It’s hard to review sometimes. In this case my problem comes from grading the final product of what was effectively an underdog story.
For those of you who don’t know a small studio known as Harebrained Schemes got Kickstarter backing to create a Shadowrun game last year. They achieved their goal and then quadrupled the money they needed from 400,000 to 1.83 million which is an incredible feat.
And the final result…
It certainly looks promising.
Well, let me talk about that. Shadowrun Returns is a top down, isometric game much in the design aesthetic of the original Fallout with elements of the modern X-COM: Enemy Unknown thrown in. The idea is that you, in the core game, become a shadowrunner, a person that steals data and does mercenary work for money. Ideally lots of money. I had limited knowledge of Shadowrun as a continuity going in but the whole of the work was something I found rather interesting from what little I knew.
The idea is that not only has technology advanced but also with that came a return of magic. As a result there are people who can use and manipulate the energies around them. Some can create fire, heal allies, some can go to a scene of a grisly murder and awaken a spirit of vengeance of some kind. In addition there are people who can interface with machines and shut doors and take over security systems.
It’s the kind of thing that seems very silly at the outset and yet the world of Shadowrun is one of massive customization. There are very few stereotypes within the continuity as you can just as easily have two different dwarves, one a psychotic smiling mortician, the other a subtle mistress of a brother that likes using Japanese words and phrases.
Lastly there is one feature of this universe that I must educate the unenlightened: The Matrix.
No not that one.
The Matrix is the current incarnation of the internet. Now so large and massive that specialized experts actually virtually dive into it and interact with massive constructs of data that take forms that are beyond physical construction. Your avatar within faces real dangers that will cause you unimaginable mental harm as you try to access data no larger than a normal e-mail.
It’s a world where a single secret can change the course of history, where dead men can tell lies and dragons shouldn’t be made deals with.
But enough fluff, the game.
Shadowrun Returns, I must say, as a distant grandchild of the style of Black Isle Fallout and Baulder’s Gate games is the pinnacle of beauty. The visuals are so rich; the characters are so interesting and diverse that you cannot imagine how much every second of gameplay is an absolute delight for the eyes. Every so often while playing I found myself stopping and appreciating all of the little nuances and design choices. Really, a picture barely does it justice.
But I sure can try. This is a slum by the way!
Each character is brilliant and nuanced beyond imagining. Both in design and in scripting. While talking to characters you’ll find them all instantly memorable and effectively implemented. You’ll care about your allies and loathe your enemies.
That said I should speak of the flaws of this game.
In the total thirteen hours I’d played the game from start to finish I would say nearly ninety percent of that was combat. Even though I’d built a proper gun expert, there was little I could do within the game that wasn’t combat. There are dialogue options to be sure and a few moments where you need to work through a puzzle sequence (which was quite rewarding) but the amount of times where you have combat as your only option outstrips any other event. Even diving into the Matrix is really just combat with a different outfit and doesn’t feel distinct enough.
That wouldn’t be a problem if combat had a stronger turn based system. Not that I mind turn based combat but in more traditional turn based games each hex or space of movement is highlighted to allow the players to carefully consider their position. This follows more like X-COM where you have two to three action points and you can perform an action or move within a certain distance. You feel like you need to move as much as you can rather than simply maximize placement.
The hitch comes from when you are fighting in combat in real time and upon completing it, combat doesn’t end, so instead you run around and wait for enemies to show up or run around and hope you trigger them. This happens a lot. Also you will often accidentally click on the wrong area to move in or attack, using up an action point for a turn thus forcing you to delay your strategy. Which is annoying. And if you dive into the Matrix during combat then god help you. Because then you have turns of combat in the Matrix between combat in the real world and that is just an arduous process.
And honestly, if I must complain, then I have to say that for all that I know of the Matrix I couldn’t imagine a more boring looking version. Consisting of mostly transparent blue floors and gateways, there’s no background in the Matrix and you will fight red constructs while accessing data pillars. That’s it. It’s lovely at first but when you realize that every part of the Matrix looks just like the rest then the experience becomes tedious. I really wish they’d come up with a better way of it or at least something more dynamic.
This. Nothing but this all the time.
The other problem in game is that of saving. Specifically that you can’t. A player can only save at the beginning of a chapter which is when you’ve exited an area to a new map area. This is insanely problematic if you have a situation where you’re in combat and you make a singular mistake that costs you your team. Of course, you then have to replay the whole of combat and the dialogue preceding.
Now for the story. Well, the majority of Shadowrun Returns is actually a game that showcases the features of the Campaign Editor. This is a program that is designed to let fans make their own adventures. That’s a nice idea but the problem is that people who have no interest in designing their own adventures are stuck with the adventure bundled with the game which falls right in the strata between being a good short game and a good long game.
True you can find other campaigns made by fans but honestly, I’m sure many of you share my trepidation at the thought of that.
Shadowrun Returns’ core game tells the story of how you get a message from an old friend named Sam sent at the time of his death. You’re told that if you find his killer you collect a handsome reward. So for vengeance or for money you go to find a killer.
Without spoiling the game you quickly learn that Sam was killed by a serial killer plaguing Seattle. As you track the killer during a strong opening act you are sucked into a world with strong characters. My regret is that from mission to mission you need to hire allies rather than develop a party over the course of the story that each excels at different gameplay options. Or that you level up yourself. As such you’re often caught between spending money on weapons and gear or spending it on people.
Once you find the killer you uncover a larger conspiracy involving a cult that is bringing in insects into the world. There’s a nice pace of escalation as you uncover one mystery after another and it culminates into an interesting final battle.
The conclusion of the story is strong and fits with the film noir cyberpunk style though honestly, I don’t know why Shadowrunners are seen as somehow special or above the everyday manipulations and lies, in fact, I’d say among all people shown in this universe Shadowrunners are the most manipulated and lied to group of people. Any idea of being elevated or superior is really foolish especially if you think about how many Shadowrunner stories end in the main character getting screwed out of the retirement money.
The game leaves you with a parting theme that you might have, in the end, only delayed an inevitable catastrophe, not outright stopped it which might sit wrong with some players. There are some nice conclusions that a savvy player who bought the right charisma options can unlock but if you didn’t buy the right points then you might be screwed.
And that is a problem with the game. It isn’t long enough to justify being decent at multiple things so you must specialize in a few key areas which will limit what you can do on a single play through. Plus you can’t really do anything in an area unless you invest a lot of points in it. But because of the strong emphasis on combat you’re inclined to simply create a gun expert to make life easy as gun combat is the simplest way to get through things and if things go bad, you can always rely on that.
In the end it’s quite a good game but I certainly feel that a lot more could be done with this graphics engine. A longer game with more options beyond combat would have profited players greatly who want to try alternative character builds or a variety of them. I am curious what fans might concoct but without any means of knowing the quality of said fan creations I’m hesitant at the best of times.
So too does this work exist.