On a holographic billboard a Japanese lady sips the new flavor of Mountain Dew, Spicy Algorithm, and turns to smile before abruptly glitching out to be replaced by anticorporate agitprop. In the street below a hardboiled detective sighs over a corpse with a grossly distorted head, the latest victim of the Funko Pop Killer, while above a drone repeatedly blares, "A new life awaits you in the off-world crypto mines."
Cyberpunk is a sci-fi subgenre born in and very much about the 1980s, but it's started to feel distressingly relevant again in recent years. It's both an aesthetic—all neon light and rain-slick streets at night—and an ethos. A reaction to the kind of sci-fi more concerned with shiny spaceships than ordinary people, cyberpunk instead focuses on near-future urban nightmares where low-rent antiheroes twist technology to their own ends and fight to find space for themselves in the shadows.
In videogames, the recent boom of interest in the genre had Cyberpunk 2077 as a mascot—at least, until its underwhelming release. Even ignoring the bugs, Cyberpunk 2077 turned out to be a narratively unambitious game hampered by a race-against-time plot in conflict with its open world structure.
Luckily for us, there are alternatives both old and new that explore what cyberpunk has been, and what it could mean for our era. From the classics of the 1990s and early 2000s through to the revivalism of the late 2010s onward—and the handful that kept hope alive during the dark times in-between—there's a wealth of great cyberpunk games out there. Here are the best of them.
The Classic Era
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Ray McCoy hunts a group of rogue replicants on the rain-sodden streets of Los Angeles in this inventive point-and-click adventure. Though Blade Runner does riff heavily on the movie it's based on, that's kind of the appeal. What makes it worthwhile is having a chance to explore a gorgeous recreation of Ridley Scott's influential work while listening to Vangelis. Just walking out onto your balcony to look out over LA while the soundtrack soars is bliss. The "enhanced edition" released in 2022 was unfortunately a bit of a disaster.
Release date: 1989 | Developer: Interplay Productions | Internet Archive
Unlike Blade Runner, this adventure-RPG based on William Gibson's Neuromancer diverges from its source material. While its version of Chiba City shares some locations and descriptions with the novel, it's also full of Interplay's own weirdness. There's the House of Pong, where Pong Monks have spent decades meditating on the mysteries of the One True Computer Game, and a body shop where you can hock your tongue or even spleen for cash.
Cash which you'll need, because you're a hacker so down-and-out you've pawned your computer. You rebuild yourself by collecting warez and skill chips, then eventually hit cyberspace, where you face AIs who can be defeated with your skills in Logic, Philosophy, Phenomenology, and Sophistry. Interplay's vision of cyberspace was just as wacky as its Chiba City.
Release date: 1996 | Developer: Bullfrog Productions | GOG
Probably the best of Bullfrog's darkly satirical Syndicate series, Syndicate Wars is a tactical RTS set in a bleak dystopia ruled by evil corporations. The totalitarian status quo is under threat from a virus, and as a EuroCorp Executive with a squad of cyborg agents and a budget of 50,000 EuroCorp credits, it's up to you to keep the populace from rebelling. Or perhaps you'll side with the Church of the New Epoch? Either way, you'll have to resort to miniguns and mind control eventually.
Read more: Why Syndicate was 'bad to the bone'
System Shock 2
A horror/FPS/RPG hybrid set aboard a stricken starship that would go on to inspire the much more well-known yet not nearly as clever BioShock series. System Shock 2 is perhaps most famous for its sinister AI antagonist, Shodan. Artificial intelligences going rogue is a common element of cyberpunk, and Shodan is one of the finest examples of that on PC. It's also a terrifying ascent through a derelict space station that's easy to get lost in, but hard to forget.
When augmented government super-agent JC Denton becomes tangled up in a conspiracy that threatens the future of the world, he takes it on himself to bring down the people responsible. Deus Ex gives you the freedom to play the missions that follow as a series of stealth sandboxes, or an RPG, or a shooter.
One of the first immersive sims, Deus Ex can be clunky not because of its age, but because when it was made the genre was still being formed. The Give Me Deus Ex mod, GMDX for short, helps smooth over some of those rough edges. Its direct sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War, is likewise improved by the Deus Ex 2 Visible Upgrade mod.
Read more: Taking Liberties: a Deus Ex story
The Dark Times
Dog of Dracula 2: Cyber Monogatari
Release date: 2013 | Developer: | Team Batsu | Game Jolt
Once, a long time ago, you were a "casper", a beautician for the undead. That's how you became friends with a vampire hound called Dog of Dracula, who needed some serious grooming back in the bad old days when sauce was illegal and you worked together to rescue the president. But now, in the cybertimes, your dog's half robot and you're just another depressed otaku in Nuevo Tokyo. What a bummer.
Dog of Dracula 2 is a visual novel that's so low-budget I'm not sure even the street would find a use for it, but its parody of cyberpunk's hard-boiled edge is so sharp you could shave a spitz with it.
Release date: 2013 | Developer: Suspicious Developments | Steam
In Gunpoint you're both of the classic cyberpunk archetypes: a hacker spy who busts open corporate security, and a noir detective solving a mystery. Implicated in a crime you didn't commit, you commit a whole lot more while figuring out who was really responsible. You do that by breaking into 2D buildings with a rewiring tool that lets you twist technology so that a lightswitch opens a door or a motion sensor overloads a power point.
Each level is a hermetically sealed puzzle, but one you might be able to brute-force thanks to your Bullfrog Hypertrousers. You can almost always leap through a window, land on a guard, then pummel them into next week. Gunpoint's got a sense of humor that comes across in absurd moments like that, as well as in the story, told in text messages, in which you work both sides of a corporate duel you're rarely forced to take seriously.
Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director's Cut
Like the other Shadowrun games, which are based on a tabletop RPG first released in 1989, Dragonfall is an unlikely blend of cyberpunk and high fantasy—a flavor combination that works surprisingly well. This tech-noir RPG features a rich urban setting to explore with its vision of Berlin in the year 2054 and especially the Kreuzbasar hub area, satisfyingly tactical turn-based combat, and an array of different ways to play, whether you want to be an elite ork hacker or an elven street samurai.
Release date: 2015 | Developer: Klei Entertainment | Steam
Invisible, Inc. combines stealth with turn-based tactics. It's confident enough in its design to present all the information about the situation in front of you, and let you come up with a solution. When you're looking at your crew of corp-raiding hackers and espionage specialists from above you've got perfect vision of the sight lines and hiding spots between them and the next cache of data or cache of, well, cash. By giving you that much information, Invisible, Inc. lets you live out the heist fantasy of pulling together a team of experts with all the right gadgets and of having a plan that comes together—or falls apart then gets rewritten on the fly. Either way, when you strike another blow at the corps and vanish into the datastream it's just as gratifying.
Read more: Best Design 2015 – Invisible, Inc.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
The original Deus Ex carries a lot of nostalgia, which made it a tough act for Eidos Montréal to follow. The studio's take on Deus Ex packed its city hubs with missions and world-building, a conspiracy-laden plot, powerful augmentations (including the abilities to punch through walls and turn invisible), and that rare thing—a hacking minigame that wasn't terrible. Deus Ex: Human Revolution managed to stake out an identity of its own in the shadow of the original, though it ended up casting a shadow its own sequel, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, couldn't quite measure up to.
Don't let the minimalist graphics fool you: Neon Struct is one of the best systems-based stealth games this side of Prey, as well as a surprisingly well-told story about an ex-spy on the run in a surveillance state. Its levels are three-course meals, filled to the brim with alternate routes and designed for ghosting, with plenty of vents to crawl through, gadgets to play with, and a sprint-slide to get you into the shadows before you're spotted. The omnipresent CCTV cameras reinforce the oppressive cyberpunk feel, even if your imagination has to do a little extra work.
In this visual novel from a developer better-known for puzzle games, you're the human face of a therapy AI called Eliza, which delivers a script directly to your high-tech glasses. You then read that script out loud for the benefit of someone too poor to afford a real mental health professional. Your job is to make an impersonal algorithm seem personal while the glorified chatbot asks trite questions, and always wraps up with final recommendations that direct people to the app it's programmed to push by its corporate owner.
This satire of wellbeing software has only become more pointed as the tech industry falls over itself in a rush to embrace mediocre chatbots by pretending they're AI. And, as with all Zachtronics games, this savage work of satire comes with a fun Solitaire minigame as a bonus. Which is nice.
Release date: 2022 | Developer: | Rose Engine | Steam
In the world of Signalis a spacefaring nation that blends German and Chinese culture exploits a poorly understood psychic phenomenon called "bioresonance" to create Replikas, servants with personalities copied from human donors. When a strange corruption spreads through the Replikas, this underclass of uberfraus with personas taken from soldiers and ballet dancers turns dangerous. A technician-class Replika, you break free of your programming too, and go in search of a woman who appears in your dreams.
As your perceptions warp and reality cracks around you, Signalis becomes survival horror, using the genre's oppressive mechanics to simulate the oppressive tyranny of your society. Even the strict inventory limit is based on a rule that limits Replikas' possessions. A homage to Silent Hill told in the style of a twisty, philosophical headfuck anime, Signalis really puts the ghost in Ghost in the Shell.
Release date: 2019 | Developer: Chance Agency | Steam
You're a taxi driver working for a company that hires humans when everyone else has shifted to self-driving cars, but though Neo Cab keeps track of your income and fuel, it's not about simulating that job. What kind of customers hire a human to drive them around when an algorithm can do it just as well? People who want someone to talk to on their trip, that's who. Though there's a larger missing person plot, Neo Cab is really an anthology of character-led short stories about weirdos—fascinating weirdos like a pain cultist and a girl whose parents have trapped her in power armor for her own protection. Each of whom return, night after night, to spill their guts in the back of your cab.
The Red Strings Club
The Red Strings Club is a cyberpunk adventure game with multiple playable characters. Bartender Donovan teases information out of his patrons, hacker Brandeis tricks people over the phone with a voice-changer, and android Akara-184 manipulates emotions by crafting cybernetic implants. Though each is mechanically different, The Red Strings Club is focused on dialogue and character interaction over puzzles. It works because that dialogue is both deeply philosophical, and used to tell a love story with real punch to it.
It shouldn't work. Ruiner embraces all the superficial elements of cyberpunk: neon, motorbikes, sexy cyberladies, themed gangs, orientalism. It does work though, because beneath that there's a tightly designed action game. Ruiner is a top-down shooter that plays just as well with mouse-and-keyboard as it does with twin sticks (if not better). Time slows when you pick up a fallen weapon, adding rhythm to its frantic dance. You dash-and-bash with your metal pipe, grab someone's chaingun, unload it on another ganger with a goofy mask, yoink their katana and go again—a constant kinetic push-pull of fast and slow that also happens to be stylish as heck.
It's just you, alone, in a square in the middle of Mega-Tokyo. Just you—and every single member of the yakuza, who all want you dead. Akane is a one-hit-kill arena battle where you've got a katana, a gun, and upgradeable cigarettes. A typical game lasts minutes, if you're lucky, but you'll keep trying again and again to see if you can survive just a little longer. The dash move where you draw a line across the screen to your destination and then everybody between you and that point drops dead is a particularly nice touch.
Read more: 17 games from 2018 you might've missed
Release date: 2020 | Developer: Origami Digital | Steam
A lot of the other games on this list rely on the aesthetics of a 1980s vision of the future, which once felt like a fresh rejection of golden age sci-fi clichés and has since calcified into something almost as stale. Umurangi Generation is a properly 21st century vision, a photography game about documenting Tauranga Aotearoa as a crisis looms. There are mechs on the horizon and riot cops on the streets, but you're just a courier with a camera, watching it all unfold. Make sure to pick up the essential Macro DLC, which adds roller blades and a set of levels in the Tauranga Underground that make use of every lesson learned from the base game to create Umurangi Generation's most interesting spaces.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake Intergrade
Where the original Final Fantasy 7 was a sprawling JRPG with too much going on for its own good, Final Fantasy 7 Remake focuses on the best part: the grim futuristic city of Midgar, where the impoverished live in dingy slums below the wealthy above. Horrible as it would be to live in a city where the poor are forced to live in the literal shadow of the rich, whose high-rises are suspended above them on giant plates, there's a lot of heart in its depiction of the slums, and in its depiction of the ecoterrorists who become the slum-dwellers' unlikely heroes.
Unsighted is an anime-styled action game set in the aftermath of a war between humans and robots where you play one of the robots. It has the corpse runs of a soulslike and the back-tracking of a metroidvania, both of which can potentially waste your time, but it uses them smartly to feed into its theme: the value of our short lifespans. As a combat android on the losing side of the war, you've got limited time before the anima that gives you and all your robot friends sentience runs out, leaving you mindless shells. Every NPC you meet can live or die depending on your actions. Unsighted has plenty of accessibility options if you'd rather make it less tense, and with or without them it remains a powerful experience.
In the Blade Runner videogame you chase replicants. Citizen Sleeper flips that script. You're a sleeper, an escaped indentured worker made of synthmeat hiding in the space station city called Erlin's Eye. Bounty hunters and AI security are out to get you, but between dodging them you've also got to eat, sleep, and somehow get by. A pool of dice represents your ability to face each day-cycle, and can be spent to explore, work, and hack the systems of Erlin's Eye. Unlikely allies can be found among the station's mostly human population, and getting to know them is as important as your struggle in this unique but all-too familiar capitalist hellscape.
Memoirs of a Battle Brothel
Equal parts Sin City and Shadowrun, Memoirs of a Battle Brothel is an RPG set in a cyberpunk-fantasy city called MoonFall that has lore so deep krakens could be swimming in it. As a facilitator for a branch of the MoonFall Courtesan's Guild, part of your job is managing and upgrading a brothel, but the majority of your job is negotiating with the city's many factions and occasional outbreaks of cosmic horror.
The Courtesan's Guild is a well-regarded diplomatic institution, the one organization that has dealings with every level of society from street gangs to corporations, as well as occult cults and crime syndicates. With your party of well-trained fuckwarriors, you navigate a dangerous political situation where earning the trust of any faction without losing another's is like walking an oiled tightrope.