I could feel the tension rising as I tried to pick the best dialogue choices to keep the twins at the roulette table. I needed to burn some time to get a behavioral imprint, letting me steal the netrunner’s identities. But one wrong line, and I’d put the whole mission in jeopardy.
Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty brings a spy thriller story to the world of Night City, crafting a personal, emotional narrative that’s filled with intrigue. Add inventive mission design to the mix, and you’ve got an experience that’s far more satisfying than the main game, and easily the best “spy” experience we’ve seen in gaming in nearly a decade.
Spy vs Spy
As you might expect from a spy story, Phantom Liberty is filled with plenty of twists and double-crossings.
Phantom Liberty is a self-contained expansion that takes place roughly two-thirds of the way through the main story. When starting the expansion you can play through Cyberpunk 2077 up until the missions open up, or you can create a brand new character to jump right into Phantom Liberty’s story.
V is contacted by a mysterious stranger who goes by Songbird with a wild request; save the President of the New United States who’s about to crash land in Dogtown, a sealed-off section of Night City ruled by an independent militia called Barghest. Eventually, V has to recruit the help of an NUSA sleeper agent named Solomon Reed (Idris Elba), and the pair launch into an investigation that lays bare some shocking secrets, with multiple players all vying for control.
The heart of Phantom Liberty is the dichotomy of Songbird and Reed, two characters whose lives and fates are inexplicably linked. There’s an overarching theme to the expansion of deeply broken people struggling to move on, trying to figure out how to live a life in this world of espionage and deception. There’s some real emotional heft that runs throughout this story, all leading to two branching story paths that split off even further from there.
Idris Elba’s Solomon Reed is a tremendous highlight of the expansion, and one of the best characters in all of Cyberpunk 2077.
Make no mistake, this is a cyberpunk story, and that means things don’t always get a happy ending. Both Reed and Songbird are phenomenally written characters with depth, and both Elba and Christine Minji Chang round the pair out with vibrant performances that impart the character’s tortured personalities. Additional wrinkles are added to the story as V and Johnny Silverhand hash things out, causing Johnny to introspect on his own past and morals.
Tools of the Trade
Phantom Liberty takes place almost entirely in Dogtown, which adds some fascinating dimensions to Night City. This walled-off area almost feels apocalyptic, as it was originally intended to be a resort getaway for the rich, but now lies in absolute ruin. Thematically, Dogtown fits into Cyberpunk 2077 well, as a haven for the outcasts of Night City, and an even more lawless and dangerous place.
The expansion is split up into over a dozen main missions, a host of side missions, and ten new Gigs you can tackle. On top of this, there are some new emergent gameplay elements, like bases of Criminal Activity that hold valuable loot and a boss-type enemy, and airdrops that will randomly appear around Dogtown, holding valuable rewards if you can reach them in time.
These elements help broaden the content in Cyberpunk 2077, but where Phantom Liberty really shines is in its mission design. Each and every mission in this expansion feels distinct, whether you're talking about the main story or side activities. Gigs and side missions hold surprisingly complex stories and objectives, which more often than not can be tackled in a multitude of ways.
The mission design in Phantom Liberty elevates it above the main game, featuring some truly fun and inventive ideas to shake up gameplay.
For example, one mission has you extracting a pair of bumbling crooked police officers, while another has you taking a narrated hallucinogenic trip that puts you in the shoes of the villain’s expansions. An abundance of wildly fun and innovative ideas makes it worth exploring everything Phantom Liberty has to offer.
There are plenty of new weapons and clothing options to find in Phantom Liberty, but the biggest addition is a new Relic tech tree that adds in some fundamentally unique abilities. One part of the tree unlocks powerful new abilities for your arm cyberware, like being able to install a quickhack in your Monowire to instantly effect enemies, or a capacity override for the Launcher that lets you rapid-fire grenades. Past that you can install active camo or invest in a skill that reveals vulnerabilities on enemy’s bodies, giving you a massive damage boost if you hit that specific spot. These are all abilities that can integrally change the way you play, and when coupled with the skill tree changes of the 2.0 update, the sheer amount of options at your fingertips is overwhelming.
That sense of variation then applies over to the main story, which dives headfirst into the idea of a “spy thriller.” The aforementioned mission where I had to build a behavioral profile is definitely a highlight, but there’s plenty of other intrigue as well, like covering Reed from a sniper perch and using tricks to catch enemies unaware, or taking on a massive hulking mech, having to use a variety of options to stay alive. There are even some sections later in the story that veer wildly into horror game territory.
The Relic skill tree adds powerful new abilities that feel fittingly “end-game.”
Phantom Liberty bounces back and forth between massive action set pieces and quiet intrigue, and this pacing works effectively. You can clearly see the development team took inspiration from some of the greats of the spy genre, like Mission Impossible, transplanting them into Cyberpunk’s gritty setting in inventive ways.
What’s most remarkable about Phantom Liberty is how it sidesteps nearly all of the issues of the main game. It’s still a little buggy and unwieldy at times, but the pacing is snappy, the mission design varied, and the core characters compelling. Dogtown is a fantastic setting that’s both visually compelling and thematically interesting, and the expansion also adds a new ending for the base game, along with some great rewards that carry over.
Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty is one of the best uses of the spy thriller I’ve ever seen in video games, and the difference between this expansion and the base game circa 2020 is staggering. I certainly didn’t expect to be saying Cyberpunk 2077 is now one of the must-play experiences of 2023, a year already packed with dozens of incredible games.
Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty launches on September 26 for PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. Inverse reviewed the PS5 version.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.
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