Shadowrun Returns review26 Jul 2013  by
Well, chummer, this has been a long time coming. Not only is Shadowrun Returns – to my knowledge – the first major Kickstarted RPG to be released, but it’s also the first time we in the west have seen a proper Shadowrun game since 1994. (No, I’m not counting 2007’s multiplayer FPS, and neither should you.)
Shadowrun is set in a grimdark dystopian future, where magic and technology have mixed together to form a delicious technomystical goulash. Orks work as bouncers for seedy nightclubs. Dragons have appeared and have used force to take territories for themselves. Megacorporations rule the world. In the middle of all of this are the shadowrunners themselves – down-on-their-luck freelancers used by the megacorps as entirely deniable squads, for black ops missions that further their own interests.
When it comes to judging Returns, there are two questions we’ve got to answer. First: is it authentic? Second: is it a good game? Having now finished the campaign, I can safely say that the answers are, respectively, “yes” and “it’s pretty good, I guess.”
This is Shadowrun. It’s a murky world of lies and betrayal, of grimy streets and shiny megacorporations. Major players from both the previous games and the general lore make appearances, and the game’s story – which begins with you investigating the murder of a runner you used to work with, and escalates into events of potentially apocalyptic proportions – ties directly into (and leads up to) lore events that fans will recognise. You can be a troll decker, or a human rigger; you can be an ork shaman or an elvish street samurai. You can outfit yourself with a Fuchi deck and a smartlinked Ares Predator. You can, in short, immerse yourself in the grimy, rain-spattered streets of future Seattle. I spotted one booboo that doesn’t fit with the lore, but just about everything else is exactly how I’d expect it, from presentation to tone.
As for the game… well, that’s going to take some explaining, because for everything it does right, it does something wrong. It’s ostensibly an RPG, but it’s really a turn-based tactical game with RPG elements – and it’s very light in terms of both being an RPG, and being a turn-based tactical game.
The latter isn’t necessarily a problem. It takes cues from XCOM in that it’s very simple to understand – each character has a pool of action points, generally ranging from two to four, and each action will use up a certain number of them. Moving a certain distance? That’s one. Firing a gun? That’s one. Burst fire or full auto on an assault rifle? That’s two. Certain actions also have cooldowns and can only be used once every few rounds, but for the most part, it’s really easy to get the hang of. There’s also a rudimentary cover system, in that moving your runners next to items noted as cover (which is occasionally a little odd in terms of what the game determines works) gives them a bonus against attacks coming from that direction.
Unlike XCOM, though, you don’t need to stretch your tactical brain into new and interesting shapes. I died exactly once in the campaign, due to a troll gunner getting lucky with a full auto burst and killing my protagonist instantly, and exactly one companion was incapacitated over the course of the campaign. I can count the number of medkits I used on the fingers of one hand. It’s not a very hard game.
At least, I don’t think it is. Part of this may have been due to my opting to play as a street samurai wielding a shotgun and an assault rifle; by about the halfway point of the game, my character was so accurate and so powerful that she was able to kill basically any enemy in a single burst of assault rifle fire, or gun down a group of foes in a single round with a series of shotgun blasts. Considering that any mages I hired were considerably less effective, this might simply be down to ranged street samurais being an “easy” class.
And yes, I did say “hired.” Outside of combat, you only directly control one character. Everyone else in your party is either an NPC along for the ride, or a personality-free hired gun you’ve brought along specifically for the mission. What makes this slightly irritating is that only your main character’s stats are taken into account for anything involving a dialogue box; if you find a secret door or a locked safe and need a high level of decking to open it, then – even if you hired a master decker because you lack those skills – unless your main character has the required skill, you’re out of luck. Which is kind of annoying.
As for the other classes, there’s a pretty heavy focus on bringing along deckers so that they can hack into the Matrix. You’ll regularly come across computers that they can break into, at which point you have to protect their prone body while they explore a neon-lit, wireframe, Tron-like environment, fending off hostile programs and doing stuff like stealing information or playing with the IFF systems of turrets. These bits aren’t particularly exciting, but it’s a nice touch and is one of the few things that really adds an extra layer to the missions you undertake.
Shadowrun Returns is also a bit limited in the RPG aspects. There’s only one real “hub” area; pretty much every other location can never be revisited. This is certainly true of other games (Deus Ex or The Witcher 2, say) but those tended to fill non-mission areas with all sorts of stuff to do and all sorts of side quests to take; here, not so much. This is really a linear progression through a set of very specific maps, with a couple of optional side quests along the way.
It’s also a bit buggy and unpolished. I had to restart a few missions because events didn’t trigger properly and, from the halfway point on, odd bits of dialogue were riddled with typos and grammatical errors. I’m giving this stuff the benefit of the doubt as I was playing pre-release code, so it’s entirely possible that these problems have been fixed, but it’s a problem I encountered nonetheless – and the trigger issues are made even more problematic by the complete lack of any saves barring automatic checkpoints at the start of each area, which is not exclusive to pre-release code. No manual saves at all? Really?
But there are plenty of things it does right. There are some fantastic setpieces – one bit involving a run against a megacorporation has a few very nice touches, the story is mostly rather interesting (particularly if you’re versed in Shadowrun lore), and the game regularly makes you feel like a badass – and a fair few characters, like Chris Kluwe‘s in-game avatar, are fantastically written and genuinely likeable. I’ve mostly spoken about its problems, but that’s pretty much because just about everything it does right can easily be followed with a “but…”
There is, of course, one last ace up the game’s sleeve, but it’s not one that’s really within the scope of this review: the editor. At a glance, it’s complex and powerful enough that users will actually have to spend a bit of time figuring out how it works (if you’re hoping to just hop in and build a quick campaign, you’re buggered) but it’s also complex and powerful enough that we should see some really impressive campaigns and modules coming before too long. Unfortunately, I’m not a big fan of reviewing games based on the fact that they might have some superb user-based content in the future. I suspect I’ll be revisiting the game once some decent modules start to appear, at which point I might be able to recommend the game a bit more easily. I shall be keeping my eye on this and pointing out anything spectacular, fear not.
None of this is to say Shadowrun Returns is bad, because it’s not. It’s just a bit disappointing, and for everything it does right, it manages to muck up something else. If you wanted a fairly freeform RPG with lots of side quests and plenty of scope for different approaches, then you’ll be sad. But if you’re happy with a light tactical RPG that’s pretty much a straight-shot through a 12 hour story then you’ll enjoy yourself, and at £15 it’s rather attractively priced for what it offers.
Shadowrun fans will enjoy the nods to the canon, and those who’ve never heard of it will get a gentle introduction into this fascinating world. It’s simple enough that people who fear turn-based tactical games won’t have much trouble getting into it, but the variety in the classes means that there are a few ways to play – it’s just that you won’t experience most in one playthrough. The campaign on offer isn’t fantastic, but it’s a largely enjoyable way to spend 12 hours (and is a hell of a lot better than Neverwinter Nights‘ packaged campaign, to pick on something else that had an editor as the focus) and I’d be surprised if we don’t see some superb user-made stuff popping up before too long.
In short, chummer: this isn’t the second coming, but it’s not a bad way to spend £15. If you’re on the fence or short of nuyen, though, I’d wait and see what the community’s deckers comes up with.