The State of Cyberpunk

Cyber Knights Screenshots from Android MarketplaceIs a beta release the game we’ve been waiting for?

I wanted Cyber Knights to be a turn-based Grand Theft Auto in a futuristic, cyberpunk world. I experienced something resembling a game I played on my Macintosh Quadra 610 back in 1993.

Since Cyber Knights fills a niche that I don’t see very often, I’m willing to forgive a lot of its faults — like how you neither see nor drive any cars in the game, which starts my GTA analogy off on the wrong foot — but the key issue with Cyber Knights is whether there’s anything left to enjoy once you’ve ignored all the disappointing parts.

Shadowrun, Where Art Thou?

I can count the number of cyberpunk video games I’ve played on one hand. If you’re only counting good cyberpunk games, we’re down to an extended middle finger aimed at everything that wasn’t Shadowrun. So Cyber Knights meets my demand for a game where you fight to survive outside the law in a futuristic dystopia. It lets you fire automatic weapons, hack into corporate databases, and meet with a network of shady contacts cutting deals in shadier bars.

(There’s also a plot device using pollution and a post-apocalyptic ecosystem to keep you inside the city, but here’s the thing: if you want to explore something other than a gritty urban war zone populated by violent gang members and trigger-happy corporate mercenaries, you shouldn’t be playing a cyberpunk game.)

Character portrait from Trese Brothers websiteThe visual environments in Cyber Knights establish a suitable atmosphere of urban decay. The character portraits and combat animations don’t hold up as well to subjective scrutiny, and typos like “NO TREPASSING” signs and compter “errpr” messages detract from the game’s professionalism. Luckily, Cyber Knights is a free download that gives you the option of paying for additional content if you like what you’ve seen.

Where’s the Sand?

The Cyber Knights city is a grid of 36 locations, and with up to twenty buildings in each location. The map helpfully points out the useful buildings (around five to ten in each location), but it’s a giant sandbox considering the amount of sand you have to play with. As you try to discover new contacts and unlock new features, you never know if dialogue is pointing you in a specific direction or just providing atmosphere. Some locations have text files for sale, but you can’t tell which ones are helpful and which ones are an unfinished attempt at creating backstory until after you’ve paid for them. And don’t expect assistance from the game’s tutorial, because it’s hopelessly broken.

The missing tutorial isn’t too much of a problem because you only run two types of missions: walking to a specific location (“delivery”/”pickup”/”escort” missions, where any fights along the way are accidental) or walking to a specific location to win a battle (“assassination”/”intimidation”/”negotiation”/”kidnapping,” where the fight is intentional). Cyber Knights does a very good job of marking the locations you need to visit, so you can quickly complete missions, accumulate cash, and assist or enrage the city’s various factions.

Every video game is a fetch quest, so I can’t criticize Cyber Knights for being transparent about it. The problem is that while there’s a pile of material that supports this game and builds a hell of a backstory, too many little details prevent me from connecting it with an entertaining in-game experience. Like the way that there’s a lot of talk in the game about earning the respect of various gang factions and working your way up the ladder, but you have to dig to figure out what makes each faction different by sifting through a massive data dump.

(You can look outside the game for help, on the Trese brothers blog, their website, or their forum, but that’s just one more step removing you from the in-game experience.)

Balancing Act

A Cyber Knights fight scene from the Android storeCyber Knights dissolves into a series of random missions repeated against the same few factions, with little feedback telling you when you’re on the right path. I had hoped to balance my reputation by cultivating several allies and playing one group off against another, but everyone just wanted me to pick on the same faction until I ended up in a pitched firefight with hordes of gang members (or robots, or robot gang members, whatever) every time I took a few steps on their turf.

It’s not really clear what you gain from making each faction happy. Making them angry means you can’t get some missions from them, but I didn’t notice any faction-specific perks as my reputation increased. Doing well within a faction may introduce you to new contacts, but you may accidentally skip them because the setup to meet someone new is identical to the setup for getting into a fight with 8 opponents. According to the Cyber Knights FAQ, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

I gave up combat in Cyber Knights to try hacking, a curious minigame that is more ordered and a fast way to impress factions. The problem is that you still end up raiding the same two or three organizations that everyone hates. It’s tricky to find people willing to buy data from other factions, and you can’t easily tell how a sale will affect your reputation. For example, one Bravestar operative buys Bravestar’s data from me and damages my reputation with Bravestar while leaving it unchanged with everyone else.

Getting What You Pay For

Cyber Knights is a game that rewards experimentation and risk-taking but uses a save system that discourages them. While death isn’t permanent, everything you do is autosaved; as far as I can tell, there’s no hope of re-loading an earlier game if you do something stupid. (This is a problem because I spend a lot of my time doing something stupid.)

Some of these issues may stem from Cyber Knights being a beta release that they ask you to pay for, but I can’t separate the work in progress from the finished product. There’s a lot of in-game talk about assembling teams and managing crews, but the ability to recruit followers isn’t available in the free version — even though your character’s status pages are called “Team Status Pages.”

If this review has been overly harsh, it stems from the frustration of seeing wasted potential. By all means, give Cyber Knights a try; you may have better luck than I digging through the game’s online FAQ for a rewarding gameplay experience. In the meantime, I’ll be waiting to see if Shadowrun Returns is any good.

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About B. Indifferent

Bitterly Indifferent is a belligerent hillbilly with a substandard internet connection. He is also a fan of retro gaming who has previously written about the state of games journalism and the intersection of games and family.