Kickstarter has been hit or miss for me. So many ideas that might be great go unfunded for some reason or another, never to see the light of day. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who wanted to see Shadowrun Returns, and they funded it to fruition. In fact, the game saw $1.9 million dollars worth of support when they asked the public for the $400,000 dollars to complete the project. The team used every dime of that money to bring a game back to life that had lied dormant since the days when console games came courtesy of cartridges. It was time to return to the world of Orks, Elves, Cyberspace, shady deals, and shadier people. I’m going to try to write this review as spoiler free as I can, but nothing on this planet is going to stop it from being a love letter. I’ve spent a decade and a half writing objective reviews, so this isn’t just the rantings of a fanboy – it’s just that damned good. And not just good for a Shadowrun fan, but for any fan of role playing or tactical games. Let’s punch deck and slink into the shadows.
The Shadowrun property is over 25 years old at this point. When you are talking about a world where Deckers can log into “The Matrix”, attack other Deckers using programs and scripts, it’s hard to believe that all if it was imagined by Jordan Weisman back when PCs had less than 1mb of memory, less than 256 colors, and weighed a ton. The game was tactical, borrowing from the hex-based pen-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons and GURPS world, but bringing it to an entirely new geeky audience. When the SNES and Genesis versions of the game hit, it was unlike anything we had ever seen. Dialogue trees, intrigue, double-dealing, gunplay, isometric action, and more made it an instant classic. The year was 1993, and we’ve been holding our breath for a sequel ever since.
In the world of Shadowrun there was an “awakening” which spilled the races from our childhood stories into our world. It all began on 12/21/12 when magic began to seep into every facet of life. Elves and dwarves were born to otherwise normal parents with the right combination of genetic markers. Ork and trolls came from mutations that attacked children in their adolescent years, turning them into monsters. Finally, a Great Dragon arose from its 5,200 year slumber, signalling that the world had fully awakened. Now two generations later, all of what seemed to be far-fetched at the time has become entirely normal.
Shadowrun Returns, unlike the previous titles, gives you an opportunity to define your own role. You start by selecting your race, ranging from from human, elf, dwarf, ork, and troll. These choices have a direct impact on how others in the world see you, opening some doors and closing others. It also affects your starting and maximum stats. Next you’ll select your class from a list of six, or define your own as you see fit. Each class has unique traits and features that are best experienced than described. Street Samurai are the modern equivalent of the ancient warrior class, honor and all. Mages are able to sling mana-driven powers including fire, healing, buff, debuff, and more. Shaman are a summoner class, using one of five power totems to unleash creatures they’ve manifested. Riggers are tech junkies, using small drone robots for backup, both offensive and defensive. Physical Adepts are a monk-like class that hones their mind, body, and spirit until a finely-tuned weapon. The Decker class are a completely unique brand, even among this singular group. Their power in the real world is limited to flagging targets to make them easier to hit, but it is only this class that can enter The Matrix.
The Matrix is the natural extension of what we call The Internet. In Shadowrun, The Matrix is inhabited by hackers running renegade programs, controlling everything from simple doors to any number of information repositories. Deckers are the cyber-assassins of corporate espionage. If you watched the interminably good/bad Johnny Mnemonic, he’d have been a Decker in the world of Shadowrun. If you’ve read William Gibson’s Neuromancer, you already have the right idea for the entire universe.
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Shadowrun Returns is not the first time we’ve seen a return of this property. Microsoft and FASA brought the universe to the Xbox 360 to universal and decisive negative reviews. Fans felt like the world of Shadowrun just wasn’t suited to the first-person-shooter genre, and ultimately it sold only 160,000 copies, with the servers being shut down with nary a whimper in early 2008. Harebrained Schemes, with a nod to the SNES/Genesis predecessors, chose to work with an isometric ¾ view and stuck with the game’s original RPG roots.
Graphically, the game is beyond anything you’d expect out of an indie-funded game. The Sprawl is equal parts gritty, grimy, and gorgeous. Poorly maintained neon lights flicker as dirt and dust swirls in the streets. Tenement shantytowns look like they are held together with filth and the kitch on the walls. The character models in your paperdoll don’t look particularly detailed, but in the world they are more than sufficient to tell the story.
There is one nagging graphical issue in the game — dialogue boxes in the gamespace. When you engage someone for a conversation, a small box appears on the side of the screen, giving you a bevy of dialogue options. This works perfectly (and we’ll get back to it in a minute), but when you click on objects in the world, a small descriptive box appears above the inspection point. Occasionally, you’ll inspect multiple objects in a small space which causes these description boxes to overlap, making both of them unreadable. Simply moving these boxes somewhere outside of the gamespace might be a simple fix.
“We monitor many frequencies. We listen always. Came a voice, out of the babel of tongues, speaking to us. It played us a mighty dub.”
The soundtrack of a game without voiceover work obviously has serious heavy lifting to perform. The team at Harebrained Schemes did a fantastic job with this, giving those of us who have played through the classic titles plenty to smile about with some great modern remixes of the chiptunes originals. The Deluxe Edition of Shadowrun Returns comes in at 32 bucks and comes with a copy of the soundtrack, as well as PDF versions of 16 short stories as well as 60 pages of concept art from the creation of the game. Since that costs roughly four times less than any collector’s edition you’ll see this year, that’s pretty amazing. Beyond the fantastic soundtrack, the special effects in Shadowrun Returns are pretty solid. While there is no voicework to be had, the various grunts, gunshots, and spellcasting sounds of the game certainly get the job done.
“When you want to know how things really work, study them when they’re coming apart.”
If the definition of role playing games is a heavy focus on story, then Shadowrun Returns has enough RPG for two games. The game ships with a scenario called “Dead Man’s Switch” that is equal parts backstory and world introduction as it is a proper runner scenario. It would be unfair to say anything more than this – you are a runner living in the Sprawl. When your friend Sam is killed, he triggers a “Dead Man’s Switch” – a video hiring you for 100,000 nuyen to discover who or what was behind his death.
Like many role playing games, many of your choices are based on your character race, class, and stats. Shadowrun adds in “Etiquettes” which essentially means you ‘speak the language’ of a particular caste – whether that be Corporates, Gang, or other class subsets. Similarly, having a large strength number (as an example) might give you a chance to flex your way to an alternate dialogue option. It again feeds the replayability of the title.
Combat in the game feels familiar and new at the same time. Similar to recent XCOM titles, there are three cover options in the turn-based combat. Most classes start off with two AP, or Action Points to spend how they see fit. Reloading costs a point, casting a basic spell costs a point, an area of effect attack might cost more, and so on. Movement is similarly divided up by distance mapped to action points. It’s intuitive, which is good – there is no hand-holding tutorial to speak of, instead throwing the player into a flashback mission you can see below:
Advancement in the game doesn’t come with experience points, instead relying on Karma earned through mission completion. Picking special dialogue options may grant you additional Karma, finding a class-specific solution may net you even more. Gunning your way through seems to be the least rewarding. Since you don’t heal between combat sequences, instead having to use consumables to restore your health, running and gunning is certainly not the best decision for most classes.
The other interesting thing about combat is that it happens not unlike it did in the original two Fallout titles — wherever you happen to encounter it. This means you might be engaged in the street, completely exposed, and caught without cover because you stumbled into someplace where your kind isn’t welcome. This can, of course, create great tactical disadvantages that could have you spending all of your AP in the first round just trying to not get your ass shot off.
As you complete objectives and combat sequences you’ll have the opportunity to spend earned Karma on your skills and stats. The overall stat categories (Body, Quickness, Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma) are the ‘root’ of your skills, with each subskill limited by that overall value. Since each race has a maximum value for each of these stats it means that an Ork is typically going to make a much better melee fighter than a human. That isn’t to say that you can’t play that way (in fact, there is a class designated by a question mark that lets you remain undeclared, shaping your character as you see fit rather than putting them in a specific archetype), it’s just going to be more difficult. Since the game is rather generous with Karma, you’ll have plenty of chances for upgrades, so don’t feel like you are locked down one specific path.
Unlike most RPGs, Shadowrun Returns does not feature a quicksave or any sort of save option. This means you can’t do any sort of save scumming, saving every few steps so as to not make a mistake. Alternatively, Shadowrun Returns uses an autosave function that saves your progress every time you leave an area. This breaks the game neatly into action sequences, and RPG sequences. Should your main character die (you can resurrect your other runners with the right tools), you’ll be prompted to reload that section. It removes the sting from death, letting you enjoy the game instead. While some folks might say this makes it too easy, I would then remind them how few actually complete the games they purchase. There is plenty of challenge and variety to be had in combat to hold your interest anyway. The best way to illustrate this is with a live example. While on a run (that I won’t spoil with context), I had to break into a drug den. The “upstanding citizens” running this place used the chips in drug-addled minds of their victims to turn them violent against my crew and me. Using my unique skills as a Decker, I was able to turn the tide of battle in a pretty easy way. Observe:
As you can see, being a Decker requires a completely different set of skills and programs, but the gameplay is very similar. It also requires that your other crew keep you safe while you do your business in the virtual world.
“The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.”
Eventually you’ll be able to hire your own runners. They expect their payment up front, so save your pennies if you plan on bringing friends. You can hire up to three more for your crew, their cost being balanced on their overall skill level. As you can imagine, this is when my eyebrow raised for the possibilities of the future of Shadowrun Returns. Obviously the promise of multiplayer Shadowrun makes for a compelling reason to buy a future expansion pack for the game, but before we get there we need to look at the Editor.
The Editor in Shadowrun Returns is powerful. In fact, I have absolutely no doubt that it is the very utility that Harebrained used to make Dead Man’s Switch. I took a few swats at the Editor and found it beyond my patience level, but there are many folks out there that will make it dance, I’m sure. Stay tuned for inevitable YouTube walkthrough videos on how to use this drag-and-drop system — the only thing holding them back is their imagination. I’ve already seen early backers working on recreating the original SNES and Genesis titles in the included editor. I’m excited to see those come to fruition.
“Nowhere. Everywhere. I’m the sum total of the works, the whole show.”
Shadowrun Returns exceeded my every expectation. The videos I’ve shown you are just a small portion of what this game has to offer. The combat is engaging and rewards good tactics and class understanding. The Dead Man’s Switch storyline is a great start to this new universe, and the included editor opens the door to literally everyone to craft their own stories. While there is no voice work in the game, the descriptive portions that tell the story match the capabilities of any GM I’ve sat across from during a pen-and-paper gaming session. Stepping back and looking at what the team has completed in the time since their Kickstarter closed on April 29th of last year, this game is an amazing example of what true fans of the source material can do when not constrained by traditional distribution methods. The fact that this game costs less than a night at the movies (Steam price is $19.99, though you can pick it up for 10% off for a very short span after you read this) and delivers a storyline you’ll want to play more than once, as well as the promise of infinite expansion, it’s very easy to recommend. Welcome back, Shadowrun — welcome back to the Sprawl.