Shadowrun Returns (PC)

By Walter Hare

Published on Thursday, July 25, 2013

I’m torn on Shadowrun Returns, to put it bluntly, and part of that tear has a lot to do with my experiences with the Shadowrun franchise. I never played the original pen and paper game, but I did fall in love with both the SNES and Sega Genesis Shadowrun titles, which were both utterly different but equally compelling in their own ways. The SNES version was an isometric action game that emphasized exploration and simple puzzles over combat, while the Genesis Shadowrun was a semi-open world action RPG with incredible character customization. The former relied heavily on level design and writing, the latter on fairly complex systems for the time.

Shadowrun 1

So it seems necessary for me to admit that I had originally been hoping for a descendant of one of these two games, and it was with this bias that I started playing. Once I overcame that bias I saw the potential in Shadowrun Returns, but I couldn’t push away my reservations about what I was seeing.

For those unfamiliar with the world of Shadowrun, it’s like the love child of Johnny Mnemonic, Blade Runner and… Willow? Maybe? It’s a dystopian, cyberpunk world that also has orcs and magic and dragons and the Matrix and ghosts and zombies and Japanese feudalism and all sorts of cool shit. It is a world where everything is controlled by massive corporations which are immune to government influence, and in the cracks between them are the street warriors, hackers, shamans and mages that conduct myriad covert ops called Shadowrunners.

You start the game by customizing your own Shadowrunner. You choose your gender, race, then move on to the stats. There are a few pre-made classes such as Street Samurai or Decker (Shadowrun’s hackers), as well as the option to build completely from scratch. The character sheet is fairly elegant, where the level of a general stat like Charisma or Quickness dictates the maximum level of individual skills such as magic control or weapon proficiencies can be raised.

Shadowrun 2

In the official campaign, “Dead Man’s Switch,” you must solve the death of an old friend, and on your way you’ll see futuristic meth labs, brainwashed cultists and faux Japanese aplenty. You explore each board talking to people until you move the plot along, then proceed to the next area in a linear fashion. Combat is set at certain points and is simple; you shoot them, they die, we all learn a little something about ourselves.

Though well written, “Dead Man’s Switch” is an altogether unsatisfying campaign, and if this was all Shadowrun Returns had to offer I’d be exquisitely disappointed. Everything that is interactive and all NPC’s that have dialogue, usually a total of six or seven nodes on any given screen, are immediately marked with large, obvious symbols, so there’s no real environment exploration as everything is handed to you. No rummaging through trash cans or checking for the hidden book on the shelf. The backgrounds, though beautiful, are merely wallpaper with no other meaning.

Dialogue is similarly nothing but a facade. Though you are presented with different dialogue options during the course of a conversation, some even being skill dependent, there is almost no variation in outcome with any of the options for any story critical mission, and barely any difference for the handful of optional dialogue trees. Often times there isn’t even alternate flavor responses by the NPC’s to the radically different lines you are given, making social interaction in the game feel even more meaningless.

Shadowrun 3

You can’t initiate combat, there’s no real relationship between you and any of the characters that isn’t pre-designated, there’s hardly any items and only a handful of skills to use, and everything proceeds in a strictly forward-moving manner with no room for exploration. Hours into the campaign, I didn’t understand what I was actually doing and was starting to feel a bit empty about the experience. It was at this point that I had to re-evaluate the assumptions I was making about the game and really ask myself; what is is that I’m playing?

Shadowrun Returns is not a game in its own right. Instead, it’s more of a straight translation of the original pen and paper game. It’s a toolset to create scenarios, and it is thus the efforts of the scenario creator that dictate the quality of your experience. Just like in a pen and paper game, the rule set is simply a way of facilitating the scenario, rather than being the central means of interaction.

And the later levels of the official campaign tease the possibilities the editor has. Particularly interesting was a battle in which I had to defend a never ending elevator assault while hacking a computer. It was still kind of boring once I had my team properly set up, but it hinted at some potential that I hadn’t quite seen yet.

What Shadowrun Returns is banking on, it seems, is a vibrant modding community that will be able to push out high quality scenarios that people get excited to play. Considering its birth as a major Kickstarter game, it’s a fairly safe bet that the people who are buying and contributing to Shadowrun are the same kinds of people who’d be willing to participate in this sort of experience, a digital pen and paper toolset rather than simply a game.

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It is nonetheless a gamble to create something like this, something that has no legs on its own. Instead, the legs are dangling on puppet strings over on a workbench next to a set of tools with a “Try Me” sign glued to them. Everything hangs on the quality of the editor and the willingness of its users.

Seeing as I have no experience with level editors since my time with Brood War, and I sucked at using the damn thing back then anyway, I have absolutely no qualification to say whether or not the Shadowrun Returns editor is worth your time. If it allows for the customization of everything, from the level layout down to the fundamental rules governing combat and item management, then I think there could be a real, sustainable future ahead for Shadowrun. However, if it’s simply a scenario editor without the flexibility to dig deeper, I fear for its longevity.

If you’re willing to place your marker down on this bet, Shadowrun Returns is your title. It’s a toy chest. A toy chest filled with stolen organs and cybernetic ghosts and guns and all sorts of that good stuff. But if you’re looking for a self contained game, like the CRPG’s of yonder age or even the old Shadowrun video games, you’d best look elsewhere.

 Shadowrun Returns is available at your local Steam outlet.
Shadowrun Returns on Green Man Gaming


PC System Requirements

OS:Windows XP SP3/Vista/Windows 7
Processor: x86-compatible 1.4GHz or faster processor
Memory:2 GB RAM
Graphics:DirectX compatible 3D graphics card with at least 256MB of addressable memory
Hard Drive:2 GB HD space

Mac System Requirements

OS: OSX 10.5+
Processor: Intel-based Macs only (x86-compatible, 1.4GHz or better)
Memory: 2 GB RAM
Hard disk space: 2 GB HD space

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