There aren’t many games that get me thoroughly excited, especially a turn-based RPG. Shadowrun Returns has suddenly invigorated a lost sense of pure joy about video games in me and that’s because through all the harsh cyberpunk and droll depression it presents to you, the game itself is so much unbridled fun.
Shadowrun Returns comes from the creator of the original board game, along with his new development team and you can definitely tell where the lineage comes from. Everything from the way it’s set up for content, to the writing and style, scream Shadowrun. The atmosphere filled with that seedy mood and the music. That glorious music. Thick and heavy with a cyberpunk flare, it drips those beats from the very get go and as it hits the ears, I knew what I was in for. This isn’t going to be a game that takes the light-hearted side to the dance, but that one side that likes to talk about serial killers and is fascinated with how your insides look.
Boy, oh boy, was I right in that prediction. The story of Shadowrun Returns that they provide to you, is essentially their equivalent of a murder mystery. Your old running buddy (Runners are basically Mercs) has been killed and in doing so, activates a Dead Man’s Switch which reveals that should you find the killer, you’ll be paid handsomely for it. I wasn’t actually expecting this in the slightest in all honesty, not that I went in thinking that there wasn’t going to be any quality to the storytelling, but just a murder mystery in a setting such as this. Sure, it twists and it’ll turn in its own fashion, by introducing the weirder sides of the Shadowrun universe, but I wasn’t expecting something that went so deep into this genre in particular. What seems like a side mission is suddenly integral to the plot and that’s fantastic. I love it. I wanted more and before it started to get really odd, it starts to wind down, which while I sound like I wanted more – which I did – it starts to go off the deep end and luckily ends just before it goes that bit too far before it can be drawn back (even the characters will make mention of how bizarre things actually are).
What’s really neat about the game is that it’s obviously set up in the same way you’d set up the board game. From the menus you can see “Content” and “Find Other Stories”, which supposedly will allow you to load in any user created or DLC campaigns for your character to work their way through. It’s fascinating really, that the board game mentality is very much alive and kicking in Shadowrun Returns, but what gets me that little bit more excited is that those who already have campaigns made up on paper, will hopefully be able to take advantage of the level creator and just start transferring it all in. Imagine what the game will be like once the community get into it. Imagine the possibilities of just loading up a campaign from Steam’s Workshop and finding yourself warped into a grungy story about a turf war between dwarves and humans. It’ll be great. Unless of course you’re plunged into the story about the Elf looking for his penis in the room, shaped oddly enough, like a giant penis.
While quite a traditional turn based RPG in terms of core mechanics (there’s a grid for you to move about on and you’re allotted so many action points per turn and per character, which will be used up depending on what you plan on doing), Shadowrun Returns actually omits a levelling system in favour for the ‘Karma’ system. You’ll earn Karma through victory in battle, completing objectives or just through actions around the world and these points can be spent on learning new skills or improving the ones you already have. I played as a dwarf mage, but much like Dark Souls, the class you choose might not be the class you end up with by the end of the game. For instance, my mage ended up quite the shot with a shotgun, but obviously was more versatile when it came down to casting spells. There’s obviously the blank slate option, but any character you create can eventually be taken down another path if you wished to and it presents the player with obvious choices to go back and maybe replay the game.
Combat is perfectly fine, with all the options you’d expect from a game of this type – Overwatch to catch any moving enemies that might pass the line of sight, etc – but there were certain moments when the game wouldn’t drop the turn based mode for a more free exploration during the intermissions before finding your next fight. This made exploring cleared out areas, for instance, like an office you have to search at one point, incredibly tedious and frustrating if that single interaction isn’t in reach of the character until the next turn. I can potentially see why, as dragging the player back into exploration mode and then throwing them into turn based could potentially lead to glitches or having the player characters not in the right position, but at the same time, I also have to ask why? It’s also like the saving situation. There’s no way to manually save, but there’s a ‘rewind’ feature that’ll send you back to a checkpoint if you want to redo or go another route through a section. A minor gripe with it, would be that the game actually never really explains what to do and kind of expects you to either know or just fumble around until a tutorial might show up to help you out.
To tackle some missions, you’ll be given AI partners and other missions will require you to hire freelance runners. Each runner is unique in what they come equipped with and their class and stats. The better the runner, the higher the cost, but if that runner should fall in combat and you don’t revive them, they’ll be gone for good. If you don’t buy a restock of equipment for them should you hire them out again, they’ll go in with what they have. I take a little issue with that, but then again, I never hired the same one twice. I really dig this feature, as it gives you the opportunity to play as a class or build that you aren’t. It’s like a catalogue for your next potential character on another playthrough and through it, should you not be equipped to do so, will lead you to one of the more intriguing aspects of the game’s combat and problem solving.
At certain points you’ll be required to enter ‘The Matrix’, a virtual world in which you’ll discover new information for the quest or opening up doors and shutting down turrets. This gives you an entirely new combat situation to get accustomed to and it’s just a good as the regular combat. While the class that can utilise this function, Deckers, are pretty naff in real world fights, it’s in The Matrix that their skills truly come to fruition. You’ll fight off various programs and summon programs to do your bidding, which will then eventually lead to you messing around with the systems for your real world comrades or getting that intel so desperately required. Where this gets interesting is later on the game, where you’ll be switching between reality and the cyberspace, juggling your avatar within the computer and having your team keep said Decker alive long enough in the real world, to get your objective done. I’m sure there would have been way more moments like this during the game if I’d spec’d in that direction, but alas, what I did get to see, was incredibly cool, making me yearn for another playthrough just to see the different outcomes that could happen within a mission.
Oh, but don’t worry. In between missions and combat, you’ll be doing a lot of talking to people and getting your way through a variety of different conversations that can lead to more information on your quest or just about the world around you. In fact, at certain points, the game actually becomes like a very basic point and click game, except instead the satisfaction of having solved a puzzle, you’ll probably end up solving the puzzle of staying alive.
That said though, I played through on normal and didn’t actually run into much trouble, with my only loss being a cheap runner and single game over being from my laziness in finding a secret code which eventually lead to being caught.
Through all the skeevy nature of everything, the game looks and illuminates with that cyberpunk haze, letting you know exactly what it means. The city is a dump, with neon lights and run down buildings littering the area, ugly thugs pollute it further with their garbage presence and when you start getting a view on the other areas, like labs or richer, more cleaner places, they’re that bit too clean to be natural. It feels off the whole time and I love it. You never feel comfortable, except in the most low-life bar (the hub of the game) and that’s down to the unfriendly, allied faces that you’ve gotten to know. While the story might get a little serious at times, the art is firmly done with that tongue in the cheek, almost bursting through. My character’s portrait was of a dwarf bearing a mohawk and thick dark sunglasses and one of the allies, a human with cyberware protruding from his face and an arrogant smirk on his face. Even though the world is actually quite static, it feels alive because of how brilliantly done the art actually is.
Coming from a Kickstarter, Shadowrun Returns is one of the first major games to come from the service and to me, has very much set the bar of what we should expect from these upcoming titles. While obviously we can sit here and point out the small intricacies that could have been improved with that bit more cash, there’s not much the developers can actually do, other than work with the money that they already have. It’s going to be a peculiar situation for all games coming out of it, but for the most part, Shadowrun Returns works around these issues by giving vivid writing, an excellent sense of style and solid gameplay. It doesn’t try and do what it can’t and where it’s very obvious in what they might have wanted to do with certain bits, they work around with what they have to the best of their ability from what I can see.
Shadowrun Returns is a fine little turn based RPG and a standard that all Kickstarter games should look to aim for or beat. With the probable challenges that they faced, it’s amazing the game is this solid through and through. Sit yourself down, you drek and null sweat chummer as you jack in, because this game is wiz.