Night City is the kind of place where you can upgrade your face as easily as you can buy a beer. Maybe you'll get some new arms while you're shopping for new shirts. With enough cash, you can look however you want. Or so the holiday brochures say. In reality, it's bloody hard to look good in Cyberpunk 2077, and in my quest to be stylish I've repeatedly put myself in harm's way. I have died for fashion.
Things started off so well, too. The mix of trends and cultures both real and fictional have blessed Night City with a bold sense of style that's reflected in the flashy togs adorning its citizens, and right off the bat my version of V, a street kid, was looking good. She had cool sneakers and ridiculous golden trousers, and what more could anyone need? Unfortunately, Cyberpunk 2077 bucks the RPG trend of making you look progressively cooler, instead starting you out cool and then making you look increasingly like a giant dork.
CD Projekt Red has tried to marry a very conventional, basic RPG gear system that was designed for armour with everyday clothes, and it just doesn't work. Every item, whether it's a scarf or an actual piece of armour, gets an armour value based mostly on its level. As you level up, you start scrounging up higher level clobber, and suddenly you have to replace your Kevlar vest with a silk shirt because it's got bigger numbers. The armour value has nothing to do with the items themselves, and any other quirks they possess come from mods.
Some gear is themed around gangs, like the Maelstrom outfit V's sporting above, but I quickly ended up with an inventory full of completely random tat. For every jacket that kind of went with a t-shirt, I'd find three fedoras that went with absolutely nothing at all. Individually most of the stuff I've accumulated over the last 50 hours looks fine (not including the fedoras), and when put together the collection easily rivals any other RPG's, but finding things that match in this frustrating dystopia comes down to extremely fickle RNG. Whenever I do find a decent ensemble, something technically better appears just like clockwork.
My stint as a badass Mad Max extra was short-lived, and what followed was just disaster after disaster. It's a good thing everyone in Night City conducts their business over the phone, because there's no way anyone looking like this would be getting serious work. Going purely on the stats, you will almost always look like you've lost a bet.
There are probably going to be a few of you rolling your eyes now, wondering why this is a problem in a game that's almost entirely first-person. Or maybe you just care about the numbers. Fashion be damned, you want that armour. For me, though, looking rad is just as much of a driving force as any other progression system, and especially so in a game where being cool is so important it's one of your five attributes. I also ride that sexy Akira bike and muck around in the photo mode all the time, so I have to see all of these horrible clothes draped over my unfortunate merc quite a bit.
Eventually I was faced with the choice that I presume every Night City merc must wrestle with: do I choose stats, or do I choose style? It was no contest, really. Sometimes you've just got to take a stand and say "No, I will not pair that purple miniskirt with that Kevlar vest and that floral hijab," before getting shot. Now I strut down the streets of Night City wearing what I want. And dying a bit more frequently as a result. It's more about control than style, really. Maybe you think you can pull off a purple miniskirt, Kevlar vest and floral hijab combo, and more power to you. There are probably some people who would question my choice to combine a long golden coat with shimmering green trousers and a futuristic visor—cowards, the lot of you—but it feels perfect for my version of V.
I'm now finding gear with armour ratings in the hundreds, while wearing a vest that gives me a whopping 14 armour, so those bullets sure have been leaving a mark. But every time I fire up the photo mode or go through the inexplicably laborious process of looking in a mirror, I know I'm not going to hang my head in shame. I'm rebelling against a tyrannical regime and looking good while doing it.
Technically, I do have some more options. I could go shopping, for instance. Cyberpunk 2077 has perfectly captured the nightmare of clothes shopping. I never know what the shop has, it's always more expensive than I expected, none of it suits me and the one thing I was looking for isn't there. None of the shops are really themed, and their stock seems to be random, or at least not particularly thought out. It's weird that it's so bad, because this is something that most urban open world games nail. GTA, Saints Row and Watch Dogs make all of their shops brands with unique stock, so when you want to dress like, say, a cyber goth, you know exactly where to go. In Night City, it's a crapshoot. A pricey one.
Crafting is another way you can take back control of your look, and it's thanks to a crafting recipe that I've got that gold coat. Unfortunately, it only puts off the problem for a wee while. Pretty quickly, that crafted outfit that you used up all your crafting materials on will be old news. And you've got to find the recipes first, which you'll have to depend on shops for, or find them while looting. Crafting materials can also be spent on upgrading items, which sounds like a solution until you see how miniscule the upgrade is and how much it costs.
Absolutely nothing of value would be lost if CD Projekt Red just divorced armour from clothing entirely, putting it all in augments and perks. Right now, it just feels like RPG fluff; it's somewhere to dump the less exciting numbers. Assassin's Creed Odyssey has another solution, however, if we absolutely must keep these arbitrary stats. Whenever you find some new gear, you automatically unlock its appearance, letting you apply it to what you're wearing. There's no fee, no spell, no other prerequisite aside from needing to hunt down the item first. You've earned it, so you should be able to enjoy it. I can't play any RPGs now without getting wistful about effortlessly updating my armour in Odyssey. It's ruined me.
With Odyssey, getting that level of customisation was a surprise. But here it's like there's a hole where cosmetic customisation should have been. There are features I wish had made an appearance, but this is one that actually feels like it's missing. It's even more strange that there are all of these hair and makeup options during character creation, and ripperdocs that give you whole new limbs, but you can't even get a haircut. Given the delays and stories of long periods of crunch, it's likely the cutting room floor is full of stuff like this—features that would have been a perfect fit, that everyone would have been happy to see included. It's hard to imagine CDPR not wanting to give players more control over how V looks, but at the moment it's probably lower on the list of priorities than the bugs and AI quirks.
So I'll keep dying. Or maybe not. I've recently shelled out on a lot of chrome, and I've pumped some more points into athletics perks. I've got lots of self-healing, armour, stamina boosts and whatever else I need to survive my murder sprees. As long as I keep moving, I can carve everyone up with my mantis blades and only need a few puffs of my delicious healing vape. I guess there's a silver lining to the gear system being so basic—it eventually becomes irrelevant. Maybe that's the ultimate objective: grow so powerful that you don't need armour and can just swan around in whatever striking outfit captures your imagination. Every cyberpunk merc's dream.