The first impression you get of Cyberpunk Red is that it’s a game of wild contradictions. From its rules to its setting, everything leaps between extremes of simplicity and complexity, campy fun and corporate brutality. As jarring at this approach can sometimes be, however, it helps breed an RPG that is boiling over with attitude and infectious enthusiasm.
The fourth (more or less) iteration in a series that helped define the genre back in its 1980s heyday, Cyberpunk Red looks to drop its players into the neon-drenched, smog-shrouded streets of an alternative-reality take on the near future. There, they can explore the highs and lows of a society drunk on technology, and try and find some questionably legal way to make it big - or, if that isn’t possible, take their enemies down low.
One of the game’s biggest draws is undoubtedly its retro-futuristic setting, which focuses on the sprawling Night City (think if LA and San Francisco were smashed together, and then nuked). Here, it gleefully embraces every possible cyberpunk cliché you could ever think of, from the sprawling mega-corps and the crushing inequality they enforce between the haves and the have-nots, through to the VR-style hacking minigames and a lingering belief that mirrored shades will always be the height of cool.
The sheer emphasis that Red places on living on the edge of danger, success and death helps to make it glow neon-blue amidst a field of more wishy-washy competitors.
Whether or not something is cool and fashionable lies weirdly close to the beating heart of Cyberpunk Red, to the extent that the very first rule it so much as mentions reads “Style Over Substance”. Hell, the list of armour you can use to keep your character from getting perforated in combat is actually a shade less detailed than the fashion trends table only a handful of pages deeper into the rulebook.
Make no mistake: like most other RPGs this is ultimately a game about going on adventures and achieving your character’s personal goals, but it’s also a game about embracing the cyberpunk attitude - about sticking it to those with power and looking good while doing it. This isn’t unique to Cyberpunk in particular, but the sheer emphasis that Red places on living on the edge of danger, success and death helps to make it glow neon-blue amidst a field of more wishy-washy competitors. Even the rules about playing as a corporate drone or a police officer come bundled with sidebars about how to blend these roles with the game’s rebellious ethos.
To play Cyberpunk Red is to lose yourself in a world of extreme darkness, but one that’s filled with points of light. It’s a game that exhorts you to forget about real life for a moment and ignore what’s sensible or even humanly possible, and instead challenge the biggest, baddest dude on the block to an impromptu dance-off at gunpoint.
The deeper you delve into the game, the more edge-cases and sub-systems you need to contend with. And not all of them are quite so slick.
The nuts and bolts of this rather sprawling system are handled by a pleasantly simple core mechanic. Obstacles are overcome by having players toss a d10 roll modified by a blend of their character’s raw attributes and trained skills, which are generally going to rank anywhere between 1 and 10. Roll high enough and you pull off whatever you want to do, whether that’s pulling the kind of sick drift that could make a jaded street-racer swoon, or simply leaping through the plate-glass window of a corporate lobby without shattering your face too badly.
It’s a nice, easy-to-grasp slice of rules that most players are going to get the swing of in one minute flat. However, the deeper you delve into the game, the more edge-cases and sub-systems you need to contend with. And not all of them are quite so slick.
Combat, for example, is handled by a sprawling network of options and rules that can be a little overwhelming. There are options for suppressing fire and for dumping clips on full-auto, all of which work a little differently to one another. Even the basic act of trying to shoot someone requires you to look up your to-hit value on a table - an act that feels even more deeply rooted in the 1980s than the game’s fashion sense.
Perhaps the greatest weakness of Cyberpunk Red is that it sometimes gets a little too ambitious for its own good - a little too willing to think of something cool and decide to flesh it out with rules and modifiers and details that can easily be forgotten. Much of this is tucked away in mostly optional areas of the game, such as the in-depth hand-to-hand combat mechanics that list special attacks for about a half-dozen different martial arts, but some of it leaks into the core of the ruleset.
Perhaps the greatest weakness of Cyberpunk Red is that it sometimes gets a little too ambitious for its own good.
For this, we need look no further than the skill list. This stretches to almost 70 separate entries, which range all the way from commonplace RPG skills such as stealth and perception through to some rather esoteric ones like accounting and personal grooming. It’s easy to look at this and simply appreciate the range of options it gives you, but when your character is trying to puzzle out a scientific mystery using reams of public data, the presence of separate skills for deduction, education, library search and, finally, science can make things flow like sun-baked mud. The rulebook does note that you should talk to your GM if you’re concerned about whether the points you invested in your sculpting skill might go to waste, but that smacks of simply passing the problem down to the players rather than tackling it at the source.
Despite all this, though, it’s hard to stay mad at Cyberpunk Red. It’s like a big, loveable puppy who insists on wearing aviators indoors and can’t quite get over the decline of hair metal. Every time you realise you accidently consulted the regular to-hit chart rather than the full-auto chart and feel like pulling out your hair, it bounds across the table with a big grin on its face and reminds you that it has a slick, easy-to-use system for running staredown contests in the street. Before you know what you’re doing, you find yourself asking your choombas if they want to start something with the local Patrick Stewart posergang.
If you are willing to invest a bit of time into absorbing everything in the rulebook, you’ll find an awful lot of charm in Cyberpunk Red’s feet-first approach to gameplay.
It is worth remembering that between the rockerboy class (have you ever wanted to play as Gary Numan, but with an AK-47?) and the cool cyber-hacking, the world of Cyberpunk is still laced with darkness. One of its greatest charms is that it’s probably one of the more socially-aware mainstream RPGs in recent times. Sometimes this is overt, such as its harsh criticism of corporate corruption, but often it’s much more subtle. There are entire adventure arcs, for example, that hinge around protecting regular people’s right to try and grow fresh crops on the roof of their apartment building, much to the displeasure of fast-food companies.
If you are willing to invest a bit of time into reading and absorbing everything in the rulebook, you’ll find an awful lot of charm in Cyberpunk Red’s feet-first approach to gameplay. There are a lot of games that use the same tropes and same hi-tech, low-humanity setting, but few - if any - of them have quite the zest for life as the original product.