So much of the lead-up surrounding Cyberpunk 2077’s new (and only) expansion, Phantom Liberty, and its accompanying 2.0 update has framed the release as a redemption for developer CD Projekt Red. My experience with the discourse dumpster fire surrounding the game’s original release in December 2020 was, fortunately, all from a distance. I didn’t end up playing the base game until earlier this year, and it was pretty much free of the sorts of game-breaking, immersion-breaking, and patience-breaking bugs that plagued the game initially for so many players. What I experienced was a narratively ambitious, technically marvelous videogame with some frustrating and derivative triple-A design trappings.
Cyberpunk 2077 had an identity crisis. At its best, it was the closest an RPG has gotten to providing a Star Trek holodeck-like virtual experience. Main quest sequences like the Konpeki Plaza hotel heist, the Japantown parade, and each of the game’s ending paths expertly fused the strengths of cinematic and interactive storytelling. Each of the main NPC questlines accomplished much the same in a less bombastic but more intimate way.
At its worst, Cyberpunk 2077 undermined these strengths by trying to please everyone with familiar, triple-A, open-world RPG stuff. The time spent between these captivating highs involved engaging with an unpleasant character-building system, traversing a visually spectacular but insubstantial city space, and taking on side content of wildly inconsistent tone and quality. As a latecomer to the game, Phantom Liberty did not need to redeem Cyberpunk 2077 for me. It needed to condense the base game’s strengths and iron out its tonal and mechanical awkwardness with a fresh experience. And it does that exceptionally.
As advertised, Phantom Liberty is a spy thriller through and through. This narrative focus carries across most aspects of its design. The key characters are nuanced, compellingly acted, and consistently come across as both endearingly flawed and potentially suspect. The music is more subdued and nuanced. The art direction blends darkness, devastation, and a mix of neon and dilapidated lighting. The main quests balance the tension of slippery espionage with the disorienting spectacle of cyberpunk. Like the highlights of the base game, each main quest is structured in multiple segments that add constant mechanical and narrative variety. You infiltrate buildings through flooded ruins, role-play adopted identities using personality chips, and put crucial pieces in play for yourself and your comrades.
Like its development predecessor, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, one of Cyberpunk 2077’s greatest strengths is its main cast. While familiar faces barely factor into Phantom Liberty’s story, the new characters do more than enough to compensate for the absence of any fan favorites. Key supporting cast members—including Idris Elba’s stern yet solemn federal agent Solomon Reed (Solemnon?) and his FIA ex-partners So Mi “Songbird” and Alex—is developed during missions and in optional hangouts during downtime. Slowly learning their complex histories with each other and witnessing their dynamics play out lends extra weight to every narrative decision and subtle dialogue option you make.
As with any good spy story, these characters’ motivations are painted in various shades of gray. Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Silverhand is also still around kicking cans in your head. Like before, he provides a compelling narrative purpose for role-playing. He’ll suddenly appear to offer hot takes on the current situation, further fleshing out his own character while working as a springboard for your thoughts. My (and his) feelings about these new characters swayed frequently as new details came to light. Towards the end, I was making choices where I was surprising even myself—and I mean that in the most interesting way possible.
Speaking of the end (don’t worry—no spoilers ahead), I have to hand it to CD Projekt RED for their handling of ‘bad’ endings in both the base game and Phantom Liberty. My endings for both were delightfully unsatisfying. It’s these endings that feel like the writers are tuned into the soul of cyberpunk and espionage fiction: spiritually bleak, complex, with morally ambiguous outcomes for characters caught up in webs of systems and interests they can hardly fathom. It’s not that I can’t enjoy a nice, clean conclusion, but too many RPG endings leave us little to chew on when they try too hard to appease players. Let us suffer!
When you’re not spending time with Phantom Liberty’s great characters in the main story, you’re running gigs and getting into sci-fi firefights. Update 2.0 breathes new life into Cyberpunk 2077’s character-building and combat. For one, clothing is no longer tied to stat bonuses and is now (thankfully) freed to serve strictly role-playing purposes. I’ll never forget my V, much to my dismay, looking like a complete dunce in a crucial scene near the end of the base game because some goofy clothes had good stat bonuses.
Most significantly, though, the perk trees have been gracefully simplified. Each skill (i.e. Reflex, Technical Ability, Intelligence) gets three distinct branches that run up through 2-3 core perks. Dump attribute points into these core perks, and you unlock adjacent, supporting perks that add to their effects. And if you’ve invested enough points in a given skill, filling out core perks also gets you access to the next node of a branch. There’s also a small new perk tree tied to V’s Relic chip that piles additional effects on some of the more unique pieces of equipment from the base game, including monowire, projectile launch systems, and optical camo.
Structuring perks in these distinct, streamlined branches lets you be more flexible with what abilities you’d like to build your playstyle around. Your character doesn’t need to be as invested in only one or two skill trees to get to the good stuff. Whereas the game used to have you invest multiple points in a bunch of perks to accumulate minimal modifiers, investing in a core perk node immediately produces tangible effects that open up a whole new door to combat. I ran the same Intelligence-based hacking build that I used in the base game as a frame of reference, and the added flexibility turned me from a one-note stationary tech mage to a swift hack-comboing wizard with destructive tech weapons and bullet-deflecting sword technique. It helps that you’ll at least be Level 20 by the time you start Phantom Liberty, so you have plenty of abilities to play with right away. Maybe more RPGs shouldn’t shy away from beefing up your build from the jump.
After completing the intriguing-turned-intense opening mission for Phantom Liberty, you’re let loose in the new expansion area: Dogtown. Dogtown feels like a place in a way that the rest of Night City’s districts never really did. Although it’s geographically the same size (or smaller) than any of the other districts, it’s more spatially thought out and feels bigger as a result. There’s a greater sense of verticality in Dogtown’s slum-like design that makes it a fun space to hang out and jump around in. The whole of Night City is large and visually pleasant, yet relatively flat and sparse with meaningful activity. Dogtown is fully alive narratively and mechanically. Most of Phantom Liberty’s main story and side content takes place solely in this small slice of Night City. I can’t emphasize enough how refreshing this is coming out of so many big open worlds (like the base game) that, for the most part, treat their spaces like aesthetic shells to be traversed while you’re actually just looking at your mini-map GPS half the time.
There are two new open-world activities to discover in Dogtown: Airdrops fall from the sky and involve gunfight skirmishes should you want to battle it out for some loot, and Courier Missions have you hijacking cars and dropping them off at a designated point somewhere in Night City. While the former helps add to Dogtown’s chaotic atmosphere, the latter are clearly meant to show off the new vehicular combat mechanic, as you get violently pursued upon stealing one of these marked rides. These activities did a better job drawing me in than the equivalent low-stakes activities from the base game (Cyber Psycho Sightings and Reported Crimes), but I had my fill of both after a few outings. Still, they were fun, short diversions yielding big rewards that helped me flesh out my tech rifle and katana-wielding netrunner.
I would often wander around Dogtown on foot to drink in the atmosphere. There’s attention to detail crammed throughout its streets and alleys. Each of its vendors feels like an individual. The many conversations you can pass by color your understanding of the sector’s living conditions and politics. Early in the expansion, I passed by a particularly loud-mouthed seller in one of the livelier shopping areas and ended up in a lengthy chat. I sat down with him and after hearing about his (alleged) impressive reputation, he told me about the history behind the different sections of Dogtown. It was a spontaneous, memorable moment that also informed my understanding of Dogtown as a (figuratively) rich place with its own little pockets of activity.
Phantom Liberty and Dogtown become available around the middle of Cyberpunk 2077’s story after a few key events have already shaped protagonist V’s special circumstances and, from what I’ve seen, it’s integrated smoothly and with purpose. I picked up an old save from earlier this year before The Point of No Return and lived the story as an alternative ‘what-if?’ timeline for my V. In my opinion, it’s a perfectly good way to experience the expansion if you still remember enough about your choices and don’t want to start a fresh character. As much as the events of Phantom Liberty work as a self-contained story, though, your choices leading up to its end can have reverberations that then seep into the flow of the main game. So, if you are up for an entire new playthrough, it may be worth seeing how this entire refreshed package works as a whole.
Yet, even though CD Projekt Red clearly put great effort integrating Phantom Liberty into the core Cyberpunk 2077 experience, what impresses me most is how the expansion feels as a standalone experience. It’s the conceptual tightness of Phantom Liberty that’s been sticking with me after completion. A small but vibrant game world. Different open-world mission types that all feel part of the core experience. Expertly crafted main quests that make up a good portion of the overall content. And a character-building system that starts you strong and is flexible to your playstyle needs. We had plenty of great, huge 50-200-hour RPGs (as is the norm) come out this year. I finished Phantom Liberty in about 20 hours and am glad it wasn’t any longer. It was some of the most extravagant and consistently engaging 20 hours I’ve spent playing an RPG.
That’s not to say that all my frustrations with the base game were resolved here. There are still color-coded ‘LOOT ME’ markers that clog up the screen during dramatically involving action and conversational sequences. I wish the game didn’t incentivize me to act inappropriately at the same time that it wants me to immerse myself in a scene. Still, the loot placement during quieter scenes seems less egregious than it did in the base game. Side content can still feel a bit hit-or-miss, although as a tighter package the ratio of hits to misses is much stronger this time around. Even Phantom Liberty’s gigs—the simpler sidequests you get from each district’s local fixer—have generally elevated writing, interactivity, and twists. Personally, I think some of the writing and music choices come off as a middle-aged dude’s idea of contemporary youth edginess, but this also seems slightly improved from the base game.
Those who got burned by the original game on release can rest easy that my time with Phantom Liberty (on Xbox Series X) was almost completely free of visual glitches. My mini-map GPS bamboozled me a few times, but the only real issues were that two of my sidequests were broken and I could not progress them. When I went to their respective locations there wasn’t any way to interact with the NPC tied to them. Kind of annoying for me, but I imagine this will be resolved soon after release if it hasn’t been already.
2023 was a year filled with hotly anticipated RPGs that largely delivered. Over the past five months alone, we’ve had The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, Final Fantasy XVI, Baldur’s Gate 3, and Starfield, all of which left remarkable impressions on their respective reviewers here. It’s no surprise that any one of these hyper-expensive, lovingly crafted generational touchstones would be some RPG fan’s exact cup of tea. Phantom Liberty happens to be mine. It has the cinematic panache of FFXVI but incorporates the player more fully into its events. It has the world-building chops of Starfield but has a more kinetic and vibrant energy in its quest structure and character interactions. Most importantly, it’s a proof of concept for less-is-more AAA RPG design that I hope more developers make note of for potential standalone products.