Skip to main content

Wot I Think: Shadowrun Returns

"a tiny dungeon made of light"

So here I am playing a turn-based RPG. And it's because of Kickstarter. That feels pretty good, I have to say. What's more: I'm really enjoying myself. It's Shadowrun Returns. Let me tell you about Shadowrun Returns.

Shadowrun, then, was first a pen & paper RPG that did some mildly unusual things with genre conventions in 1989. Dwarves, orks and elves did magic and gun-violence in our dystopian cyberpunk world. My it looked pretty. Needless to say, the teenage me couldn't actually afford the sourcebooks and so on, because I'd bankrupted myself (and generous parents) on AD&D and Games Workshop stuff. Instead I found myself first properly engrossed in Shadowrun's world in 1993, when an RPG based on it arrived on Chris-who-lived-next-door's SNES. Having tricked him into lending me the console, I played it to completion. Probably more than once, I forget. It is this experience, then, that is the return of Shadowrun Returns. And that feels fine.

There have been a few other Shadowrun game things materialising over the past few years, such as the deeply disappointing 2007 multiplayer thing. It's this, though, an RPG and slightly fiddly turn-based combat game, that so many of us were actually waiting for.

And now it's here I have to say it's:

a) Exactly what I was expecting. The atmosphere, pace, humour, combat, and everything are just as we'd have anticipated from an isometric Shadowrun game.

b) Engrossing in a way that the high-quality old-fashioned RPGs tend to be.

c) Slightly rough in places.

d) Possibly going to spawn far greater things than the campaign we see here, thanks to the editor.

e) There are checkpoint based saves only. People don't like that, eh?

Don't let d) spook you. We'll come back to that.

Shadowrun Returns is an RPG, and not a particularly deep one. That's okay, because there's certainly enough there to get your teeth into: multiple classes, skill trees that have a wide range of effects in the game, character classes that are radically different. You play a single character, but are joined by others – who become controllable during combat – when you're off on a “shadowrun”. That is generally a cyberpunkian infiltration mission versus big scary corps and the like. It's all good stuff, and will necessitate (and support) repeated playthroughs.

The need for a “decker”, a character who can access the matrix, is heavy throughout, and if you aren't a decker yourself you can rely on other characters to leap into the neon-lit breach. The matrix is visualised as a computery info-world, and basically constitutes a tiny dungeon made of light in which your weapons are bolts of info-energy and so on. The Matrix bit is not that great, frankly, but at least they made the effort with it.

Combat is - both in the real world and the matrix - turn-based. It feels broader and messier than a lot of turn-based games, in the way that only the best turn-based RPGs seem to manage. The reason for this, of course, is the breadth of options that the RPG provides. In any give battle there are dozens of variables: spells that buff your ability to hit, grenades, stun grenades, assault rifles with four different fire modes, drones controlled by a dude, hacks, overwatch, and so forth. What's great about this is there's a huge variety in how combat can play out, what's bad about it is that you tend to find a good tactic and push it to absurdity. Also, it feels a lot like something things were well developed, while others weren't. Magic feels positively underwhelming, and the game leans heavily on gun combat.

So yes: the combat system works well most of the time, and takes into account cover values with a little shield, XCOM style. I had a bit of an issue with the fiddliness of it at times. I found myself serially mis-clicking until I realised you could force a double click onto the controls. Worse, perhaps, the grid which shows where you can move to (based on the number of action points you spend) is also pretty awful, and you have to “discover it” by dragging your mouse around, which really isn't a particularly slick way of handling things. That didn't please me at all.

But there's one issue that really did make me howl, which was built into the scripting. It was thankfully very rare, but stood out: there were moments where I asked a character to do something, but then a scripted event kicked off mid-action. With that happening the character's turn was ended, with no recourse. If they were running for cover they stopped, unable to continue, often taking damage as a result. There was even a death because of this oddity. Shrieks of indignation where heard from the jimcave.

Anyway, the thing that really matters, I suppose, is the quality of the campaign that Harebrained shipped with the game. That's what you're buying. Well. It's part of what you are buying. As we shall discuss.

I can report that:

a) It's not particularly long, I got through it in about 12 hours, without rushing too much. This, I suspect, is the thing that will disappoint most. But get to the end of the review, because there is light at the end of the shadow.

b) The writing (there's no voice acting) ranges from schlocky to completely superb, with the overall story feel a bit too like a generic Shadowrun campaign, but maybe that's the point. It's great fun, is the point. You will enjoy it.

c) The big baddy creatures were just dreadful. Shadowrun is a game that basically allows anything to happen in it, and we can do better than this. Much better. I mean, they worked, but the drama was lacking. “Oh. This.”

d) It looks right, throughout. As isometric cyberpunk worlds go, this one is spot on. The rain-sopped streets with crowds of people holding umbrellas, the corporate meeting rooms and dank basements. The animation and detail are a bit lacking, but it felt incredible authentic somehow, particular your “base” area for much of the game. Great stuff.

It's a competently and intelligently written RPG, though. I can't stress this enough: compared to the heaving tide of shit that we face with most games, this is splendid literature. There's a bunch of backstory to explore, and some character-handling choices that do actually affect what happens. The characters are imaginative, it even made me laugh, and there are even a few genuinely surprising and clever conceits. The plot twists are rubbish, sadly, but you can't have everything. There are also a few very silly episodes, such as a battle in an asylum which becomes unlikely when guards have grenades, and imprisoned in-mates have shotguns. Yes.

There's another aspect to the overall offering of Shadowrun Returns, though, and it's clear from the moment you start playing: this is a game that is set up as a toolkit. Sure, they're shipping a professionally made campaign that probably supports a couple of playthroughs, but what they're actually shipping is a full-blown campaign editor and the system to easily distribute campaigns. Even the Harebrained official campaigned is packaged as just another story among all those that the community will inevitably create. It basically supports a new community. Hell, I'm tempted myself. I can't stress how important this is.

This is going to be awesome.

Or at least, if you are happy to use Steam. The downside for the anti-DRM folk is that this is going to be a Steam-based system only. Oh dear!

If you buy this then there are going to be other campaigns worth playing, probably within a few weeks, and frankly that excites more than the base game ever could. Because I know what the internet is capable of when you give it the tools, and that's precisely what Harebrained are doing here.

Ultimately, I suppose, this feels like a vindication of the “hey, let's do nostalgia and turn-based RPGs” thing on Kickstarter. I've always been sceptical of the inclination to look to the past, but this is actually giving us something we wanted. Something we needed. In this case I feel like it was filling a void. A rain-slick, turn-based, isometric elf-shaped void with mirrorshades and a shotgun.

Shadowrun Returns is out later today.

Read this next