For pen and paper role-players, Shadowrun ranks up there with Call of Cthuhlu and perhaps Vampire The Masquerade as amazing games that don’t seem to make the jump to video games very often, and then with somewhat mixed results. For Shadowrun, all we ever got was a pretty lame combat arena first-person shooter back in 2007. That game had none of the flavor of the RPG, just the violence.
Now we are blessed with Shadowrun Returns, a Kickstarter funded project from developer Harebrained Schemes. The title is a bit understated, since Shadowrun is not really returning as far as most fans of the genre are concerned. It’s making its debut. And yes, this time, the full flavor of that dark and mysterious world is perfectly captured, right down to the Stuffer Shacks and fried soy donuts.
The game runs in two modes, depending on the environment. The first is a real-time interface that is used when your shadowrunner is walking around, exploring downtown Seattle, investigating a clue in a case, or looking for a Mr. Johnson to offer you a job. When combat begins, the game transitions into a turn-based affair which is both challenging and fair.
The game does a great job of bringing over the main points of the pen and paper game. It does not bring over the actual Shadowrun system, which is kind of overly complex with its charts of serious and moderate and lethal damage, instead making both magic and technology simply deal hit point damage like just about every other RPG. But don’t fret the dropping of the pen and paper system, because almost all of it has been transformed into a basic point system that is easy to master and understand. I was actually able to play a mage, something that was always a bit of a chore in the pen and paper game. All the good stuff made the jump too. Every race from the game is represented, so you have dwarves, trolls, elves, humans and orcs. And the classes are there too, with everything from deckers to riggers, mages, physical adepts, shaman and of course street samurais. You can also combine skills to make unique classes, like a shaman who can run the matrix as a decker, or physical adept who can run robots as a rigger too.
The core game comes with a full campaign called Dead Man Switch. It takes place in Seattle, and has you trying to investigate the death of an old runner buddy of yours in order to collect insurance money. The game takes about 12 hours to play, assuming you do the optional side questing and take your time to drink in the atmosphere, which I would highly recommend. But because the game is being published on Steam, you also have access to the Steam workshop, which makes downloading player-made adventures and items as easy as clicking, since the developers smartly made the creation toolkit available. Even though the game has only been out for a little while, I found ten player modules that were really great, and that I would highly recommend getting. There is even talk of a 100-hour campaign in the works by a group of dedicated players that pulls in many classic Shadowrun modules. And the developers are working on an official new adventure too. That one is set in Berlin and is slated for release in October. So there is a lot of content, and it’s growing all the time.
The difficulty of the Dead Man Switch campaign is leveled appropriately. There is even a tutorial of sorts presented as a flashback. And during play you will go from just being a lone Shadowrunner living in squalor to a well-healed pro who hires and runs full teams of their own.
On the negative side, a couple things in the game are not all that well explained, like how you earn more action points. I thought adding karma (experience) points to my quickness score might bump up my action points for use in combat, but those are actually rewarded automatically. As you earn more experience overall, you are able to take more actions in combat. It would have been nice if the game explained that, although it was easy enough to discover by playing.
Graphically, Shadowrun Returns is presented in a top-down view, slightly angled to one side. You can zoom in to see more details or zoom out to get a better view of your surroundings. Everything looks really good, and the flavor of the RPG again shines through, with a good mix of squalor and high-tech wiz-bang stuff to gaze upon.
The sound is best described as average. The music is kind of a mix of generic futuristic tunes. They are good for background atmosphere, but I ended up turning the music down in favor of the atmosphere noises. There is nothing wrong with the music, but it’s clearly not as high quality as the rest of the game. Also, there is no voice acting, something I don’t mind, but those who don’t like to read will find a difficult time here. Personally, I think this was a good choice because it lets players focus more on the story, which for Dead Man Switch, was surprisingly in-depth, with a lot of Shadowrun twists and turns that will keep you guessing.
The gameplay is just about perfect. The included campaign has a good mixture of combat, role-playing and even puzzle solving. There is often more than one way to complete a mission. For example, when fighting in an office complex, you can have a decker jack into the matrix and hack turrets so they fight for you, assuming the decker can fight their way through the security programs guarding it. Or you could have a rigger slide their tiny hovercraft robot into a vent and get around behind enemies. A shaman might be able to take a pile of trash and create a pestilence spirit, bind it to their will, and have it attack your terrified foes. And Street Samurai, Mages and physical adepts can bring all sorts of magic and technology to bear, combining area of effect blasts, stunning weapons and storms of bullets to bear against anyone who dares stand in your way.
Shadowrun Returns does right by the original game, and that is saying something considering that FASA did such a poor job before. Right now the game is out for the PC and Mac, and the developers say that they are working on an iOS version for tablets. With a solid core game, more content on the way, and almost an unlimited pool of user-generated modules coming online every day, Shadowrun Returns offers amazing value for a tiny $20 price tag.