Shadowrun Returns – Review

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Shadowrun Returns is a science fantasy turn-based tactical role-playing game developed and self-published by Harebrained Schemes. It takes place in the Shadowrun campaign setting from the science fantasy tabletop role-playing game. A Kickstarter campaign was set up to fund this game in April 2012 with a goal of raising $400,000. When the campaign ended it successfully raised $1,836,447. Shadowrun Returns was then released in February 2013 for Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS, and Android.

At it’s core this game is an RPG campaign with a turn-based tactical combat system. You start off the game as with any other RPG, in the character creation screen. You are able to choose your race (Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and Trolls) and then choose your class (Street Samurai, Mage, Decker, Shaman, Rigger, or Physical Adept). Most of these borrow aspects from the traditional high fantasy races and classes, although they are twisted and adapted to fit the Shadowrun style and setting.

As you progress through the game you can spend your karma (experience points) on various traits and upgrades for your character. You also earn and find Nuyen which is the currency of the Shadowrun world. You spend you Nuyen to buy weapons and equipment, purchase cyberware implants for your character and hire runners to accompany you on each mission. It’s all pretty standard as far as an RPG goes, what separates it from the run-of-the-mill game is the setting which is a mix between high fantasy and science fiction.

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You can choose from the standard high fantasy classes and races, as well as ones unique to the Shadowrun world

Shadowrun Returns shipped with a campaign called ‘The Dead Man’s Switch’, which is an extremely well-written murder mystery story which becomes more and more compelling as it begins to unravel. This campaign takes roughly 10-12 hours to play through depending your difficulty choice and how much you want to explore. Being quite a linear story I felt that the length of this campaign was just right. It gave you enough time to get to know the characters and the world, and wrapped up before the lack of narrative choice started to become a problem.

While the game does try to re-create the feel of an open world RPG, it doesn’t give the player much choice when in comes to the story or characters developments. The dialogue choices you make don’t seem to have much of a long term impact, they more or less are only there to give you an advantage (or disadvantage) in the upcoming mission, although personally I don’t think the lack of choice necessarily takes away from the game as a whole.

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Speech options usually give you a decent variety in how you approach each conversation

The main goal of Harebrained Schemes was to create a storytelling engine and they’ve done exactly that. You can easily access the level editor and make your own story or campaign using the tools provided. One of the main pulls of early tabletop or pen and paper Role Playing Games was the ability to create your own content and tell your own story. This isn’t a concept that has every been fully explored in the digital adaptions of these games, so it’s really great to see Harebrained Schemes giving the community the tools they need to make fully featured levels and campaigns.

This quote below from their Kickstarter campaign sums up what they were trying to accomplish with Shadowrun Returns:

“We plan to release our PC-based level editor when we release Shadowrun Returns so that everyone can create their own Shadowrun stories & ‘runs’. When you upload your stories, you can make them available to your Friends Only or the entire Shadowrun community.”

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The Level Editor which was released at the same time as Shadowrun Returns

The turn-based combat system is relatively standard when you examine each individual element. You use each characters AP (Action points) to move, attack, cast spells and use items. There are several unique Shadowrun style additions to the choices you have, such as the hacking (or decking) mechanism.

I found that the controls can be a bit fiddly when trying to attack enemies who are behind your characters. A couple of times I found myself inadvertently clicking the ground behind the enemy and having my player use his last action point to run around past his opponent instead of attacking. This may be frustrating, but it’s not game breaking or particularly common.

The tactical side of the combat system is relatively simple, although there are several different choices as to how to approach combat. As long as you have a plan on how to approach each battle you should be able to get through it on your first try. One thing I did find annoying was that certain parts of the game seemed to force you to use one particular tactic or strategy. I won’t spoil the game at all here, but being forced into using a certain weapon takes a lot of the choice (and therefore the fun) out of the combat for those sections of the game.

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Combat is simple but robust, usually giving the player several options in how to approach each battle

A cool aspect of the Shadowrun setting virtual reality network called the Matrix. During combat sequences, if your character makes it to a ‘jackpoint’ cyberterminal you can use your cyberdeck to hack into the matrix and transport yourself into this virtual reality world. You are then able to control your character’s actions in the matrix by moving through the virtual world, summoning Expert Security Programs (ESPs) and fighting off Intrusion Countermeasures (ICs) and other deckers.

This mechanic does provide an interesting strategic dilemma, because while you are in control of your virtual self inside the matrix, your character’s physical body is still vulnerable to enemies back in ‘meat space’. Although since you are never able to jack-in with more that two characters at a time (due to lack of jackpoints), it is usually easy enough to keep the physical enemies occupied with your other 2-3 team members.

The one gripe I have with this system is that it feels secondary to the actual game. There are several opportunities throughout the game to enter the matrix in order to give yourself an advantage in the real world (such as hacking turrets or cameras). However these opportunities tend to be relatively sparse (which is kind of annoying when you build a character around being an expert decker).

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The Matrix is an awesome concept, although underutilized in my opinion

The isometric style of the game shows off the unique design of Shadowrun setting. Being able to zoom the camera in encourages you to look closer the impressive 2d environments and assets which litter the world. Although the limit on the zoom was clearly put in place to prevent the relatively simple graphics engine from being put under too much scrutiny. Overall I liked the cyberpunk-esque style of the world, and the mix between science fiction and high fantasy was evident in the art style.

The profile art which appears when speaking to each character works really well in conjunction with the DnD-esque descriptions. Being able to put a face to the text is a helpful tool in lieu of any voice-acting throughout the game. There are several extremely unique character designs which vividly stick in my mind, an impressive accomplishment since there is usually only one image per character you encounter.

Examples of Characters

Some examples of the character art you see throughout the game

As you explore each area can interact with the environment in certain ways such as hacking computer terminals to find extra information or pushing aside objects to unveil new routes to your objective. Most of this interaction is fairly simple, but it gives you an incentive to explore the world and learn more about each environment.

The world of the Shadowrun series was created years ago for the tabletop game, and this setting was bought through into the video game adaption. Shadowrun Returns is set in a future version of Seattle, in a dystopian cyberpunk style future reminiscent of Blade Runner. It is a gritty and interesting world, and as you spend more time in the game you soon start to become accustomed to the jargon and the way the world works.

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The world of Shadowun is interesting and unique

Pythagean

Pythagean

Head Designer at The Video Game Forum

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Summary

Shadowrun Returns is an interesting game, the combat and other gameplay mechanics are relatively simple. But it was the storytelling, characters and the mystery of the 'Dead Man's Switch' campaign which kept me coming back.

The level editor is a great addition, and I'm looking forward to trying out other community made campaigns and levels to see the different ways that is can be used. Definitely a franchise to keep an eye on as more content is created and expanded.

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