Harebrained Schemes Shadowrun: Hong Kong
It’s oddly comforting we’ve made it so far into this isometric CRPG revival that there are now things I consider a “known quantity.” But it’s happened.
I’ve been playing Shadowrun: Hong Kong this week, the latest [expansion/new game/whatever they want to label it] from Harebrained Schemes, and it’s a bit like pulling on an old, comfortable pair of cyberpunk-approved leather pants.
Street of dreams
Hong Kong makes the third entry of the series in as many years, following 2013’s Seattle-based Shadowrun Returns and last year’s Berlin-based Dragonfall. And like Dragonfall, Hong Kong wipes the slate clean—new main character, new crew, new location, new threat. In a way it feels like Harebrained is treating Shadowrun, The Video Game akin to Shadowrun, The Tabletop Experience. It’s an ever-growing series of modules, not your traditional video game “sequel.”
Shadowrun: Hong Kong takes us to…well, Hong Kong. It’s 2056 and your estranged foster father has asked you to come meet with him for an unknown reason, which of course in video game terms secretly means “Something terrible is about to happen.”
And it does. The meeting with your foster father never happens. He disappears before you arrive, two of the security team he hired are murdered in front of your eyes, and you and your foster brother Duncan are branded terrorists by the corporations that run Hong Kong. Alone and on the run, you and Duncan turn to shadowrunning to survive—become mercenaries for hire.
It’s a brand-new perspective on the Shadowrun world, at least as far as the games are concerned. Both Shadowrun Returns and Dragonfall made the legally-gray, deniable-asset antics of shadowrunning seem like a fact of life. You started both games as a shadowrunner. You ended both games as a shadowrunner.
In Hong Kong, you start the game as a normal, mostly-law-abiding citizen. Sure, you have a checkered past littered with teenage gangs and maybe a stint in jail—but you’d managed to rise above it. Your brother Duncan even became a cop.
But it’s taken away. You don’t voluntarily become a shadowrunner—giving up your life, your legal standing, and even your name. You’re forced into criminality. You’re forced to burn the bridges to your past. It’s a strong start to the game and—predictably, for Harebrained Schemes—features extremely strong writing on a micro level.
Unfortunately I think this plot thread, like many others in the game, gets lost a bit in some standard game trope “You’re the chosen one” stuff that comes up later on. It’s in the macro, in the larger story, that Hong Kong struggles a bit to find its footing.
Hong Kong itself is an amazing setting, from communities strung together out of barges and bits of baling wire to quiet corporate gardens to the famed slums of Kowloon Walled City. And culturally it’s a great fit for Shadowrun’s part cyberpunk/part magic world. Here we have not only the vague Asian influences that form the foundation of cyberpunk, but also various systems of “magic” (qi, feng shui) that are indigenous to China.
This blend of influences, of traditional Chinese beliefs with Shadowrun’s own cyberpunk-and-magic, lends itself to some of the best Shadowrun missions we’ve yet seen. One, for instance, has you infiltrate a corporate stronghold and subtly disrupt the office’s feng shui, just so workers will be less productive and stock value will drop a marginal amount. It’s a much more unique use of setting than what we saw in Seattle and Berlin.
And the overarching plot is similarly strong. Kowloon Walled City sits just to the west of the area where you’ve taken refuge, and it’s a hellhole. Literally. Everyone in the vicinity is plagued with nightmares, and there are rumors that demons known as the Yama Kings are coming—for what, no one knows.
Strong story. Strong missions. What’s the problem? Pacing. Shadowrun Returns told a story at breakneck speed, thanks to its ultra-linear set-up. Story mission after story mission guided you through. Dragonfall loosened up a bit, offering more to do on the side—but still, a hefty amount of main story took you along.
Hong Kong's gone too far towards player freedom. Here, the game pretty much opens with a mandatory story mission and closes with a mandatory story mission but leaves the entire middle a hodge-podge of side missions and odd jobs. It feels aimless. While missions are excellent taken on their own, they rarely tie into the overall story or resolve the game’s most important plot threads.
Even worse, it’s clear Harebrained couldn’t decide how diligent the “average player” would be when exploring this content. Would they play every side mission? Or just the bare minimum?
As a result, completionists will notice that most of the character-based interactions—with your crew, for instance—will tap out long before you’ve finished all the missions Hong Kong has to offer. Harebrained doesn’t want you to miss any content if you move the story ahead early, so instead it cuts its threads too short. Returning to the hub and talking to my crew after each successful run, I bottomed out some of their dialogue trees halfway through the game.
It’s well-written dialogue, while it lasts. But it’s a bit shallower than I’d hope, especially on Harebrained’s third time out. And this is a personal bias, but none of the characters in Hong Kong stuck with me quite as hard as Dietrich and Glory in Dragonfall (although one, the self-declared ronin named Gaichu, came close).
On the other hand, it’s worth noting the game plays a lot smoother than Shadowrun Returns and Dragonfall—particularly where decking is concerned. Decking (a.k.a. jacking into the Matrix) in the previous games meant a boring slog through dozens of overpowered bullet sponges. Now, skilled players can actually avoid most of these fights thanks to pseudo-stealth mechanics. It’s a palpable improvement, making decking a fun tool instead of a tedious battle of attrition.
The problem with becoming a “known quantity” in gaming is you open yourself to comparison. When Shadowrun Returns first launched I was blown away—here was the best isometric CRPG we’d seen in ten years, with strong XCOM-style tactical combat and a mature cyberpunk story to tell.
Then along came Dragonfall and it was so damn good I was forced to admit it was the campaign Shadowrun Returns should’ve launched with to begin with—leaps and bounds better, with more variety to both its story and its mechanics.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong is still an excellent CRPG—Harebrained has turned out another great campaign for fans, and I highly recommend playing through it if you loved the two previous iterations. I’d even wager it’s better than the original Shadowrun Returns campaign. But it’s no Dragonfall, and that’s a shame.
Harebrained Schemes Shadowrun: Hong Kong
Shadowrun: Hong Kong isn't the best RPG Harebrained Schemes has put out, but it's still a great game in its own right.
- Realistic dialogue and excellent flavor text
- Hong Kong setting is perfect for Shadowrun's blend of technology and magic
- Plot meanders a lot more than predecessors
- Crew personalities not as strong as in last year's Dragonfall