For all the smog, overpopulation, economic imbalances, gigantic digital billboards, and the endless sea of small screens that characterize Earth’s major cities, you’d think we’ve already entered the futuristic dystopias that cyberpunk entertainment posits. But for many, the cyberpunk genre can offer an engrossing form of escapism; a glimpse at a highly advanced civilization that’s at once relatable and familiar, yet comfortingly distant from the present day. There’s also beauty and excitement to be found in the not-too-far future, and the very best cyberpunk games know how to make the most of their distinctive 20XX time period. Each of the following games has something unique and worthwhile to offer, but they all tap into our fascination with technology run rampant in a society not unlike our own.
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC
Ruiner is the Hotline Miami of cyberpunk games, featuring thoroughly violent action that’s effectively a nonstop slaughterfest so long as you can survive the one-against-dozens combat. But when you’re not intensely focused on snapping up another futuristic gun or melee weapon to line up your next kill, the quieter moments of Ruiner are full of charm and gorgeous to look at, with lush character art and appropriately neon-soaked environments. We only get to see a relatively restricted slice of the city of Rengkok, but what’s there is enchanting. Corporations spy on the populace with holograms of stray cats; ancient fortune tellers foresee the future among grimy alleyways; masked gang members called Creeps set up their lair in gigantic parking structures. Our mute protagonist (with his spiffy image-projecting mask) feels like just another cog in the giant, grimy machine – a perfect distillation of the ‘punk’ in cyberpunk.
Platform(s): PC (coming soon to PS4 and Xbox One)
Keeping it 100 percent, the story behind Hover is super thin, so don’t expect too many of the subversive, thought-provoking elements that define many of the other games on this list. But Hover still has skyscrapers, neon, and oppressed citizens, so yeah, cyberpunk. Most importantly, it lets you jump, grind, and wallride up and down said neon skyscrapers in a loving homage to Jet Set Radio. It even features some music composed by Hideki Naganuma, the underappreciated genius behind the soundtracks of Jet Set Radio and Jet Set Radio Future. The game plays like an anti-gravity, parkour-infused version of its skating forebears: freedom of movement and big jumps all across free-roaming challenges, story missions, and drop-in/drop-out multiplayer. See? Cyberpunk doesn’t have to be gritty and angry all the time!
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC
Horror is a relatively unexplored aspect of the cyberpunk genre – so the creators of the terrifying Layers of Fear stepped in to torment your psyche in the year 2084 with Observer. Our protagonist is a neural detective played by Rutger Hauer – Mr. Roy Batty himself – who must jack in to the brains of suspects and explore their shifting, distorted memories. On top of the societal doom and environmental gloom that comes with the classic cyberpunk setting, Observer’s suspense and scares are derived from the unreliable nature of these virtual realities you’re sent to investigate. At times, you’ll relish the opportunity to explore these highly detailed settings in first-person. At others, you’ll be afraid to take another step further for fear of what you might see in these technology-consumed mindscapes.
Platform(s): PC, PS Vita
Lots of cyberpunk games make you a superpowered authority figure or a heroic rebel. Va-11 Hall-A makes you a depressed bartender who talks to her cat. The main character, Jill, has a narrative arc of her own, but you spend most of the game hearing stories from her many customers – some of whom flit in and out, others who treat the crappy little bar as a second home. But they’re not just there to visit, they’re there to drink, and what kind of libations you mix will broadly determine what direction their stories take; after all, would you really want to open up to a bartender who messes up your order every time? Va-11 Hall-A has some weirdly adolescent story beats, but shrug those off and you’ll enjoy your dreadfully normal life in a cyberpunk dystopia.
The Red Strings Club
This vibrant, pixel-art adventure game takes after Va-11 Hall-A in that it too lets you tend bar as a cyberpunk pastime, along with the highly unique relaxation of ‘genetic implant pottery’ that has to be seen to be believed. But what really sets The Red Strings Club apart is its superb storytelling, with complex characters who shine far brighter than the dystopia they inhabit. With three playable leads and plenty of branching, well-written dialogue, you’ll need to deduce the motives and beliefs of everyone you meet to unravel a corporate conspiracy. For all the highly advanced technology that’s readily available in this world, The Red Strings Club revolves around ethics, empathy, and human emotion, using the cyberpunk setting as a fitting backdrop rather than an attention-grabbing focus.
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC
Invisible, Inc. evokes strains of the recent XCOM reboot, especially in how it makes all of your early, seemingly inconsequential choices at the beginning ripple outward, a butterfly effect that will determine whether or not your particular run through the game will end in victory or defeat. But instead of protecting Earth from a marauding alien force, Invisible, Inc. casts you as a plucky band of superspies who are attempting to infiltrate and bring down a world-wide corporate regime. Invisible, Inc.’s missions play out in turns, and stealth is valued above all else. Every decision you make has benefits and consequences, and one wrong move can cause irreparable damage several missions later. No pressure or anything.
Shadowrun: Dragonfall Director’s Cut
Platform(s): Mobile, PC
The pen-and-paper Neuromancer-meets-D&D RPG series Shadowrun made its triumphant return to relevance in 2013, re-introducing a world of cybernetic implants, street samurais, and computer-hacking elves and orcs to a whole new audience. And while Shadowrun Returns is a fun turn-based strategy RPG in its own right, it’s the expansion, Dragonfall, that’s really worth playing, thanks to the strength of its writing. Here’s the set-up: back in 2012, a massive dimensional rift opened, causing a flood of fantastical creatures and beasts to pour into our world – including the Great Dragon Feuerschwinge. It took four months to fell the mighty beast, and now, 40 years later, rumors of its return start surfacing in Berlin, a city teetering on the brink of anarchy. It’s here that your story is told, as you join up with a variety of punks, thieves, and hackers (known as ‘deckers’) and take on jobs around the city. Dragonfall evokes strains of Mass Effect 2, as each of your party members comes with their own baggage, but Dragonfall ups the ante by revelling in the shades of gray that Mass Effect avoids. You don’t even need to own Shadowrun Returns to play this expansion – the Director’s Cut is a stand-alone experience that tells its own, self-contained tale in this fantastic world.
Platform(s): Mobile, PC
The rain-soaked planet of Barracus hides dangerous secrets, and as detective Azriel Odin, you arrive looking for any clues that will lead to your brother’s whereabouts. Your investigation sends you on a collision course with the Boryokudan crime syndicate – a dangerous organization dealing in a deadly drug known as “juice”. You also play as Delta Six, a man locked up in a “rehabilitation center”, with no memory of who he once was and no contact with the outside world. The connection between these plotlines seems indistinct, until well, that’s all you’re getting out of me. Gemini Rue looks like a point-and-click adventure made back in LucasArts’ heyday at first glance, but spend five minutes with it and you’ll see there’s a lot more depth to it than many of its contemporaries. You’ll actually have to do proper detective work, as you use your communicator to cross-reference the information you get from the people you talk to on a futuristic version of the internet. And the story’s really good too, with some pretty decent voice acting considering it was developed by one guy. If you like your sci-fi served hardboiled with a whiskey chaser, Gemini Rue will fit the bill nicely.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution Director’s Cut
Platform(s): PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC
In the near future, technology allows humans to live beyond the confines of their genetics. Augmentations give sight to the blind, repair broken limbs, and grant otherwise superhuman ability to those who can afford it – which, of course, creates a rift between those who can and those who can’t. Black markets spring up, offering illegal modification work. Hostility brews between those who opt for augmentation and those who see it as a perversion of humanity. And in the middle of it all stands Adam Jensen, a man who would be dead if it weren’t for a massive, experimental reconstruction that replaces most of his body with technological enhancements. Deux Ex: Human Revolution is a fascinating exploration of a possible future where the very nature of what it means to be human is redefined by our technology. And as Jensen, you’re able to experience this world through his eyes, speak with its people, and decide your own fate. It’s a quasi-first-person-shooter/stealth-RPG where talking your way out of a situation is just as viable a solution as fighting your way through it or hacking your way around it. Just make sure you grab the director’s cut, which enhances the graphics a bit, integrates the DLC mission directly into the story, and vastly improves the boss fights.
Final Fantasy 7
Platform(s): PS1, PS3, PS4, PC
Final Fantasy 7 may seem like an odd entry on this list, but it has all the trappings of a compelling cyberpunk tale along with a heaping dose of Eastern mysticism. A small band of rebels attempt to dismantle Shinra, a monolithic megacorp sucking the very lifeforce out of the planet to power Midgar – a massive, dystopian pizza-shaped city where the haves live in sunlight and the have-nots live in fear of being literally crushed under the weight of those who live on the plate above. This is a world where magic – extracted from the planet and compressed into tiny balls called materia – is just as commonplace as the technology and neon-lit neighborhoods that its citizens live with. There’s a little more emphasis on the ethereal power of nature than you’d normally find in cyberpunk, especially when you finally start diving into its main story arc, but the bizarre combination of arm-grafted gatling guns, gigantic swords, and Chocobos is what makes Final Fantasy 7 such a memorable experience.