Shadowrun Returns surprised me.
First off, because I completely forgot I had funded the project on Kickstarter. A banner advertising the game on Steam caught me off guard, prompting me to plumb the depths of my Gmail account for a long forgotten activation code.
Secondly, because of how good the game is. Shadowrun Returns is a rare Kickstarter project that not only manages to live up to the hype surrounding it, but exceed it.
The game’s strongest point is, unsurprisingly, the rich lore of the Shadowrun universe. The game is set in an alternative future where cyberpunk technology and classic myth and magic coexist. Orcish street samurai battle First Nations shamans. Faceless corporations combine eldritch magic with virtual reality computer hacking to sabotage their competitors. Hulking trolls serve as bouncers for night clubs that double as mercenary dens.
And the whole thing is played straight. Harebrained Schemes presents the game as a gritty pulp novella, and these absurd elements are never called out in the narrative. It makes for an incredibly immersive experience – especially if you’ve never set foot in the Shadowrun universe before.
The plot hook is strong as well. The game opens with a phone call from your old partner Sam. He’s doing fine, apart from being dead. The prerecorded message informs you that a large sum of money, courtesy of Sam’s life insurance plan, awaits you if you can track down his killer. The seedy underbelly of Seattle holds the answers, but drug lords, cultists, and corporate goons all stand in the way of your pay day.
Avoiding spoilers, I have to say I enjoyed the strange twists and turns of the twelve hour campaign from start to finish. If you’re the type who feels twelve hours is too short of a jaunt for a roleplaying game, fear not; the developers have included an incredibly robust level editor that allows avid players to create their own campaigns and post them to the Steam community.
The strong narrative of Shadowrun Returns is thankfully unencumbered by the game’s core mechanics. The title forfeits the cunning but complicated pause-and-plan style of combat popularized by the Baldur’s Gate series for a tamer turn-based solution. Encounters are brisk but deliberate, and the player will never be overwhelmed by a dozen spells and abilities resolving on screen at the same time.
Building a character is a dream as well. A character is built around six core attributes – roleplaying staples such as strength and willpower – that determine his or her core capabilities. Raising an attribute allows you to advance skills related to that attribute further. A high quickness lends itself to a proficiency in ranged combat, which in turn compels you to specialize in pistols, SMGs, rifles, or shotguns.
Even without any familiarity with the core Shadowrun rules, I was able to dive in and create an effective character. The selection of skills is elegantly balanced: diverse enough to allow for unique character concepts, but streamlined enough that there aren’t any dead options.
I don’t have much to say about the aesthetics in Shadowrun Returns except that I expected much less from an isometric game. The environments, while never shedding their inherent isometric blockiness, boast enough detail to avoid feeling recycled and boring. The music is similarly competent, but a single exceptional track doesn’t linger in my memory.
I feel obliged to touch on the game’s much maligned saving system. Unlike your typical computer roleplaying game, saving at any time is not an option. Instead the game automatically saves your progress between chapters – chapters that often run on for half an hour or more.
Now, I understand why Harebrained Schemes made this decision. One of the faults of the iconic Baldur’s Gate series (and its successors) was that any challenge that required a random roll of the die, such as picking a lock, could be brute-forced by saving and reloading gratuitously. Having these intermittent automatic save points forces a player to live with the consequences of their failed attempts.
Still, it is an incredibly blunt solution to a nuanced problem.
Asides from this one sore point, I honestly can’t concoct any major grievances against Shadowrun Returns. It is a fantastically written roleplaying game supported by equally fantastic game mechanics. Through their Kickstarter campaign, Harebrained Schemes has not only managed to resurrect a video game franchise that flat-lined decades ago, but made it a strong contender for game of the year.
Simply put, Shadowrun Returns delivers.