendary job, making lines that are thick with odd-sounding slang and technobabble sound completely natural, yanking on the heartstrings in every emotional scene. The cast is also stacked with some surprisingly big names for an anime dub, with Giancarlo Esposito playing the cold, shifty corporate fixer, Faraday, and Matthew Mercer returning to the world of anime with Falco, the crew’s smooth-talking driver. Alex Cazares’s fiery energy is at least part of the reason that Rebecca, a short-stack gun nut who’s always having more fun than anyone else, is a fan favorite character. Finally, the last standout, William C. Stephens, brings both intimidating toughness and inviting warmth to Maine, the towering wall of a man that leads the Edgerunner crew.
The show isn’t perfect. With only 10 25-minute episodes, it can’t escape the feeling that there was more to explore that was cut for time, and is prone to sudden screeching halts in forward momentum. Additionally, it commits the sin of writing a conflict that could be easily solved if certain characters would just explain themselves to one another, but not establishing a good reason why they can’t. But in the face of everything the show gets right, these are minor issues. It’s an engaging good time from the first minute to the last.
As a result, players are returning to Cyberpunk 2077 in droves, a sure sign that the show left them wanting more of the Cyberpunk world. With 2077 receiving an Edgerunners-themed update alongside the release of the show, it’s proven to be an astoundingly effective marketing move on the part of CD Projekt Red. Even without any knowledge of the game or the tabletop roleplaying game it’s based on, Edgerunners is simply a compelling piece of art. If every commercial was this good, Cyberpunk’s corporate, advertisement-ridden world wouldn’t be such a dystopia after all.