Before we get rolling, I want to give a disclaimer: Shadowrun Returns is a video game I’ve been waiting at least 15 years to play. Having cut my RPG teeth on SR 2nd edition, and spent a significant part of my teenage years playing games like X-Com, Jagged Alliance: Deadly Games, and Fallout: Tactics… I wondered why the hell nobody ever thought to mix tactical turn-based games with the Shadowrun license. I actually spent many hours in JA:DG, with its level editor and theme of mercenary contract teams, pretty much doing mock ups of encounters and fights from published SR adventures.
So needless to say, I have a level of expectation going in.
Tell it to them Straight
Shadowrun Returns is a tactical rpg put out by Haire-Brained Schemes for PC and Mac users. The game was developed by Jordan Weisman, who is one of the original creators of the Shadowrun universe back in the FASA days. What made me thrilled to play this is it is a complete throwback to the 2nd Edition era of play: The streets of 2054, with its cyberdecks and rainy Seattle streets. Anyone who played the tabletop game religiously during the mid to late 90’s will recognize a lot of names and references throughout the story. There’s posters for Duhnklezahn’s election, streets filled with BTL chipheads, and a ton of other tie-ins to past Shadowrun metaplots that I’m not going to say drek about because I refuse to spoil the story.
The game’s style is also a throwback to the SNES game, being at a 3/4th isometric view. You run around in real time, but once the guns come out everything stops and changes to turn-based tactical play. The mechanics of the game appear to be a streamlined version of somewhere between 2nd and 3rd editions, with its familiar old attributes and general skill webs, further advanced with focuses into specific aspects of a skill. The skill advancement not only improves your odds, but unlocks special maneuvers to use during combat. Interestingly enough, combat itself has been turned into a Percentile affair, with combat turns played out with Player/Enemy grouped initiatives and each character getting a pool of Action Points to spend. It’s a welcome change, in my opinion, since the mechanics of Tabletop probably are a bit much to endure for a video game, and the percentile system is pretty tried and true in the tactical genre.
Checkhov’s Gun has a Smartlink
The biggest thing I have to praise about Shadowrun Returns is that it’s some of the sharpest writing I’ve seen in a game in a long time. The whole game goes without cinematics or voice overs, a dangerous concept in this age of multi-million dollar blockbuster games that put a lot of movies to shame. But that said, anyone who gets bored easily reading through dialogue trees is missing one of the edgiest and well refined plots I’ve had the pleasure of playing through. Fans of the fiction and setting of Shadowrun are in for a treat, as the dialogue is very organic to the world. Even when you’re electing obvious dialogue trees meant for world exhibition purposes, the reactions are often colorful and scene appropriate (and not stiff and rehearsed like a lot of RPG’s are guilty of.) Even the NPC vendors have personality and back story in this game, and even the small bit characters can leave you intrigued.
But the best part of the SR:R storyline is how precise everything is: no glaring plotholes, and very rarely is anything mentioned that isn’t relevant to the game. It felt like any reference or mention of something important in the canon of the SR universe wasn’t just thrown out there for fan service; any time I read something that made the fanboy in me go “Oh drek, don’t tell me they’re going to go there…” would later be something I was most definitely having to contend with. The main campaign of the game, “Deadman’s Switch,” is a very true to Shadowrun tale. Betrayal, conspiracies, revenge, the horrors of technology and magic….it’s all there.
Shadowrun Returns presents itself much different than most RPG’s out there, both today and in the “old days” it pays tribute to. In the main story arc, there’s no looting corpses. There’s only a couple side missions you could distract yourself with. While there’s a semblance of gear progression, it’s definitely not the quest for “top tier” items and being the omega powerful. In all honesty, the game is pretty damn linear. You don’t run back and forth between locations, only thrown into scenes relevant to the story. In essence, the game itself is really more of a tactical strategy game that splits up the mission levels with scenes of interactive dialogues and legwork.
While that put me off initially, by the game’s end I was alright with it. The scene play may be linear, but you have options and things can play out differently. There’s always a straightforward path, but there’s definitely side paths and little options that warrant replay. For instance: some missions, having a Decker definitely gives you an edge. There’s some maps where Riggers can send their drones into tight places, or even in the air vents. Taking into consideration the open-ended character development you have in the game, mixed with every sort of archetype available for hire…there’s always more than one way to skin a cat in this game, and offers some incentive to go back and replay missions.
Which is good, because the main campaign is short. I finished the sucker out in about 12 hours, and that includes replaying some of the later missions after screwing up and getting fragged. This can be a turn off, but remember what I said above about the game having very sharp, very well written story to it? It doesn’t fuck around. I didn’t have to stop the story to grind or do some asinine thing like help an old woman rescue her cat by killing 100 bunnies. Everything that happens is a natural progression of the story, and it doesn’t fall on old RPG video game tropes to bloat the experience to hide a shallow plot. Instead, it delivers a dozen hours of gaming bliss.
Plenty of potential for more…
The campaign might have its shortcomings, but they’re made up in spades by the potential lying in the Mission Editor. Already there’s some pretty neat user made content for the game. Nothing exhilarating; I mean, come on, the game has only been out for a single weekend. But there’s already a nice half-hour long mission that kind of showcases the potential the tools have (including random encounters, open maps, etc. ) The community is already making add-on packs, and plans for the first DLC (in Berlin!) look pretty promising to expand the game.
Seriously, considering this is a $20 game, there’s a potential for many more wasted weekends in this game.
Whether you want to look at it as a linear RPG or a story-driven tactical strategy game, Shadowrun Returns shortcomings are easily overlooked by a very well written story and addicting game play. The fanboys are going to get the most love out of this game: Anyone who spent a significant chunk of their life’s earnings in the 1990’s on SR products — be it sourcebooks, novels or even the console games — are going to have fits of nostalgia playing this. For complete newcomers, the game works as a great first exposure to the mood, style and ethos of Shadowrun while also providing a weekend of fun. Fans of tactical strat games should at least find a fun diversion for the price.
You can pick up a copy of Shadowrun Returns on STEAM for $19.99