Cyberpunk is an inherently old-fashioned genre. Its iconic works draw on futuristic ideas that have either become unremarkable, like essential spheres of life based on tech owned by megalomaniacal corporations, or been superseded, like an obsession with cybernetic enhancements instead of codified social status. Video games, though, are somewhere these concepts have played out vividly. So an old-fashioned video game about a cyberpunk classic is something that makes sense.
In its own little way, Blade Runner: Enhanced Edition is a perfectly authentic nugget of the genre. However, in this cyberpunk story, we players are the neon-mohawked, robot-armed gutter-sludge gang-grunts trampled down by the money-sucking Big Business Corp (here played by Nightdive Studios), and Blade Runner: Enhanced Edition is one of the pellets of barely nutritional crud said Corp scatters into the storm drains for us to stay just alive enough that we can be leeched of blood to lubricate the cyborgs that drive the pellet-scattering hover trucks. It’s kippleware – software detritus that has come about spontaneously in the current epidemic of remake/remaster/rerelease/re-profit.
If that sounds kind of great, then you must be a true cyberpunk dreamer who revels in the nihilism of techno-commercial dystopia – who puts the 'punk' into cyberpunk. Lap up your kippleware because this is as good as it gets – but any value to be had in the Switch version of Blade Runner: Enhanced Edition comes from one of two sources: the underlying quality of the original game (which is already dubious) or masochistic delectation in the sheer cash-grabbing brazenness of this inferior release.
Blade Runner originally came to PC in 1997, from Westwood Studios, amidst the enormous success of the Command & Conquer series of real-time strategy games. They brought some of that experience with them, casting Blade Runner as a “real-time” adventure, where the game world would progress independently of player actions. Blade Runner shared back, too, with its voxel-style approach to 3D characters carried over to later C&C entries. There was a lot of talk about these gimmicks at the time and, although they transpired to be more style than substance, their inherent shortcomings sit a little differently when considered today, and curiosity about the original game will be rewarded with a unique retro-future vibe.
It’s the vibe, the style, that pervades everything else in this game. The cutscenes are well-rendered and animated to CD-ROM-boom standards, recreating locations and technology from the 1982 film. Protagonist Ray McCoy’s apartment closely resembles the one Harrison Ford sat in as fellow blade runner Rick Deckard, and you can zoom and enhance photos on your sofa just like Deckard does in the film. Elsewhere, there is a movie-authentic Voigt-Kampff machine, which you can use to grill subjects and uncover and eliminate replicants, the androids it is your job to “retire”. The soundscapes throughout are sumptuous, with music matching the movie’s mood, and street-bustle and machine-hum laying a foundation for incidental effects located around the scene through the stereo channels.
The plot tracks closely alongside the film, with replicants on the run, visits to the ominous Tyrell Corporation, plodding neon-dripped alleys, and getting chewed out by the department chief. There’s point-and-click gun action (all moving the cursor with the thumb stick), but it’s mainly detective work, interviewing witnesses, collecting and analysing evidence, and watching the plot thicken.
As with any graphic adventure of the era, there are moments of pixel hunting and “try-everything-with-everything” puzzle-solving. The “real-time” idea tends to frustrate here. If scenes are changing without player input, then you can’t try everything without then having to try it again in case you missed a key event. “Exhaust all options” isn’t much fun at the best of times, but when you can’t delimit all the options it’s painful.
Looking back on this 1997 work, some of the problems are palatable. The hassle of untangling real-time options can be shortened with a walkthrough (although the Enhanced Edition neglects to add any kind of hints to the game itself), while the odd mingling of low-res voxel character models and high-fidelity pre-rendered backgrounds is less uneven when the standards of “high-fidelity” have changed and it all looks a bit janky one way or another. In short, it’s a game well worth revisiting.
So far, though, we’ve been talking about the elements of the original Blade Runner that have remained mostly intact in Nightdive’s Enhanced Edition on Switch. Unfortunately, apart from some improved frame rates, this Enhanced Edition is worse than the original – worse in ways you wouldn’t believe possible. Truly talented imaginations have clearly been applied to invent ways to ruin aspects of the game that you would have thought were out of reach.
The backgrounds have been smudged about a bit as a nod towards upscaling. Nightdive apparently didn’t have access to the source assets for the pre-rendered backgrounds, or they could have been remastered crisply at higher resolutions. Instead, they’re smoothed in a way that diminishes detail. With the Switch docked, this is bearable, since some crunchy artefacts like heavy dithering are still very visible on a big screen, which lets the low-res character models sit a little less jarringly against the backgrounds. However, handheld, those spiky voxels jag out so harshly across the backdrop sludge that you just wish Nightdive had left it all a bit boxier – as it was.
The shooting mechanic was always oddly interleaved with the rest of the game, as were ammo and money management. However, it is all much worse for having no instructions whatsoever and completely unreliable controls. The same goes for the Voigt-Kampff machine, which has zero explanation and a control panel confused by the overall inconstancy of interfaces in this new edition.
Finally, and most egregiously by a thousand miles, Nightdive has revised the menus and the “KIA” interface used by McCoy to manage and interrogate his collection of evidence. Instead of letting the player manipulate the original interface – which is still displayed on the screen! – you are forced to use an absurdly convoluted array of context-dependent controller mappings to manipulate a crude PowerPoint mock-up of a text interface that’s just overlaid on the original graphics. This is a core part of the game and a huge contributor to the feeling of playing detective and solving a case. In the Enhanced Edition (“Enhanced”! The gall!), it is something you just don’t ever want to see – but you will because McCoy will regularly walk in front of your cursor and cause you to open it in error.
Many will see the score at the bottom of this review and immediately write off Blade Runner: Enhanced Edition. However, there is something genuinely brilliant buried deep inside this Switch release, beneath the lingering issues with pacing and narrative design as well as the myriad painful “enhancements” Nightdive Studios has dumped on top. To cut through all that, you will need a great love for Blade Runner and cyberpunk, saintly patience, a walkthrough on hand, a strict requirement to play on console rather than PC, and a pair of rose-tinted glasses. If you have all those things then you may still see life in this game’s eyes, but we don’t need a Voigt-Kampff machine to tell this version from the real thing.