The year is 2054. The setting; a strange dystopian future where denizens of a Tolkien-like fantasy realm have merged with the dirty, cyber-technology of Blade Runner. The dark and unforgiving streets are home to grimy low-lifers, mind-altering drug distributors and seekers of such hallucinatory escapism. Neon signs illuminate trash coated sidewalks, gangs aggravate the hardened locals and an organ-snatching killer is on the loose. Welcome to Shadowrun Returns, population: crazy.
It all begins in a derelict reimagining of Seattle. Corrupted megacorporations execute heinous assignments with the help of dispensable mercenaries known as Shadowrunners — skilled operatives that take care of dangerous business most others wouldn’t poke with a hand-forged katana. You’re one of these runners, a career path typically resulting in short lives filled with loneliness, liquor and lies. Once the story begins, you soon realize that business hasn’t been going so well. You’re quite short on cash, patience, and living contacts; that is, until you discover a message from your friend and former associate, Sam, who has managed to book himself an early trip to the morgue. You quickly learn that his death has activated a “Dead Man’s Switch” — a will and testament from beyond the grave offering you a large sum of money in exchange for help in bringing his murderer to justice. It’s a task which proves to be more complicated than originally anticipated.
Thanks to a robust character creator, you’re free to choose from a list of established archetypes such as the Mage, Decker or Shaman, or even create an entirely unique combination of the six available classes. An initially intimidating skill-tree houses plenty of opportunities to tweak and improve your character without limiting your ability to experiment with different options along the way. Is it your dream to be an agile Street Samurai that substitutes his fists with a shotgun? Mine too, and it’s entirely possible.
Motivated either by grief or an immediate lack of finances, my investigation first prompted me to visit a morgue in search of evidence related to my friend’s murder. Upon arrival, I was introduced to one the most interesting reoccurring characters: Dresden, a creepily charming body chop-shop attendant that seems to enjoy his work a bit too much. While searching the place, a roughneck detective barged in and, in a typical ‘leave it to the cops’ fashion dismissed my investigation, forcing me leave before I could finish digging through drawers packed with what I suspect was formaldehyde. Luckily, I managed to snatch what I needed right before the cop showed up.
Such interactions are what make Shadowrun much more than a typical RPG. By presenting engaging conversations within a lively, rich narrative, the world becomes one you feel truly immersed in as you explore each mission and environment. The cast of colorful characters deliver brilliantly descriptive — often facetious and occasionally poignant — dialogue, progressing the game with delightfully compelling banter. The characters you meet in Shadowrun don’t babble unceasingly, either. Just as real people don’t speak to complete strangers of their harrowing past, the distrustful citizens of future Seattle don’t simply open up like a paperback. Every sentence spewed serves a purpose, and as the plot thickens it becomes easy to lose yourself in its text and entirely dismiss the lack of voices accompanying the dramatically expressive portraits.
The story itself rarely bores with needless details, and invariably presents interesting information for you to absorb, whether it be the description of a particular location or a mission summary. These small bits of text help characterize every part of the world you explore, fleshing out otherwise less impressive aspects such as similar environments and re-purposed layouts. While it doesn’t offer a breathtaking journey or a notably engaging conclusion, and is in fact very linear in its nature, it satisfies in its approach to absurdity; one moment you’re exploring an apartment complex turned crack-den, and the next you’re bribing a crooked cop with a sweet-tooth for cheap street-vendor doughnuts and coffee.
This adventure will take you on a 10-15 hour ride through twists and turns that slowly moves from a familiar Sherlock Holmes investigation vibe, into a gritty, Dark City-esque and noir-influenced adventure through the city. The world of Shadowrun — while condensed and mostly unrewarding due to its nearly nonexistent discoverable content — provides a gorgeous display of isometric artwork. From crumbling apartment complexes littered with discarded junk, drugs, and fanatic users of such substances, to The Seamstresses Union — a dive bar and primary Shadowrunner base of operations located on the shifty side of town — every aspect of the world is crafted with an exceptional attention to detail, is artfully designed and appropriately slimy. It’s an impressive accomplishment when taking the games rather small budget in to consideration.
On the other hand, character models suffer from a bad case of the ugly, sloppily wobbling across the environment with disgraceful awkwardness. This was likely due to financial restraints, and thankfully doesn’t derail the experience overall.
The combat in Shadowrun is very reminiscent of XCOM, with a simple turn-based system played on an open, isometric field. While seemingly ponderous, depth can be found in joyful experimentation. I found myself enjoying the openness of each map, tactically approaching opponents for closer kills. Early in the game, battles were easy enough to conquer with little thought behind my actions, but later levels forced me into creatively utilizing the skills at my disposal, ultimately intensifying the battle experience. For example, the Decker — a hacker with the ability to permeate the Matrix and take control of turrets, steal data, and unlock inaccessible rooms during battle — was underused throughout my first playthrough. My second is a completely different story, as I used her abilities at every opportunity, making for interesting and very different battles.
Experience in Shadowrun isn’t earned by completing battles, and can’t be found in containers around the city
. For that matter, there is no traditional system for acquiring experience at all; rather, skills in Shadowrun are gained by spending Karma — an ironic experience system considering the overall dark nature of the game. It’s distributed by completing acts of relative kindness; helping others on their less-than-noble crusades, and completing story objectives. Karma points can then be spent on customizing your character through the skill tree, allowing a breadth of possibilities in strengthening the core class chosen. This really encourages players to be as good as they can be, as those who’re naughty will be leveling less often. The system feels a bit askew, as it essentially limits the freedom of those who wish to live the part of a low-life to the fullest.
Equipment can be upgraded throughout the game, and there are characters that sell upgrades for weapons and outfits, as well as doctors that offer Cyberware attachments to enhance your arms, body, eyes, legs and Datajack — a device required for those who wish to use a Smartlink weapon. However, the system is rather shallow and uninspired, offering no more than a ‘what you see is what you get’ system, that, while practical, doesn’t really break any boundaries.
Shadowrun, while entirely playable, does sometimes suffer from jarring bugs. Occasionally, a mission will skip an event trigger, forcing you to restart from the last checkpoint reached — a noteworthy annoyance, since the game cannot be saved manually, and instead operates with its own impractical auto-save system. The camera can also be a bit wonky at times, dragging the view to the corner of the screen until it’s reset in the menu, and some mouse clicks will not register properly, but these problems are rarely persistent. What is persistent, however, are the typos and grammatical errors littered throughout the many boxes of text in the game. While these do seem to worsen as the story advances, they’re rarely more than a superficial distraction.
Harebrained Schemes borrowed many components from the tabletop roots of Shadowrun, and have managed to pay homage without disrupting the original work. While it currently lacks the content of other deep, immersive RPGs, it offers an interesting clash of genres for the community to tinker with. The game comes loaded with a robust set of mod tools allowing enthusiasts to craft stories within the Shadowrun universe, and already there are some impressive ideas in development (such as the original SNES version being recreated in its entirety). Hairbrained Schemes has attempted to secure its future by entrusting the beloved franchise to its dedicated fans and soon-to-be dungeon masters. It’s clearly a work of love and passion, built from the ground up with user created content in mind. Shadowrun is likely to hold its place for a while as it expands, potentially graduating to greatness in the coming year.
At its core, Shadowrun is a classic isometric RPG that suffers from many of the genres shortcomings; but where it fails, it also succeeds in improving that classic formula and bringing just enough newness to its gameplay to stand out. While wandering off the beaten path offers little more than an eyeful of the beautifully crafted environments, Shadowrun is written with such inventiveness that many criticisms regarding its linearity are alleviated; instead welcoming a refreshing revisit to adventure games of the past.