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Shadowrun Returns is a game that won’t reach its full potential until six months after its release; after the community gets their hands on the robust mission editor, to supply an endless stream of pen-and-paper style adventures to quench your otherwise relatively unsatiated self. It is a classic RPG that pays homage to games of the past, while still maintaining a modern feel throughout. It’s a short, immersive look into one of the most inspired worlds in pop-culture.
The game’s campaign is titled Dead Man’s Switch. Solving a dead man’s murder is no easy task, as for most of the game is a detective, noire-esque romp that is well written, and features boundless twists and a wide array of colorful, memorable characters. Side missions come in the form a short diversions when wandering around the relatively small maps, when you are not in a main mission. They offer up little to no story, but provide you with karma, which is the game’s version of experience. The campaign as a whole is very short, but very memorable. As the story continues to unravel you begin to realize you were in way over your head from the start, and idea that becomes increasingly more obvious as the narrative pushes forward. World-building is accomplished superbly, as it is kept to the background, but always shows itself in the game’s conversations.
Shadowrun is a world that is so coherently brilliant, that it still amazes me to this day that the concept even works as well as it does. New gamers can even be invested into it without a five paragraph long exposition essay that details the Awakening or another large event in the universe’s timeline, because the world itself if very human and alive, filled with ideas and tropes that pervade our daily lives. Corporations rule the world, most streets look like the neon-lit slums of the movie Blade Runner, a big influence on the pen-and-paper, and BTLs (Better-Than-Life), drugs are sold at every street corner or dark alley that places the taker into a fantasy world, far less grim than the one they inhabit. It’s an amazingly realistic universe that seems to only get better with time.
The game features painterly backgrounds that, while not incredibly detailed, though there are small ones, have a pervasive sense of style. The wall of text accompanying each area is actually more immersive than the environment itself, similar to how a DM would read it if he/she was sitting in front of you. Character models aren’t very impressive, but clash well with the background. Characters have drawn portraits, reminiscent of RPGs of old, like Neverwinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate, and Planescape: Torment. It brings back an undeniable sense of nostalgia and forces you as the player, to use your imagination. Animations are stiff and uninspired and spell effects are weak. Similarly, spell and gun sounds are pitiful. There is also no voice-acting, on the flip side however, this arguably allows the player to appreciate the quality of the game’s writing more than they would otherwise.
Shadowrun Returns is fairly standard affair when it comes to mechanics. It’s an isometric turn based strategy RPG, very similar to the likes of X-COM. In fact, Returns is a fairly safe and streamlined experience overall. It doesn’t do anything particularly new, but what is does, it does well. Leveling is as streamlined as it gets, with karma, or stat points, being handed out like candy and most abilities and stat bonuses aren’t very noticeable, or game-changing. This is not to say the system is unrewarding, because it absolutely is, but people that enjoy their in-depth character building will be left somewhat disappointed. The point-and-click nature of the game’s combat is solid and enjoyable, but the game doesn’t challenge you, even to a slightly above average degree, except for maybe the last encounter.
Classes specialize in different stats and tactics. A more advanced tutorial of the game’s classes or fairly ‘hidden’ mechanics would have benefited this game greatly. And I mean a moment-to-moment tutorial not one that requires you to click on a question mark in the game’s menu and looks through windows of information, that’s not organic. Certain mechanics like overwatch, I didn’t realize I had until little ways into the experience, when it could have made combat encounters far more lively and frenetic. Without some of the information though being handed out freely for the classes, I did guiltily enjoy the experimentation of learning what classes are superior at doing what, for example Mages are best kept as utility as opposed to damage dealers, and Rigger’s bots are excellent scouts for the fog of war.
When you are not in combat, it’s a fairly standard point-and-click exploration game that allows you to talk to recurring characters, pick up objects and following a fairly linear path. Sometimes a mission requires you to hire other runners to accompany you on a mission that you choose from a list of applicants. This was a huge missed opportunity for character relationships, being built up in the squad. They are fairly lifeless extras, that certainly are required in combat, but for little else. The in-game UI is also somewhat clunky when it comes to the grid that your characters battle one. I found myself misclicking and cursing to myself more than I should have because the cursor forces you to be slightly off in your clicks. Also objects that you interact with tend to appear and disappear depending upon where you are standing and where the camera is on the screen.
The one mechanic this game does that’s arguably new however is the Matrix. As a Decker class you are able to hack into a system and battle past its security programs in the same ‘style’ of play to retrieve the information you are sent to acquire, all while the runners in reality are struggling to keep he/she alive from incoming hostiles. It is a great concept as it switches after every two turns or so building up tension in a very sublime way and an assault on a megacorp that showcases this, becomes one of the game’s finest moments.
As I stated at the beginning of my review, there is a mission editor and it is complex, but I have a feeling that the community will come up with some fantastic scenarios that will keep the game’s lifespan running. Beginners will find it intimidating at first and will require a lot of trial and error I’m certain, but there is room for amazing potential.
Sometimes critiquing an ‘indie’ game is a tough task for a critic like myself. It can be difficult to determine whether a game’s flaws should be attributed to budget/small team problems, or the developers themselves. Shadowrun Returns I feel is one such game. You see the potential of a vast, massive game that encapsulates the amazing world of Shadowrun, but the game never reaches those heights. Rather it opts for a self contained, superbly written campaign, that allows little choice on where you may go, see, or do. Either the developers didn’t try for the extra mile, or they simply couldn’t do it with the resources at hand. Shadowrun Returns is a game absolutely worth purchasing, and I loved every second of it. The story is a delight to witness play out and the enjoyable, but streamlined combat resembles a game that never tries to be something that it isn’t, and there is something to admire there, but as I stated before, this isn’t a very large game and we won’t be able to see it in it’s full glory for a couple months down the line. But I can’t help loving the game, and the famous quote, “Greatness from small beginnings,” means more here than we may know.