Indie Review: Shadowrun Returns
One of the biggest Kickstarter titles has finally arrived, but does it do the Shadowrun name justice?
- Addictive?The gameplay often isn't, but the writing is sure to hook you.
- Worth The Time?Yes, although it may be even more worthy of your time in the future.
- Things LovedRich, detailed and engrossing writing. A well realised setting and impressive artwork to boot. A revival of a cherished series that doesn't forget its roots. Robust content creator is a modders delight. Could hold lots of promise in the coming months. Included campaign is decent enough for a playthrough.
- Things HatedRepetitive and often boring combat. Far too linear for an RPG. Too little items for you to play with. Save system is an absolute mess.
- RecommendationShadowrun Returns certainly isn't for everybody, but those looking to relive some good memories and engage with a well written and engrossing storyline have a lot to look forward to. Also, it's a pretty good investment for future content, which will come.
- Quick ConclusionAn engrossing storyline and crisp visuals might be the only real draw at the moment, but Shadowrun Returns holds a lot of promise for the future, with a robust and powerful level editor and mission creator open for all to dabble with.
- Name: Shadowrun Returns
- Genre: Turn-Based RPG
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: N/A
- Platforms: PC, Mac
- Developer: Harebrained Schemes
- Publisher: Harebrained Schemes
- Price: $20 (Around R200.00)
- Reviewed On: PC
I’ll be honest, I have never experienced the original Shadowrun title that was extremely popular back in the SNES days. In fact, the only real mention of Shadowrun I have experienced in the past decade or so was that of Microsoft’s re-imagined multiplayer shooter, which I gathered did not sit too well with fans of the series. But fear not, because Shadowrun Returns is a return to the old-school, isometric RPG gameplay that the series is known for, crafting a delectable world and host of characters for you to converse colourfully with, despite the linearity of the main story and rather repetitive combat.
The world of Shadowrun is a grim one. It’s not too far into the future, and magic has somewhat surfaced again in society, bringing with it elves, orcs and trolls. On top of that, magic and machinery have combined, with specialists such as the street samurai, shaman and something called a decker. Decking is the main pillar that Shadowrun is built on, allowing users of decks to effectively hack into the Matrix. And no, that’s not a reference, Shadowrun actually did it first. These traits essentially make up the first half hour of your time in Shadowrun Returns, which is spent “rolling” your player.
Yes, it really is that old-school at times. You’re given the choice between a human, elf, orc or troll, each with certain limited traits and abilities. From here, you “roll“ a character, pre-defining some early game statistics such as charisma, attack damage and decking ability. From here, you’re able to choose a specialisation, which somewhat guides you down the path of an effectively and well-built character in a certain field. Should you choose to for-go this option for a more tailored experience, you would do well to read up extensively on each and every ability, or eventually condemn yourself to having an “ok” character when things eventually start getting tough.
Despite your choice of class, the game begins in the same manner. The main narrative, crafted by developers Harebrained Schemes, is named “Dead Man’s Switch” and its essentially a campaign that could be built by anyone savvy enough with the game’s engine tools. More on that later though. You are a Shadowrunner, a mercenary that takes all sorts of jobs if the pay is good enough. The first few parts essentially set up the narrative’s premise, after an old companion sends you a “Dead Man’s Switch”, which is essentially a contract that initiates after their death. This request entrusts you to find said companion’s killer and exact revenge, leaving you to “rebuild” the narrative by following leads and investigating crime scenes. As you’d expect, this eventually gets you involved with all sorts of nice and nasty people, leaving it up to you to sort out their problems before they’ll offer to lend a hand to yours.
While this may sound like an opportunity to craft a sprawling narrative filled with additional and optional side quests, Shadowrun Returns is mysteriously linear. In fact, it sometimes doesn’t even feel like you’re playing an RPG, but rather an action title, with quests merely being waypoint markers as you inevitable move in a straight and constricted path. There’s the interesting side-quest here and there, but more often than not you’ll be confined to the beaten path, with conversation choices rarely making a difference to your game. Comparing your game to a friend’s narrative will probably result in identical looking stories, with your choice of character being the only real factor you’re able to control and manipulate.
Thankfully, any choice becomes a viable one the further you progress into the game. Rarely will you find yourself fighting alone, so choosing a speciality that suits your play style shouldn’t really worry you, as a teammate with the right amount of brain or brawn is usually right around the corner. You’ll have access to three types of weapons, namely melee, short range and long range, but it is disappointing that these classes have very little tiers within them for you to do some loot hunting. Merchants will hardly ever have stock you haven’t seen hours before, and going from ill-equipped Shadowrunner to a mercenary god doesn’t take that many inventory changes. It just feels lacking in the items department overall, which could explain why Shadowrun’s combat feels stale at times.
Combat follows a turn-based format, not unlike a certain system seen in XCOM: Enemy Unknown last year. In fact, the little symbols showing how much cover you are currently behind also bear a huge resemblance, however the end result is not as engaging. Combat at first starts off entertaining enough, until you come to realise that you’ll end up spamming the same attacks and hoping for critical, rather than utilising various abilities to your advantage. This is somewhat helped when you have three very different characters to mess with in a single battle, but those where you’re limited to two very identical ones feel like a chore. Add to this the glaring omission of a manual save system, coupled with the increasingly difficult battles near the end of the narrative, and you’ve got a recipe for absolute infuriating disaster, with the loss of near 30 minutes of gameplay being a common occurrence.
But it’s not all doom and gloom in the world of Shadowrun. Well, actually it is, and thankfully that’s a really, really good thing. One of the most incredible parts of Shadowrun Returns has to be its writing. Since there’s no in-game dialogue or cutscenes, you’re going to be doing a lot of reading. And when I say a lot, I fucking mean a lot. Dialogue, investigation pop-ups, story elements and more are all conveyed through text, but thanks to the well-crafted writing behind it, it’s actually a delight. It’s very easy to imagine characters and their personalities just by observing the way they speak through text, and Shadowrun’s world as a whole is dripping with some fantastic lore and stories of its own to tell. It’s a pity none of your decisions in conversations really make an impact on your journey, besides rewarding you with some items here and there, but losing hours in conversation is an all too real possibility, and often you’ll be thankful you did.
But text can only go so far, and eventually you’ll need your eyes to start telling you exactly what Shadowrun looks like. Seattle has taken a bit of a beating is seems over the years, and Shadowrun Returns portrays this rather beautifully, even if it does restrict your ability to get right up and close with the world around you. Zoom functionality is rather limited, probably so that you wouldn’t nit-pick through every pixel of the simplistic yet effective art style, but looking at Shadowun from its default zoom setting is rather pleasurable. While you do get a sense that Seattle is a rundown slum fit for criminals, Shadowrun Returns manages to do this with a surprisingly colourful scheme, with bright greens and blues littering streets, and neon pinks creating a warm atmosphere in a regular bar. In-game character designs are fairly limited and sub-par by comparison, but you can’t take much away from those artists that brought the city of Seattle to life, because it’s rather spectacular.
It’s also hard not to see some of the promise Shadowrun Returns holds in the future, especially if you’re able to dabble in the title’s robust mission creator. Being designed for those more on the development side of the scale, Shadowrun Returns offers a powerful and extensive tool set for savvy creators to get dirty with, allowing anyone to create fully fleshed out campaigns like the one featured as the main narrative. This allows players to download and experience these new adventures at no cost, and it’s a great way to ensure that Shadowrun Returns continues to crop up in the months to come. In fact, this could somewhat make up for a rather liner campaign, with creators being able to design more free and expansive campaigns, recreate the original Shadowrun and more. It’s easy to see that the main focus was on building something that the community could fully take advantage of, and on that front Shadowrun Returns truly succeeds.
And it’s because of this, as well as some fantastic writing and visuals, that you can somewhat overlook Shadowrun’s downfalls. The campaign might make you question what is passed off as an RPG nowadays, but not experiencing it at least once for the brilliant writing would be almost criminal. It’s now up to the community to ensure that Shadowrun Returns stays on the radar in the months to come, and I wouldn’t be surprised if developers Harebrained Schemes didn’t release another campaign of their own, now that they don’t have to worry about building an engine anymore. Shadowrun Returns definitely is not for everyone, especially those looking for a deep RPG experience, but those willing to wait a little more might be rewarded with something truly special. Or not, only time will tell.