Before The Matrix was even a movie trailer, and before I’d ever heard of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, I was a Shadowrun fan.
First I played the 1994 Sega Genesis game and that led me to the pen-and-paper role-playing game. When the Shadowrun Returns Kickstarter hit last year, I was excited, if a bit worried—we were still figuring out if Kickstarters were a thing or not. Shadowrun Returns is one of the very first things I sunk money into, and I’ve been following the updates since and chomping at the bit to jump back into one of my favorite role-playing universes.
Shadowrun is set in in the 2050s and later; cybernetic enhancements like the kind Deus Ex’s Adam Jensen didn’t ask for are commonplace. Megacorporations own much of the world and behind everything is the massive computer network called The Matrix (this stuff was crazy advanced back in the mid-90s, you guys).
The world has “awakened,” bringing magic back into the hands of humans. Many people have mutated into dwarves, trolls, orcs and elves. Dragons have returned along with elemental spirits. It’s like the aforementioned Neuromancer (with many concepts and terms pulled straight from Gibson’s novel) with a heavy dose of Dungeons and Dragons.
Shadowrun Returns brings us back to the Seattle of the future. A quick flashback gets the mechanics rolling, and we’re off on the trail of a dead friend’s murderer. You run into a guy named Jake Armitage, mutual friend of the deceased and a nod to the Super Nintendo incarnation of the franchise, and together you run through the first few missions, getting familiar with the gameplay in smaller skirmishes.
Elves with Rifles Replace Aliens with Lasers
The turn-based tactical combat is similar to last year’s XCOM, feeling like a scaled down version, modified to fit the mechanics of the Shadowrun pen-and-paper game, to which it adheres pretty closely. The game stops just short of showing you the huge pile of six-sided dice it’s rolling to generate hits and misses. It works as well as it did in XCOM and is a lot of fun, though cracks start to show the deeper you go.
Some of the later missions feel like they were designed to be run through, not actually played, and the punishing save system—only autosave is available, there is no manual save—makes difficult missions more frustrating.
There’s also a troubling lack of tutorials. You’ll get rolling with the basic mechanics, but there are concepts that are just never explained. For example, rifle users will find their accuracy is better at range than right up close. I figured that out by chance. The game also uses the same Overwatch function that XCOM had, but it’s up to you to figure out that the semi-circular icon on your HUD is the Overwatch button and not just interface chrome.
Shadowrun is made up of three primary gameplay elements: real-world combat, magical combat, and Matrix combat. The first two work well, but the Matrix is lacking. It feels, despite developer arguments to the contrary, tacked on.
If you make a Decker character, you’ll only get to hop into the Matrix a few times. When you do, it’s really just the same mechanic—turn-based cover combat—with a different look and a different set of moves. It’s disappointing to see one of my favorite parts of the Shadowrun world under-used and given such limited creative vision. The short development cycle—just over a year!—and the limited funding both contributed to this, most likely.
Back in the Shadows, Just Like I Remember
The story, while short and quite linear, is fun and is absolutely true to Shadowrun. The art, too, is unquestionably Shadowrun. The backgrounds are painted but look great at any resolution. The art is almost reason enough to finish a mission and find out where you’ll end up next.
The most interesting aspect of Shadowrun Returns is the level editor, available right out of the gate. I opened it up and designed a very small level but I found it quite intimidating as I have most other level editors and game toolkits.
With that said, the game is ripe for creation and the editor should facilitate that. The fanbase that a game like this pulls should be more than ready to create some of their own stories. Developer Harebrained Schemes has some more DLC on the way, but fan support, streamlined through Steam Workshop, should give the a game a long life for people with even a minor interest in the source material or modding communities.
The Starter Kit
It’s good to have Shadowrun back; I missed it.
The total package that is Shadowrun Returns reminds me of a pen-and-paper game’s core rulebook. The main focuses are on mechanics and flavor and on creating tools to make your own stories. The story is fun and authentic but not very deep.
The game feels like it’s waiting for the fan community to rally around it with content to give it life. If that happens, the game could live on for a long time, especially if Harebrained Schemes is able to augment that with content of their own.
There are elements that I wish had gone deeper—the matrix, the side missions—but what’s there is a great start. It’s good to have Shadowrun back; I missed it.