Shadowrun Returns: Competent, With Unfulfilled Potential
Shadowrun is a multimedia franchise that started with a tabletop RPG in 1989. It has had a recent resurgence due to the success of a Kickstarter campaign, resulting in the game I’m reviewing. (1) Short version: If Krater is a poor man’s Baldur’s Gate, then Shadowrun Returns is the upper-middle-class but still proletariat version of a Interplay/XCOM: Enemy Unknown hybrid. If that last sentence didn’t make any sense to you, then just regard this game as a fit but unsatisfying tactical RPG.
Shadowrun has an interesting spin on the typical elves/dwarves/orcs fantasy cliché that we’re all very sick of: it has all of that old crap but it take the boilerplate races and throws them into a modern dark cyberpunk world where everybody is stabbing everybody in the back. Suddenly elves aren’t mysterious myopic hippies, they’re street-savvy merchants with a lot of resources. Orcs and trolls aren’t a bunch of stupid thugs that you fight on your way to the big bosses, they’re physically strong but can be quite intelligent and effective as burglars, hackers, information brokers, or fences. Yeah it’s still kind of lame that they’re using dwarves and other boring fantasy races, but at least it’s something different from the usual Lord of the Rings ripoffs that fill the genre.
The relative richness of the setting means that there are loads of options for character creation. You pick your race, class, and skills; typical WRPG stuff. But much like Fallout or Knight of the Old Republic, it’s not always best to load up on combat stats and powers. You can get through significant portions of the game bloodlessly if you loaded up on language and computer skills, and often there are greater rewards for the smarter and nonviolent; a pleasant change from the usual kill-everything-for-the-coolest-stuff fixation.
I was also impressed at the fact that all stats and abilities are useful. In most create-a-character systems I can just dump all of my points into becoming a remorseless murder technician and never look back, but in Shadowrun Returns everything looked tempting. Aside from the usual gun/hand-to-hand skills, there are several types of sorcery, attack drone capabilities, running in the Matrix (a virtual reality conception of the internet where avatars attack computer programs to represent their hacking skills, as seen in every form of 1990s media ever), cyborg implants, and my favorite bit: putting points into charisma doesn’t just make you a better talker, it lets you choose new “etiquettes” for helping manage discussions/trickery/intimidation with different groups and social strata. When you talk to someone, you can even see a grayed-out dialogue option for the etiquette you don’t have. It’s not on par with the incredible depth of, say, Planescape: Torment, but it certainly made me eager to replay the game as a diplomat to see what would unfold.
Combat is basically the same as XCOM: take turns making your characters run around, hide behind cover, and shoot your enemies according to the percentages above their heads. There is a much greater element of strategy involved than, say, practically any Final Fantasy game, but it’s still too blandly simplistic. You can hire whatever mercenaries you want to fill out your weak spots and have a nearly invincible team. The biggest difference from similar tactics games is that you can have a shaman or mage or drone pilot to liven things up a bit, but every RTS ever made has units with special abilities anyway, so it’s not exactly unprecedented. Add to that the fact that spells have no costs, only cooldowns, the combat becomes even more basic. Sigh.
Ammo is unlimited but you have to spend an action to reload. This means that you don’t have to hunt around the game world for ammo stashes, but it also means you won’t have any super strong guns that use rare ammo that you have to manage wisely, and it also rends melee attacks nearly obsolete. At first I appreciated the convenience, but it is really just a method of dumbing down the game so there are fewer variables for the player to manage. You can pick any of the gun skills and spam shots down the corridors and around boxes all you want with no repercussions for your inventorial recklessness. This doesn’t mean you can Rambo your way through every encounter–you don’t have unlimited health and you really need to use cover like you’re in a 2010s first/third-person shooter to avoid turning into Swiss cheese–but it does simplify things even more and is another unfortunate strike against Shadowrun Returns‘ gameplay.
Fighting in the Matrix is similar to plain old meatspace but it uses a completely different set of stats. So this means that your scrawny-looking nerd who can’t do more than shoot a pistol might be an unkillable behemoth in the computer world whereas your beefy troll with thick armor and a BFG might be a weakling in virtual fights because he lacks the skills and programs necessary to hack his way to victory. It’s an nice addition to the fighters/wizards, jocks/nerds dichotomy by adding a third flavor that isn’t freaking psionics.
Talking and Stuff
The main quest itself is disappointingly linear, with only the occasional optional sidequest to give the player some variety. Compared to Baldur’s Gate and the Fallout series with their gargantuan open worlds with hundreds of locations to explore, people to meet, and stuff to kill, Shadowrun Returns falls shorter than Peter Dinklage at an NBA game. Anything you can possibly investigate is marked by a magnifying glass icon which is helpful but has the side effect of eliminating the wonder of digging through everything for loot, talking to every NPC for quests and info, and exploring every dark corner of the world.
The plot is a decent one; no evil overlords or cellars of rats or generic goblin hordes here. Instead your character gets a vidphone call from a good friend who died and left a pre-recorded message asking you to find his killer. It’s not an amazing storyline but it’s a great change of pace from the typical fantasy detritus, though the aforementioned linearity and lack of storyline options weakens the game for sure. Maybe if the Kickstarter made more money Shadowrun Returns would have had a more robust main quest with a greater variety of locations to visit and more things to do than go to the next station on the plot train.
But there’s a bright spot in all of this averageness. Much like ZZT or Neverwinter Nights, Shadowrun Returns comes with campaign builder tools that can be used to create your own quests filled with characters and locations limited only by your imagination and the game engine. This won’t fix the gameplay homogenization but it may eventually result in bigger and better things than the quest that came with the game. The world creator is completely free but daunting in its enormous scope. I personally have no programming skills but I could see Shadowrun Returns getting some mind-blowing adventures once its player base tinkers around with it for a few months. Look to the future and this game could blow up with something amazing.
Shadowrun Returns is decent but ultimately too weak an offering for those lusting for a big sprawling new Western RPG to get lost in for weeks or months at a time… that is, unless you’re willing to create your own quests, or wait a few months/years until someone else does it for you. The campaign building is where the game’s potential is stored, and I can count on those devoted nerds to create great new worlds that blow the game’s creators’ efforts right out the door.
(1) Unless you count the SNES game, I’ve never really experienced the Shadowrun tabletop RPG before now. I recall being an obnoxious child, irritating my brother Mike to let me play with him, and one of his friends showed me an image from one of the rulebooks of the inside of a future car with hundreds of different buttons and switches and saying that I could play with them as soon as I memorized what everything in the picture did. That successfully got rid of me so I went over to Rifts, which is what every 10 year old thinks is the coolest stuff ever, but that’s irrelevant at the moment.