When I first heard the name of this new game, Glitchpunk, it brought back memories of last December. What word could better sum up my experience with the PS4 version of Cyberpunk 2077? I had flashbacks of a Night City visibly constructing itself around me as I toured its streets, of vanishing NPCs, misbehaving menu screens, and a plague of dildos. Now that was “glitchpunk”, where the game itself feels like it’s been corrupted.
Indeed, when I recently played The Ascent, I had started to wonder if glitchy cyberpunk was becoming some accidental ironic sub-genre. Sure, the sins of The Ascent aren’t as extreme as the console nightmare of 2077, but they are disruptive – the joy of following a mission marker across the map to a low-level side job, only to reach a door that won’t unlock until you’ve completed a string of higher-level main missions; AI that gets bored and runs back to its starting position in the middle of a firefight – a short circuit in the machine.
Of course, such issues aren’t unique to cyberpunk games, but they take on extra significance in these instances because technological performance is such a big theme of the genre. Tech in cyberpunk is the thing that creates the social environment and controls everything. Also, the thing to be hacked and subverted in order to resist domination, to be ‘punk’. In this way, 2077 and The Ascent are like a sort of meta-cyberpunk, where internal techno-rebellion leaves their metropolises constantly on the fritz, at least until a string of patches correct the errors. There’s texture in their rough edges, and what’s more cyberpunk than broken cities, disobedient computers, and the random injustice of glitches in the system?
Which brings me to Glitchpunk itself, a new open-world, dystopian, sci-fi action game from Polish indie studio Dark Lord and publisher Daedalic Entertainment. Like 2077 and The Ascent, Glitchpunk isn’t as polished as it might be, although in this case for good reason – it’s only just been released in early access, and has a long way to evolve before it reaches its 1.0 form.
Until then, it’s hoping to attract interest with a clear pitch – cyberpunk meets Grand Theft Auto. Not Grand Theft Auto as we’ve come to know it this century, however, but the original top-down, 2D, 1990s GTA and its sequel. Glitchpunk aims for that old immediacy, as your tiny android character muscles their way around compact city streets shooting gangsters, civilians, and cops, or hijacks vehicles and mows them down instead. There’s nothing subtle about Glitchpunk’s inspiration either – everything from mission structures to the game’s ‘wanted’ ratings when you get rumbled by the popo are virtually copy-pasted from Rockstar’s classic.
Perhaps a grand theft itself of sorts then, but in a way, that’s a good thing. Playing the preview code, I’ve found it refreshing to return to a stripped-down GTA-style experience, particularly since the real series has grown so bloated and self-important since those days. The wanton nihilistic violence of GTA fits neatly into the cyberpunk mould as well, as you complete hits, knock down bystanders accidentally on purpose and try to outrun increasingly rabid pursuits.
Also, there are some promising developments in the formula. Road layouts are more intricate in Glitchpunk, with more verticality and side passages to escape into. You can acquire plug-in modules that let you hack into machines or even people, for instance sending a hapless pedestrian or mobster into a killing frenzy. And your relationships with the city’s rival factions – at this stage, a cult-like religious organisation, a punk gang, and an android liberation movement – sweeten or sour as you complete missions or cause havoc in their territory, making some parts of the map more hostile to your presence.
I’m interested to see how this narrative aspect develops, in particular, but honestly, I haven’t got very far yet because, as things stand, progress in Glitchpunk can be quite gruelling. A few expected bugs and performance issues aside, AI behaviour is a little too unpredictable, the all-important mini-map too vague, and some of the mission requirements too exacting for inexact vehicle controls (especially as there’s no pad support in place yet). The tiniest mistake can lead to mission failures, and when some objectives have tight time limits, frustrations soon build.
Another concern I have is the muted tone of Glitchpunk, at least in the first city, New Balta, the only one of a planned four currently available. It’s all rather dingy, sparse, and low energy, bathed in a dark green light, with neon billboards and signs reduced to slivers in the bird’s-eye view. This has practical consequences because it makes the tiny pedestrians and even the deadly river hard to pick out at speed – a real contrast against GTA’s clear colour scheme. But I’m also not sure how a morose and edgy vibe fits with an open-world design that lends itself to reckless joyriding and cackling, murderous rampage. It feels like Glitchpunk sort of wants to be serious, like with some disturbing plot points introduced by your mission handlers, and sort of not, like with its inane radio chatter, and hasn’t found its voice yet.
Again, this is early access, so all kinds of changes are possible. And even at this stage, anyone looking for that old-school GTA hit should take an interest in Glitchpunk’s progress. Plus there’s that other reason to jump aboard right now – that’s right, the meta-cyberpunk experience. Because it’s early access, Glitchpunk takes you into a cyberpunk adventure that’s not just about atmosphere or cyber-implants or grim stories. It embodies the sense of a brutal world that’s constantly bugging out, that you have to battle against, looking for ways to exploit the machine to win. Glitchpunk may well polish its cyberpunk stylings and become a better game, then, but will never live up to its name as much as it does now.