Cyberpunk: Edgerunners Delivers Ultraviolence with a (Cybernetic) Heart

Games Reviews Cyberpunk: Edgerunners
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<i>Cyberpunk: Edgerunners</i> Delivers Ultraviolence with a (Cybernetic) Heart

Cyberpunk 2077 launched to widespread disapproval, drawing criticism for feeling unfinished and falling short of its massive ambitions. But despite its infamy, the game has recently catapulted back into the spotlight thanks to a Netflix anime from Studio Trigger and CD Projekt, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners.

Edgerunners is an unabashedly juvenile splatterfest, a culmination of Trigger’s ability to produce iconic imagery that elevates familiar genre beats through raw, hyperbolic cuts of animation. It’s brash, loud, and as subtle as the explosions of gunfire, gore, and garish colors that fill its frames. Perhaps most importantly, the chaotic violence is used to deliver heart-wrenching turns as the show plays with the fates of its strangely likable cast. While this crime caper may not break from the core issues of this franchise or cyberpunk more broadly, it manages to hit more than a few emotional highs and look very good in the process.

The story follows disaffected high schooler David Martinez who, after experiencing personal tragedy, meets a mysterious hacker named Lucy and falls in with her crew in the dystopian sprawl of Night City, where the videogame and table-top RPG take place. From here, David slips deeper into a world of constant brutality, corporate warfare, and deceit as this doomed metropolis threatens to swallow him whole.

Though cyberpunk has been done to death, Edgerunners’ excessive visuals set this depiction of it apart. Studio Trigger and director Hiroyuki Imaishi (Kill la Kill, Gurren Lagann, Promare) have become known for a house style that uses exaggerated proportions, bold color combinations, and non-traditional animation techniques to create an escalating sense of spectacle. Despite its hypothetically “grounded” setting, their latest work fits perfectly into this trend of artistic extremes. Edgerunners’ literal first scene is a grindhouse shootout where a berserk cyborg blasts through hordes of cops, red and blue police lights adorning viscera as bullets turn bodies into fine red paste. Intentionally choppy sequences heighten the carnage as time is slowed and sped up to accentuate each grisly impact.

Though this degree of bloodshed would normally be numbing, the in-your-face aesthetic is eventually used to externalize the big emotions of its characters in suitably grandiose manner. After all, Imaishi directed Gurren Lagann, a series that concludes with galaxy-sized robots throwing literal constellations at each other. He doesn’t do subtle. Though things don’t get quite that cosmic here, a similar sense of maximalism permeates the setting and emotional conflicts of its cast.

Night City is a convincingly malicious late-capitalist hellhole where the private sector has managed to choke nearly every trace of humanity out of daily life. Those who don’t have premium healthcare plans are left to bleed out in the street while corporations fight endless proxy wars with gangs of mercenaries. The opening episodes communicate why David, who at the start of the story is attending a corpo-backed private school beyond his family’s means, eventually falls in with those outside the law. Social mobility in this world is simply an impossibility, and the trajectory of our protagonist and his friends conveys the hopelessness of a place overrun by corporate interests. While Edgerunners’ devil-may-care aesthetic sensibilities and bleakness occasionally clash, overall, the series conveys what it’s like to be trapped in a city where corporations have won.

And while its overtones may come across as cynical, there is authenticity in many of these character relationships that sells a sense of pathos. David’s mentor, Maine, and his crew become people that we can’t help but root for despite all the, you know, murder. Their banter is funny, their distinctive looks embody the genre’s transhumanist undercurrents, and efficient visual storytelling fills in their histories. In particular, the burgeoning romance between the central pair, David and Lucy, is given enough texture to feel convincing. Underneath layers of hard-boiled genre-fiction, Edgerunners is fundamentally a love story that uses the same grandeur of emotion found in its expressive action sequences to deliver brutal twists.

If I have one major misgiving, it’s that the source material brings some shortcomings. Considering Trigger’s history with fascist-punching narratives about toppling unjust systems, I hoped this story would at least gesture at people trying to change this place for the better (even if that attempt was doomed to fail). Unlike recent works of cyberpunk about combating the forces of dystopia like Citizen Sleeper or Akudama Drive, another cyberpunk anime made by creatives with heavy ties to videogames (Danganronpa), Edgerunners is fully committed to its immutable setting.

I understand that a certain degree of fatalism has been baked into the genre since Henry Case sought intangible wants in Neuromancer’s Sprawl, but this creative decision feels at least partially influenced by Mike Pondsmith, the creator of the TTRPG this world is based on, and his quote: “Cyberpunk isn’t about saving humanity, it’s about saving yourself.” While Edgerunners doesn’t have that little faith in people, its nature as a prequel to the videogame means it can’t shake up the status quo as boldly as Imaishi’s other works.

Still, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners accomplishes what it sets out to do, breathing life into this somewhat played-out genre through a feast of aesthetic highlights and genuine character moments. It is filled with grotesque violence meant to provoke, but there is just enough self-reflection on its causes and effects to grant appeal beyond the edgy teen demographic. And frankly, whenever it goes guns-blazing, it’s hard to look away from its inventive and gnarly animation. Edgerunners conveys the tragedy of Night City with crushing melodrama, coming across as something the bleary-eyed insomniac protagonist of a cyberpunk novel would watch on a flickering screen at 3 AM.

Cyberpunk: Edgerunners is now available to stream on Netflix.

Elijah Gonzalez is the games intern for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing the latest indies and AAAs, he also loves film, anime, lit, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.