Review: Shadowrun Returns respectfully resurrects a long-dead video game franchise—with a few flaws
Shadowrun Returns, the first of the gigantic Kickstarter-funded game projects to release, is the most polished proof-of-concept I've ever played. A sequel to a 20-year-old game, in a genre nobody's paid attention to for ten years, it's no wonder the game needed crowd-funding to get made.
Of course, while it's impossible to review games in a vacuum, the circumstances surrounding Shadowrun's production are mostly irrelevant. What matters is whether the game is good or not.
Shadowrun Returns is a somewhat flawed experience, much simpler mechanically than Baldur's Gate II or other standout isometric tactical games, but a worthy revival of a franchise and a universe we'll hopefully see much more from soon.
Null sheen, chummer
Like its Super Nintendo ancestor, Shadowrun Returns is an isometric-view RPG. Combat is turn-based and played out on a grid, similar to XCOM or the Interplay-era Fallout games. Each character takes a certain number of actions each turn, governing how much they can move and attack.
It's a system that pays homage to the pen-and-paper game of the same name, and it works equally well for both tactical combat and general exploration/dialogue.
The game plays out against a fascinating high-concept background that blends science fiction and fantasy. Shadowrun's lore has been expanded on in various books and games over the years, but don't worry about jumping into the series cold—you'll be fine.
All you need to know for Shadowrun Returns is that in this universe the Mayan calendar, rather than heralding the apocalypse last year, actually marked the return of magic to our world.
As a result, not only do humans end up in a class-divided, cyberpunk hellhole by 2045 or so, but elves, dwarves, and the like return to Earth to share in our miserable existence. And by return I mean that some humans literally transform into fantastical beings. It's one part Neuromancer, one part Lord of the Rings, and one part absolutely crazy. Also, a perfect setting for a videogame.
In the cyberpunk Shadowrun future, mega-corporations rule the world—everyone else just struggles to get by. The titular “shadowruns” are acts of corporate espionage, carried out by underworld operatives who get in and get out fast—or die a John Doe.
You play as a down-and-out shadowrunner, destitute and world-weary. In the wee hours of the night you pace restlessly around your run-down apartment—“It's got four walls, a roof, and isn't on fire,” the game informs you—when the phone rings. It's a prerecorded message from a former teammate, maybe even a friend. They're dead, and the messages implores you to track down who did it for justice, vengeance—and a fat sack of credits.
The world is quiet here
I moonlight as an audio designer, yet most of my favorite games are text-based—just like Shadowrun. As much as I love and appreciate great voice acting, text games have two distinct advantages over voiced games. For starters, great voice acting in games is a rarity—for a number of complicated and not-so-complicated reasons. Voice acting is also expensive, and thus limiting. It takes a lot of money to record dialogue, so most games pen only what's absolutely essential to the plot, add a few pieces of color, and then call it a day. After all, why spend money to record lines of extraneous dialogue that only a handful of your players will care to experience?
Shadowrun, and others of its kin, have much more leeway to flesh out even minor characters with flavor text. It's a prime example of turning a weakness—a slim budget that can't accommodate voice actors—into a strength. The writing in Shadowrun is vibrant and memorable; I could probably describe to you the personalities of each and every character in Shadowrun Returns right now, off the top of my head.
This game has some of the best interpersonal interactions I've seen in years, in large part because of the amount of well-written and utterly tangential characterization. A troll bodyguard named Mr. Kluwe ended up as my favorite character, and he serves no plot purpose at all. He's just an interesting guy to talk to between missions.
The dialogue in this game has a rhythm to it. Conversations are a bit like sparring, with some snappy back-and-forths that even Aaron Sorkin would be proud of. Plus at one point I got to say, “You want to put a man in the ground, you'd better see the job through,” with just the perfect amount of menace.
Perpetually Act One
The greater story of Shadowrun Returns doesn't hold up nearly as well. The first eleven or so hours of this game were fantastic, some of the best time I've spent with any game recently.
Unfortunately, a number of plots never resurface once the game is done with them. For example, in one side mission you're hired to infiltrate a corporate warehouse, abduct a scientist, and make him work for a rival corporation. Once there you can either side with the people who originally hired you, side with the enemy, or free the scientist from bondage.
What would you choose?
It doesn't matter. The scientist, as far as I could tell, never comes up again and plays no part in the rest of the story. Maybe that's more realistic, but it's also frustrating. When you finish Shadowrun and look back, it seems like there's loose ends all over the place. Even important characters, central to the main plot, just disappear after they've played their part, or never talk to you again.
In one final flip of the middle finger, the game sets up a few more loose ends immediately before the credits roll. Right before you finish the game you'll talk to a character who tries to convince you to stay in Seattle, listing off a bunch of other runs you should look into.
Immediately my brain started racing at the possibilities. “Wow, are we jumping straight into a new adventure? Was this just the beginning?”
Five seconds later, the game's over.
It's like the developers are speaking straight to you: “Look, we had all these great ideas for other adventures in the Shadowrun universe...and then we ran out of money.” Shadowrun Returns feels like the initial entry of a much longer, episodic adventure.
There's a custom campaign editor, so we'll presumably get some great community content in the future, but I'd just like to see what the developers could do with more funding and more time.
Spread too thin
Which brings us back to that “polished proof-of-concept” tag. There are so many parts of Shadowrun that seem ripe for expansion, but are practically useless in their current forms.
Non-combat skills, for instance, are too limited to be worth the investment. The best isometric RPGs— notably Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment—let you complete the game with a minimum of violence, subbing your wits for a gun. With that in mind, I dumped a ton of points into Charisma when creating my Shadowrun Returns character so I could charm my way through every challenge.
Huge mistake. Charisma checks are rare, and many of the “bypass violence by saying the right thing” opportunities aren't critical to the main plot. You get some additional dialogue options by pumping Charisma, but nothing essential.
Decking is also underutilized. In Shadowrun, “decking” is the act of plugging your brain directly into a cyberdeck—the 2045 version of a laptop—and lauching a cyberspace version of yourself into a computer system—called the Matrix, in fact—so you can hack vital systems, battle computer programs and steal the ultimate cyberpunk currency: paydata.
The decking environments look fantastic, and there are a few situations where your character is in cyberspace, his body vulnerable, while the rest of your party fights off encroaching enemies.
Sounds extremely tense, right? Except that scenario happens less than a handful of times in the game. A lot of the decking skill checks are just dialogue prompts, after which your character unlocks the door or hacks the computer automatically.
The game features just enough decking where you feel like you need to put points into it or miss out, but not enough where it's a central facet of the game. It's this weird category you just throw points in because it exists.
These limitations permeate the game. Expecting side missions? Don't. You'll occasionally get optional objectives, but as for real, dedicated side missions (i.e. ones where you're sent to an environment unrelated to the main plot) I encountered...two. In the whole game.
Shadowrun Returns has an impressive amount of content for a $20 PC game, and what's actually there is fantastic. Unfortunately, Harebrained Schemes crammed all the systems you'd expect in a 30-50 hour RPG into a game that's roughly 12 hours long, and thus they don't all get the attention they deserve.
The bottom line
And yet with all its failings, I thoroughly enjoyed Shadowrun Returns. This is the first time in years we've seen an ambitious isometric RPG from anyone other than Spiderweb Software, and I loved playing it. It's the first million-dollar crowdfunded game to actually come to market, an excellent final product that sets the bar high for future Kickstarter-funded games.
I got invested in the world of Shadowrun Returns. I enjoyed chatting with the colorful characters—including my best friend Mr. Kluwe—roaming the streets with an assault rifle in hand or a katana on my back, and barreling through corporate computer systems in pursuit of illicit information.
Put plainly, my biggest complaint is “I want more of this game,” and that's hardly a bad thing—as long as it doesn't take another two decades for a well-deserved sequel.