If you’ve browsed Netflix in search of something to watch in the past two weeks, you’ve probably scrolled past the streaming service’s latest high profile animated video game adaptation Cyberpunk: Edgerunners. The show landed on September 13th on a platform familiar with the mass appeal of an anime attached to a popular video game franchise.
Way back in 2017, Castlevania, an anime adapted from the long-running gothic horror video game series, debuted on Netflix with a quasi-experimental season 1 consisting of only four episodes. It was released to minimal fanfare outside of the established Castlevania fanbase but steadily grew in popularity as future seasons came out. Fast forward to November of 2021 when Arcane, a series based off the globally popular multiplayer game League of Legends, instantly became the most-watched streaming series in 52 countries, including America. After six years of development on Arcane and hundreds of millions of dollars poured into the series, Netflix finally had proof of a winning formula. Long before Cyberpunk: Edgerunners skyrocketed to the most-watched show on Netflix, the anime was destined to be a hit.
For those unfamiliar with the source material, Edgerunners is based on the 2020 action role-playing video game Cyberpunk 2077 in which players take on the role of a mercenary living in the dystopian, futuristic metropolis of Night City. Edgerunners borrows the setting and aesthetics of the video game and not much else. This has been a recurring theme with Netflix’s video game adaptations and has allowed their shows to appeal to a massive audience unfamiliar with the properties they are based on. The narrative of Edgerunners is self-contained, focuses on original characters, and does not require prior knowledge of the Cyberpunk universe to understand. The story follows David, an impulsive street kid who, after losing everything in a drive-by shooting, decides to survive in Night City as a cyberware-enhanced mercenary known as an edge runner. Wacky adventures and hijinks ensue.
The main selling point of Edgerunners is the show’s animation and overall visual design. Produced by Studio Trigger, a much-lauded Japanese animation studio, and featuring character designs by Yoh Yoshinori, whose previous works include Little Witch Academia and FLCL, Edgerunners remains a consistently enjoyable show to watch over the course of its ten episodes squarely because it is fun to look at.
Careful attention is given to the color shading on clothes, how dank neon light reflects off characters and environments, and conveys the full grandiosity of Night City. The cybernetic enhancement David implants onto his spine early in the show allows him to move at superhuman speeds. For David, time slows to a crawl (a la Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past) and he leaves behind a trace of himself as moves faster than a speeding bullet. This results in many frames of animation lingering on the screen in a surprisingly psychedelic effect that visually pops whenever it occurs.
Like nearly all pieces of fiction encompassing the cyberpunk subgenre, Edgerunners places a heavy emphasis on its violence. Heads will roll, of course, but they will also explode, be shot through, and pounded into mush. This all looks excellent, in a viscerally grotesque sort of way, and the show is at its best when limbs get severed and blood starts flying. The brutality and expressionism of the violence on display are further amplified by the show’s soundtrack. In an interesting choice that mostly pays off, much of Cyberpunk 2077’s soundtrack was lifted directly from the game and grafted onto this anime. Turns out music intended to be listened to while engaging in a bloody, high-tech gunfight works well enough in a show about people regularly engaging in bloody, high-tech gunfights.
All these aspects that t anime excels at come together at no better point than the show’s opening credits. Set to an energized rendition of Franz Ferdinand’s “This Fire,” the stylized credits are displayed on top of frantically paced shots of Night City. A silhouette of David moves in slow motion, breaking through the glass and bearing sharp claws for hands. As the song reaches an energetic bridge, explosions fill the frame’s background, shifting color between a sunset pink and deep blue. The opening ends with a striking image of David left with a bullet hole in the center of his head. Each shot of Edgerunner’s opening is a set piece unto itself, and it blazes past your screen so quickly it is impossible to take it all in at once.
Unfortunately, the music direction doesn’t always hit the mark as well as in the opening. The show stumbles frequently when trying to convey emotional moments between characters for a few reasons, the most interesting being the music choice. It is a fantastic idea for a show based on an existing video game to repurpose music from the game, and I will be on the lookout for future adaptations to do the same. However, while the inserted music always fits the setting and overall tone of the series, it can feel comically out of place in certain scenes. Dramatic conversations between characters are accompanied by futuristic trap bangers. Overwhelming hyper pop plays during intentionally tender moments of romance. “History” by Gazelle Twin is a fantastic track for speeding down the streets of Night City in 2077, but it doesn’t work as well during an emotional scene on television.
Despite the music issues and a plot largely devoid of interesting revelations, (funny enough, the narrative and many side-stories of 2077 is the game’s strongest aspect) Edgerunners is a great show. While Netflix has proven there is a market for anime adaptations, and the financial successes of the Sonic the Hedgehog movies show audiences will show up to a theater to see video game characters on the big screen, the adaptation train has yet to clear its biggest hill before fully entering the mainstream: prestige television.
On Monday, September 26th, HBO revealed the first trailer for its upcoming adaptation of the 2013 video game The Last of Us. Within 24 hours, the trailer garnered six million views on YouTube and became the #1 trending video on the platform. Already a popular property amongst video game likers, The Last of Us follows a man and a teenage girl as they journey across a post-apocalyptic United States. HBO is hoping for the upcoming adaptation to not just take over the streaming world like Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, but to be recognized as a critically acclaimed and awards-worthy season of television that will kickstart a long-running series in the vein of Game of Thrones or Succession. For video game adaptations, this here is a big time.
The Last of Us will also serve as a litmus test for audience response towards prestige adaptations. Sony Computer Entertainment, the publisher behind The Last of Us, also has deals with Netflix, Amazon, and Universal to produce more television adaptations of popular video game properties. On some level, all corporations mentioned are banking on HBO’s The Last of Us becoming a hit. We won’t know for sure until next year, but for now, the business of video game adaptations is booming.
Written by: Jordan Young