Shadowrun Returns Review: Getting decked is a good thing

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Title: Shadowrun Returns
System(s): Windows
Price: $19.99
Release Date: June 25 , 2013
Publisher: Harebrained Schemes (Harebrained Schemes)
Recommended Age: 13 and older  

Shadowrun is by far the most popular fantasy/sci-fi hybrid game. That’s faint praise for a small genre, I admit, but Shadowrun would probably be a top game if there were ten times as many games anything like it. There isn’t. Imagine a high tech, Blade Runner world ruled by megacorporations. Easy enough. Imagine a fantasy world with magic-using elves and orcs and whatnot. Sure, that’s been done a thousand times. Imagine both worlds shuffled together, with no racial baggage since everyone woke up one day and sorta mutated into the other races… that’s Shadowrun.

Shadowrun Returns is a Kickstarter funded game. Games funded this way are becoming ever more common, although they have pitfalls. First, the developers of the game are constrained by whatever they said they were going to make in the Kickstarter. If it turns out the premise is a bad idea, they’re stuck making a bad game. That’s not the case here. The second pitfall is since the game is clearly funded by the fans, the developers just assume their players already know the game, leaving any newcomes out in the cold. That’s the case here, but it’s still a good game. If you don’t know Shadowrun, it may be best to read up on the story before starting.


Whatever character you want, as long as he (or she!) is gritty.

Character creation is simple in Shadowrun Returns. You pick a race, such as a troll or elf , and a class. It’s the latter that’s a problem. A Rigger for instance is a class that controls little robots to do his dirty work for him. Granted, a new player might guess that means he’s a summoner. A Decker can hack into terminals and manipulate security cameras and the like, a whole minigame a player can miss. (It’s a minigame in the tabletop game, too.) Magic works in a few different ways, and it’s not obvious that your conjurer mage needs to improve a different stat than another type of mage.

This lack of information is particularly glaring when it’s time to develop your character, a key part of this role playing game. “Experience” is represented as karma points, which you spend to increase a stat or a skill. Karma, incidentally, isn’t just a replacement word for “experience points”…you gain it for good (or semi-good) deeds, not necessarily for mindless slaughter (though there is certainly plenty of carnage). Get enough karma, and you can improve your character. But what if you don’t know which stat you need to improve? Well, take a guess, and hope you don’t make a mistake that will totally gimp your character. Most likely, if you’re not already familiar with the system, you’ll make at least a minor mistake at some point, resulting in a less than optimal character.

Luckily, Shadowrun Returns isn’t hardcore. Most of the fights are fairly easy, even very easy if you decide to hire extra muscle. It’s a turn based game and you get a lead character, but you have the opportunity (and usually the money) to hire henchmen to help you out. Even if you’re a little weak due to spending your karma poorly, the game itself is often forgiving.

Whatever character you choose, you wake up, broke, in your little room, and immediately get an automated call from a recently murdered alcoholic friend, hiring you to avenge his death. A flashback scene serves as (very brief) tutorial. It serves, but there probably should have been another tutorial or two, as well as a better overview on how character development works–this isn’t a level-based game, meaning you have to pay more careful attention to how you improve your skills and attributes. At least I had the knowledge that the second playthrough will be more fun, and far more efficiently played.


It’s a gritty city, but you’ll still need to talk to people

In addition to being a role playing game, it’s also a turn-based combat game. I’ve played just about every turn based tactical game, and Shadowrun Returns has the smoothest, most easygoing system ever. Your character goes right where you want him to every time, and generally takes the path you intended. It’s a basic “two action” system, you either move and shoot, or shoot and shoot some more, assuming you’re not reloading. As much fun as combat is, it’s a little brutal, and the game gives you many options to avoid it. In some places, it’s even the best idea. There are various dialogue trees that give you the opportunity to flesh out your character as well. These trees also, every once in a while, open up side quests. That’s a good thing, since this a fairly linear adventure.

The quest you get in that first phone call is the main quest of the game, and you go from waypoint to waypoint, either making progress (and being forced to the next waypoint) …or loading at a save point and trying again to make progress. You point and click your way through the adventure; this isn’t a bad choice, since Shadowrun can represent some serious culture-shock to the “generic fantasy Europe” gamer. The simple quest line lets the player spend more time enjoying the unusual setting, and less time (no time, really) trying to figure out what to do next.

In addition to the game being quite linear, the save system is, well, “not good.” Shadowrun Returns saves when it wants to save, not when you do, which means you’ll have to replay quite a few battles before figuring out the way to win – usually, by hiring a few extra guys. Again, this makes the first play-through less fun than it could be. The whole game, which plays like a noir murder mystery, takes around 12 hours to finish, giving reasonable value for a $20 game.


Whatever adventure you want, as long as it’s gritty.

The limited adventure in the main game isn’t a game-breaker, as it’s good, and the game comes with an editor allowing fans to make their own adventures. While it remains to be seen if the fan base can deliver on the promise of more adventures, the price of admission for the main game is low enough that you can’t go far wrong…if you like the Shadowrun setting.

Fans of Shadowrun will have much to enjoy here as the game does a perfect job of capturing the smoky world of Shadowrun. Ultimately, the developers delivered when it came to satisfying all the fans who chipped in on the Kickstarter. Gamers looking for a different take on a role playing game should definitely check this out, at least if they can handle the weak saves, poor tutorials, and “one way to play” campaign.

Product Page [steampowered]

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