Cyberpunk: Edgerunners proves that there are still so many places for CD Projekt Red’s universe to go, but it almost seems afraid to take that next step forward. Studio Trigger has crafted a brash, sexy, ambitious, but ultimately haphazard story within the confines of Night City that can never quite overcome its own inconsistency. Character arcs aren’t sufficiently developed and there is no clear antagonist to root against, meaning we spend much of the ten episodes waiting for it all to go somewhere. When it does, the end is already in sight.
David Martinez’s story from anxious underdog to unstoppable cyberpunk intends to be one of dwindling humanity and eventual psychosis, but it jumps about far too much and never allows us to spend enough time in the quieter moments. We never get the chance to learn to love our motley crew of runners beyond generic backstories and muddled action sequences. The visuals are immediately striking and the pacing is rebelliously effective, but it feels like Edgerunners could have gone much further, even more so from a studio of this pedigree.
As one character says in a later episode – “No matter how high you make it in this world, you’ll only ever be as good as the lowest corpo” – and this societal disparity underpins the entirety of Edgerunners. Even more so than the game that inspired it, this is a tale of good people doing whatever they can to find love and make a living in a landscape that wants nothing more than to precipitate their eventual demise. You could always run away from Night City, but this neon dystopia is like a shackle. The second it feels like you’re ready to call it quits, a sudden triumph emerges to pull you right back in. Another gig turns into another job, and suddenly you’re meeting your end, in a bloody heap in the middle of an alley behind Arasaka Headquarters.
David Martinez is a teenager growing up in the slums of Night City. His mother works late nights tending the crime scenes of Cyberpyschos, putting herself in harm’s way to afford her son’s tuition to Arasaka Academy. She wants her son to be something more, to pull himself out of poverty and leave a potential life of crime behind. She pilfers augments from corpses and sells them on the side to earn extra pennies, all while outfitting her son with counterfeit technology to keep him ahead of the curb. But she’s a heart of gold in a world filled with rust, so of course, so it’s only a matter of time until she’s murdered in cold blood to start the narrative.
The traffic accident that claims her life doesn’t have a greater purpose, it’s just another tragedy across a metropolis filled with them. Nobody cares when David’s mother dies, he doesn’t even have the insurance to grant her a proper burial as the corpos bleed him dry for even the most basic of condolences. Edgerunners isn’t afraid to showcase how fucked up Night City really is, but it doesn’t spend nearly enough time making us believe in its cast of characters beyond the stellar introduction. I wanted to root for David – but he’s largely bland, predictable, and makes decisions you’d expect from the majority of modern anime protags.
Lucy is one of the earliest narrative sparks. She’s a gorgeous runner with a clouded past who is equal parts flirtatious and mysterious. Her wish is to leave Night City behind and make her way to the Moon, a fantasy that is depicted as part of a gorgeous Brain Dance sequence in one of the early episodes. Watching as she and David hop across the lunar surface as romance blossoms between them could have been the start of a touching love story that inevitably ends in ruin, but the show wants to hop between so many themes and potential arcs without ever fleshing out a single one of them enough. It’s a shame, as Studio Trigger comes so close to making its mark on this universe that goes beyond the foundation CD Projekt Red gave them. Instead, it comes across as subdued.
The same goes for the supporting ensemble. David joins up with a crew in the early hours, a mixture of criminals who teach him to be a more ruthless outlaw willing to take on harder jobs and leave his attachment to morality behind. He begins with an augment ripped from an outlaw his late mother failed to sell after his demise. With it, he can slow time to crawl, moving through space to murder efficiently or pilfer riches from even the most suspecting of victims. It’s a power he isn’t ready for, but if things were different, it could have saved the only family he ever had. I won’t spoil where the story goes from here, but we see our hero go from a timid little boy to a hardened cyberpunk ready to abandon his own humanity, and Edgerunners almost does an effective job of exploring that organic dichotomy and how, despite being pumped full of brutal technology and larger than life devices, in the end we are still the person we’ve always been.
Once again, loads of potential, but a slightly fumbled execution. David and Lucy’s romance doesn’t feel real, and neither does his growth into a Night City legend, therefore we are left to fill in the gaps ourselves, as Edgerunners lumbers towards an underwhelming conclusion. Ten episodes aren’t enough for most anime to find its footing, even in an established mythos, so I don’t envy Studio Trigger for trying to tell their own story with a new cast of characters while also ensuring its signature style shines through. On this front at least, Studio Trigger absolutely succeeds, and Edgerunners is glorious to boot.
Kill La Kill and Promare director Hiroyuki Imaishi has injected this series with an aesthetic so unmistakable that only Studio Trigger could be responsible. Characters are downright magnetic as they bounce around the screen, consistently defying proportions so long as it informs the gruesome action sequences and more emotional crescendos. Our suspension of disbelief must be left at the door, and the show is so much stronger when you just let yourself be drawn by its extravagance. Part of me feels like Studio Trigger is also a weird match for a universe like this. It operates on fairly strict design tenets and a familiar mythos, so the animators are never quite able to overstretch themselves, or it risks feeling too eccentric.
It’s beautifully unpredictable, and alongside characters like Lucy and her pilgrimage to the stars, is the strongest thing Edgerunners has going for it. Even the more intimate moments with the larger crew, which delve into the value of being a cyberpunk and not falling victim to augments aren’t deep enough for me to care that much. I mourned as members came and went, but an unexpected and undeserved timeskip in the final act turns the whole ordeal into an incoherent mess. An adaptation operating on this many episodes should have told a short, simple, heartfelt, and impactful story, but instead it meanders and doesn’t quite go anywhere. It could in the future, but right now I can’t help but feel underwhelmed by it all.
Cyberpunk: Edgerunners is a bold expansion of an existing world, yet it never does enough to cement its identity. Striking animation and a lovable cast of varied characters are used to support a central narrative that sadly isn’t that interesting. Core themes of dwindling humanity and agency in a society dominated by corporations are broached upon, but find themselves floundering in a messy mixture of undercooked ideas and a central narrative that never pulls itself off the ground. As a fan of Studio Trigger it is absolutely worth watching, but it isn’t the masterpiece me and so many others were hoping for. Maybe next time, choom.
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