Cyberpunk 2077 Phantom Liberty review: A good amount of heart, a perfect dosage of chrome
Once you peer past the marketed visuals of Cyberpunk 2077 Phantom Liberty, including the narrative’s premise, Idris Elba’s looming presence, and the glitz and glamor of the accompanying version 2.0, you suddenly become aware of a specter haunting its history. The expansion will be released against the backdrop of the initial wave of criticisms regarding the base game’s technical state at launch, a bevy of lawsuits that followed soon after, and a trail of disappointed fans who had been waiting for years.
CDPR has worked diligently ever since the troublesome launch, carefully steadying the ship and pushing out several updates with a variety of fixes and content.
Three years later, 2.0 is their one-shot at true redemption for the base game, and Phantom Liberty is their gamble for a fitting swansong that will leave fans excited about the already-announced sequel.
Does it do so? Buckle up, choombas, that’s what I’m here to tell you.
Cyberpunk 2077 Phantom Liberty shines on every count you can think of
Instead of situating the expansion in a post-game scenario, CDPR weaved Phantom Liberty's narrative within that of the base game. It begins with you being contacted by a netrunner by the name of Songbird. With the promise of a cure for the impending Relic-induced death situation, she asks V to go to Dogtown.
It is soon revealed that Songbird is onboard Space Force One with President Myers of NUSA and is set to crash in Dogtown. V is tasked to secure the President and escort her to safety along with Songbird. The rescue operation soon shifts its focus from Myers to Songbird, with the latter suddenly going missing.
Myers activates a sleeper FIA Agent embedded in Dogtown - Reed, played by Elba - to help V in the quest to rescue Songbird. What follows is a masterclass in a suspenseful and tense narrative that is filled with unexpected twists and turns, excellent character building with immersive backstories, and a world that in itself becomes another character in the story.
Dogtown: A dog-eat-dog existence
Dogtown is a walled-off district that reminded me of Kowloon Walled City. The space is bustling with various activities, with gunshots being an ever-present background noise, no matter where you are.
CDPR must be commended on the district's design, with Dogtown's gameworld perfectly encapsulating the lore and history associated with the place. It is borne out of the political machinations, backstabbing, and desertions that have birthed the primary characters we encounter. As such, it plays a perfect stage to the gritty story of Phantom Liberty, one that speaks of betrayal, possible redemption, and tragedy.
Dogtown itself becomes a character of the narrative. As I spent my time doing gigs for Mr. Hands and side missions in between the central quest, I got to taste the various flavors of the district, and those that live in different parts. The occasional drops welcomed similar exploration through skirmishes.
If Night City was a string of beautifully sonorous notes disappointingly interjected with empty spaces and pauses, Dogtown is an often-cacophonous, slightly crowded melody that manages to sound just right.
This chaotic empire is controlled by Kurt Hansen, the primary antagonist of the expansion. CDPR does an excellent job at building the figure of Hansen, introducing nuances through the various strands of his backstories.
Phantom Liberty rarely provides you with interaction with the man and instead relies on other characters and paratexts to talk about Hansen. My first interaction with the man was in a side mission involving a new inductee to his army narrating their meeting with Hansen and what transpired on the first mission.
For a few brief scenes, you can play as Hansen, and they provide a look at the nature of his leadership and his combat expertise as he skilfully carves through hordes of enemies with a knife.
One of my favorite scenes from Phantom Liberty was at the later stages of the game when I was in a meeting with Hansen while pretending to be someone else. The tension in that scene is uncomfortable, with enticing questions from Hansen regarding my identity, the pregnant pauses in between, and the gravity of the situation.
Trust, betrayal, and redemption
As mentioned earlier, the crux of Phantom Liberty's narrative revolves around finding and rescuing Songbird after Space Force One was downed in Dogtown. President Myers tasks V and Reed to look for her and bring her back, whatever it takes.
The reasons behind this are slowly uncovered, and I will leave them be, lest I spoil the experience. Rest assured, none of it feels out of place or unearned. The pacing of the narrative allows you to properly get invested in whatever is happening around you, make your choices, and face the consequences.
In Phantom Liberty, what you choose will definitely affect how the story ends. The main story runs for around 15 hours, with side missions and gigs likely increasing the count to around 25 hours or so. While you can definitely beeline through the main narrative, you are advised not to ignore the side missions in Phantom Liberty, as that's where the gems lie.
Idris Elba's performance as Reed grounds how the entire narrative pans out. During one of the early stages of the game, he starts reminiscing about how his comrades fell - describing each, one by one. In that fleeting moment, I was quickly reminded of the iconic scene from First Blood, where Rambo talks about how he lost his friend who fought with him in the war.
Yet, Reed seems to be aiming for redemption, likely foregone, by rescuing Songbird and saving her life. With the latter, you are thrust into a dilemma between empathizing with her and her troubles, and believing everything she has to say. Trust is an unforgiving commodity, one that is rarely reciprocated.
Music to my ears
Phantom Liberty's music deserves every bit of praise and accolades that I am sure it will get in the near and far future. Soundtracks like Test of Loyalty and Just Another Weapon beautifully embody the pathos in Songbird and Reed's relationship.
And with 'Phantom Liberty,' CDPR truly brought forth the essence of a spy-thriller through and through. Having sunk around 20 hours into the expansion, I cannot imagine it without the accompanying music.
2.0 - Cyberpunk 2077 reloaded
While 2.0 enjoys an earlier release date than the DLC, it absolutely shines through Phantom Liberty gameplay. I have intentionally not spoken much about it because I decided to focus on the expansion in the review. But to give credit where it is due, CDPR has nailed it with 2.0.
The significant changes and redesign to skill trees and perks refresh how you approach situations and combat. This plays out exceedingly well with Phantom Liberty's variety of missions and how they can be approached. Combat AI is another change that I think was a long time coming, and makes a distinct shift.
Vehicular combat and the new police system also add a new dimension to cruising around Night City and Dogtown. 2.0 supports a plethora of playstyles, and you get to mix and match as you try to make the most lethal version of V possible.
Phantom Liberty does not need to bear the brunt of a potential redemption for Cyberpunk 2077. 2.0 takes care of it comfortably and emphatically.
No, Phantom Liberty is a testament to what Cyberpunk 2077 was due to achieve or maybe could have achieved. Throughout the expansion, nothing feels out of sync or haphazardly put in. Everything is carefully implemented into the narrative's body, secured with branching choices and tragic outcomes, drawing you in and immersing you in a tale of sound and fury.
Phantom Liberty is CDPR at its very best, sans any technical lacking or fallacies that we faced at launch. It is a fitting crescendo of the past three years, and a worthy adieu to one of the most anticipated games of all time. All that's left is to bide your time and wait for the sequel.
Cyberpunk 2077 Phantom Liberty
Reviewed on: PS5 (Code provided by CDPR)
Platform(s): Windows PC, PlayStation 4 & 5, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One
Developer(s): CD Projekt Red
Publisher(s): CD Projekt
Release date: September 26, 2023