One of the first big Kickstarted franchise releases, Shadowrun Returns has a great deal to live up to. Not only does it carry the torch for the next generation of crowd-funded games, it’s also the first title in several years for a much beloved franchise. A sequel of sorts to the very well-regarded SNES title, Shadowrun Returns revisits the grungy streets of Seattle 2054, an urban wasteland controlled by mega-corporations, into which magic has re-awakened, and a variety of meta-human races have re-emerged. You play as a Shadow Runner, a sort of special agent for hire who offers their skills out to anyone willing to pay the right price. In this case, you’re contacted by an old buddy who wants you to hunt down a murderer. His own in fact.
The campaign that comes with Shadowrun is being touted as a sort of sample story to inspire modders to create their own stories, but honestly it’s of sufficient quality that it justifies a purchase on its own. Dropping enough hints and allusions to the greater Shadowrun fiction to get hardcore fans salivating, it tells a standalone tale full of double-crosses, femme fatales, duplicitous corporations and shady cults that immerses newcomers in the world without bombarding them with unnecessary exposition and world detail. Instead there’s brief allusions to the universe beyond your street-level hustling. One character makes mention of a great dragon which supposedly controls the entire underworld of Berlin, and there’s frequent references to the changing fortunes of the main meta-human races on the political scale. You’re living a world away from these major players, though, a lone gun struggling to find the next job to pay the rent and keep you rolling along.
“Vibrant and consistent art style”One of the great joys of the setting is the clash between familiar fantasy and cyberpunk tropes. Traditional fantasy races and concepts like mages and elves exist alongside mega-corporations and streetwise hackers, struggling to survive in the lawless urban wasteland. Over-familiarity with basic conventions is a common problem in fantasy, so it’s intriguing to visit a universe where that predictability has been largely removed. Although, unsurprisingly, elves remain pompous, haughty dicks even in Shadowrun. It’s a world that feels both vibrant and entropic, colourful and bleak, and it’s brought to life through a vibrant and consistent art style. Character art stays just on the right side of cartoonish, each portrait giving you a sense of the character while allowing your imagination, and the excellent dialogue, to fill in the rest. Hulking trolls and lithe, graceful elves scamper about on a lush selection of neon-lit cyberpunk cityscapes, while the rain pours down and shreds of newspaper and cigarette packets are scattered by the wind. The thumping background score completes the sense of immersion. It’s genuinely one of the most visually stylish games released this year.
While the visuals do their part to set the scene, it’s the writing and storytelling that really sell the setting. Characters are understandably painted in rather broad strokes, but they still feel believable and likeable, from your hard-bitten buddy Coyote to the streetwise Jake Armitage (think a ginger Han Solo with a penchant for sleeping in morgue trays) and the politically astute troll bouncer Mr. Kluwe. Even negotiations with background NPC’s feel real. Thugs and gangsters speak in an unfamiliar street cant, peppering each sentence with baroque and occasionally impenetrable slang. Grab a rank or two in the charisma stat and you can select an ‘etiquette’, essentially giving your character a familiarity within one of the social strata that make up the Shadowrun world, from high-flying socialites to street-level hustlers. Your character’s possible dialogue responses are also really great, allowing for a range of deadpan cynicism and/or colourful insults.
The focus on one small cabal of runners is a great idea, as each character gets their moment in the spotlight, and the sense of a dysfunctional family of scoundrels is well developed over the course of the game. There’s even a surprisingly deft and touching final scene. While the main plot itself loses a little character in the final third, and there’s relatively few chances to dramatically affect the flow of the story, on the whole it’s an enjoyable adventure with a couple of nice twists and some dastardly villains to take down. Hopefully developers Harebrained Schemes will serve up some more adventures with this bunch of miscreants and rogues, as it would be a shame if this was the last we saw of them.
“Satisfying turn-based combat system”When you head out to crack some heads, Shadowrun Returns offers a deep and satisfying turn-based combat system. Everything revolves around ‘action points’, which govern exactly how many moves you can make in combat. Firing a single shot from your pistol might take up one point, while carefully zeroing in on an ork thug’s eyeball takes two – the former frees you up to move into cover, while the latter eats up your movement but increases the chance of a critical hit. Adding to the mix are various abilities from different skill trees. While this is essentially a classless game, meaning you can build your character however you like, for new players it’s advisable to stick to one of the pre-arranged packages, which range from spell-slinging mages to riggers, who take the Robot Wars approach to combat (minus the drunken Liverpudlian bibbling on in the background) by using controllable drones. You can branch out of your chosen package at any time if you fancy dipping into weapon skills or even grabbing some cyber-warfare skills. Jack into the matrix as a ‘decker’ and you’ll find you can circumvent some of the detective work you might otherwise be forced to do.
Each play-style has a few unique tricks for you to discover in the heat of battle. Mages can find lay-lines of magical power, that if stood on increase the efficiency of their spells. Shamans can instead spot hidden elemental spirits that can be summoned into a fight. In one of Shadowrun‘s best combat features, controlling a spirit becomes a dangerous game of risk and reward. You can invest your summon with up to four action points, making them extremely dangerous in a fight. Charging them up too much, however, increases the likelihood that they can break free, leaving you with one incredibly pissed off fire elemental to deal with in addition to the other twelve bastards. Riggers can use their robot buddies to flank enemies through conveniently placed vents, allowing you to both scout ahead and get the drop on guards. My only qualm is that sound effects don’t quite carry the punch of the rest of the audio design. Some more weighty gunshots and spell effects would be welcome.
Since Shadowrun is all about disparate operatives coming together for well-paid but dangerous missions, it makes sense that before each mission you can select your team. Contacts in your base of operations provide a list of agents covering each class, as well as some more unique multiclass characters. You pay a certain amount to each runner to get them in your squad, with some of the more devastating operatives only available to those with sufficient cash. It’s a nice touch that encourages careful selection,as each runner possesses their own load-out which may or may not mesh with your needs. It’s a shame though, that there’s little sense of developing your team over the course of a game, as beyond offering them extra grenades and repair kits you can’t alter their skills or set-up. The lack of customisation seems like a missed opportunity, as Shadowrun seems tailor-made for the same kind of attachment you had to your X-Com: Enemy Unknown commandos.
“Minor imperfections”In another odd move, the developers have decided to do away entirely with the save button. Rather than being able to save at will, you’ll have to rely on an autosave system that typically kicks in at the start of each area. While the game keeps a hefty library of saves that allow you to cycle back to any point in your game, it does mean that some of the larger and tougher zones become a bit of a pain to complete, as one simple mistake can lead to you staring the whole section over again. One point, late on in the campaign, is a particularly egregious example of this, as you’re made to complete what amounts to two story missions sequentially, without the opportunity to stack up on first aid kits in between. Thankfully there are few such unforgiving stretches in the rest of the game, and the game auto-saves regularly, but one wonders why the developers felt the need to remove such a useful practical function.
Despite these relatively minor imperfections, however, Harebrained Schemes have done a bang-up job with Shadowrun Returns. Bugs seem largely non-existent, apart from the occasional grammatical mistake buried deep in the text. Interfaces are clean, slick and, despite inventory management being slightly awkward due to the need to keep cycling unused items back and forth to your stash, generally intuitive. The character modification screen, where you spend your experience points, is functional but would benefit from a simpler layout – as it is you’re presented with a long scroll-down list of stats and skills that makes distributing your experience more cumbersome than it should be.
These are minor quibbles in an overall package rich in quality and future potential. There’s been a few knocks lately that have made people question the validity of games funded by the crowd, but Shadowrun proves that it can be done, and to a standard that rivals the quality of similar, traditionally developed games. Once you’re done with the main campaign you might have to wait a while for another fix, but by encouraging and enabling the endlessly creative PC modding community with the help of free editing software, Harebrained have created a game that theoretically has almost endless re-playability. It’s exciting to think what the community will have come up with even a few months down the line. Even if you’re discounting any additional future content (and the developers are already hinting at follow-up campaigns post-release), this is a game that deserves your attention right now. A.M.F, chummer, see you in the sprawl.