Shadowrun Returns Review
Shadowrun Returns has been on my radar for some time; I finally picked up both it and its sequel/expansion Dragonfall awhile back despite having both recommended long before that, but it wasn’t until I realized that the newest entry in the series was set to release this month that I decided to actually play through them. I figured going on the same kind of series binge I went on when Sacred 3 was released would give me a better understanding of the series as a whole without having to deal with the time between game releases blurring my memories and making the differences between each less pronounced. That was the plan, at least—I got distracted by another game’s release after finishing up Shadowrun Returns. I’ll definitely dive right back into the Shadowrun universe once I’m done with that, though, because this is a game that got me to warm up to a world that’s like the bizarre lovechild of Dungeons & Dragons and Blade Runner, and that’s really quite impressive when you think about it.
The Dead Man’s Switch
The game starts with you in a rough patch and looking for work when an old friend calls you up. He quickly informs you that your side of the conversation isn’t necessary since he’s dead and the phone call is automated to inform you of that. In the prerecorded message, he gives you the job of solving his murder, and from there you quickly become entangled in a serial killer investigation (this is 10-15 minutes into the game) and various conspiracies full of colorful characters.
It’s all perfectly linear, but linearity often allows for good storytelling, and the storytelling is really what impressed me most about Shadowrun Returns. There’s no voice acting in the game, but many of the NPCs are given descriptive written intros when you first encounter them that do a great job setting the mood. It brought to mind classic games of old like Arcanum and Planescape and the way they would create a scene using nothing but descriptive text, and that’s really some great company to find yourself in. Much like those games, there’s a lot of reading required, but this comes in the form of small, easily-digestible paragraphs that are unlikely to overwhelm anyone.
Even more impressive, everything seemed to be unfolding in a predictable way and I thought I had the plot pegged early on, but it wound up being far more convoluted and unexpected than my simplistic early interpretation of events. It also becomes weird toward the end, and while I can’t explain why that is without spoiling a fair amount of the story, suffice it to say that the fantasy element isn’t overlooked in favor of the cyberpunk elements. That weirdness isn’t really a pro or con, mind you, but is nevertheless something worth mentioning so that you don’t go in expecting a pure cyberpunk experience. The combination struck me a bit like the dichotomy of magic and (steampunk) technology in Arcanum, with the world being caught between the two in a believable way in both games. It’s unusual, but somehow manages to work.
It’s paced quickly and doesn’t last very long, but I liked that
Shadowrun Returns is only 10-12 hours long, which is pretty short for an sRPG, but things also happen at a brisk pace that’s unusual in our current era of padding. You’re bound to be disappointed if you buy this game expecting hundreds of hours of entertainment, but for those of us with a threateningly large backlog of games and real life stuff that cuts into our potential game-playing time, games like this are a breath of fresh air; Shadowrun Returns has no fetch quests, meaningless grinds for experience, or needlessly bloated story developments that serve only to artificially lengthen players’ play times. Instead, something interesting is always happening no matter where you are in the game, and I found this far more engrossing than the tedious slog through meaningless padding so many other games foist on their players.
There’s no such thing as bad karma
In the Shadowrun universe, Karma is basically experience that you can spend to level up your skills. This can go very well if you specialize in a few things, though I suspect it can also go terribly if you spread yourself too thin and try to focus on too many things at once. You’re given the option to put some points into your stats/skills after character creation, and I found this really overwhelming at first; there seemed to be a billion skills and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. As it turns out, it’s really quite simple: the skills are all connected (so you need to level up the quickness skill to level 2 before you can level up the ranged combat skill to level 2, and you need to level the ranged combat skill to level 2 before you can level any of your individual weapon skills to level 2), and skills cost as much Karma as the rank you’re leveling up to. Leveling up a skill to level 7 costs 7 Karma, leveling up to level 8 costs 8 Karma, etcetera. The skills that work well together for each class of character are all bunched together, too, so it quickly became apparent that my pistol-packing Ork street samurai needed to put a bunch of points into the quickness, dodge, ranged combat, and pistol skills.
Before long, specializing in these skills had made me nearly immortal. Dodge is a wonderful skill that makes you difficult to hit even at point-blank range, and certain ranks of the individual weapon skills come with passive perks whenever you’re using that type of weapon. For example, I had soon leveled up my pistol skill to the point where reloading no longer cost AP inside of combat (so I could reload whenever I wanted without having to worry about losing a turn), and toward the end of the game I had unlocked the “chain shot” skill that allows you to shoot 3 different targets using 1 AP. Special skills like that come with a cooldown period to avoid being too overpowered, but I still found myself steamrolling everything on the default “normal” difficulty setting. Turn-based sRPGs tend to be difficult for many people to pick up, however, so the game’s more forgiving default difficulty will most likely be appreciated by most players who haven’t played through many games in the genre.
There are also non-combat skills that can be invested in. These can give you a better chance to control a spirit and make it part of your team, improve your decking (hacking, basically) abilities, or in the case of charisma, unlock special dialogue options. These can be safely ignored without facing any repercussions apart from having a spirit or two turn hostile and being unable to chose specialized dialogue, but they can be fun to invest some points into if you have some spare Karma.
The combat is like Halfway… at first
If you haven’t noticed yet, combat is turn-based, revolves around a Fire Emblem-esque percentage to hit, and takes place on a square grid with certain parts of the environment acting as cover. The first thing I thought of when I first started with combat was that Halfway totally ripped off this game’s combat system. Both games have you starting with 2 AP per character per turn, both occasionally take you out of combat to explore (with only a few things to actually find and the rest of the area being little more than decoration) until you stumble on another group of enemies, and the cover mechanics of the two games seem almost identical.
The major difference is that Shadowrun Returns actually manages to make this system work in a way that’s entertaining and non-tedious. One of the main reasons for that is the smaller number of enemies you have to deal with per level early on, and by the time you’re facing large numbers of enemies, you’ve unlocked more AP to use each turn and been given access to drugs like Jazz that increase your number of action points for a certain number of turns. This, combined with your ability to level up characters so that they’re incredibly accurate shots, allows combat to move at a fast pace rather than sticking you in boring shootouts where both you and the enemy are constantly missing shots that even a Stormtrooper would be ashamed of.
That’s not to say that everything is perfect, though, because Shadowrun Returns does bog down its combat system toward the middle of the game when you’re forced to take the occasional jaunt into the matrix, a computer-y cyber world where you’re stuck hunting down information between combat encounters. In the video to the left, you’ll notice one of the most annoying elements of this: you need people to stay outside of the matrix to protect whoever’s inside, so you’re constantly jumping back and forth. This is where the game most noticeably slows down to a crawl, but many sections where you’re controlling 4 characters at once manage to be similarly annoying because of the need to move all 4 of them individually while ensuring that one doesn’t get too far ahead (lest they stumble into combat and have no backup). This can turn into a boring clickfest where you’re constantly ending the turn while characters still have AP left so that they don’t trigger combat while everyone only has 1 or 0 AP, thus effectively giving enemies a free turn to attack. Granted, the lower difficulty makes this less of an issue, but your parties are often made up of people weaker than you who you have to coddle. This is why I eventually started soloing some of the later missions, to be perfectly honest. The game would benefit greatly from a more consistent “end turn-based mode when combat is done” approach, because some areas automatically exit that mode and allow you to explore freely (with allies automatically following) while others keep you in it despite there being no enemies anywhere in sight, forcing you to move each unit individually in what turns into a maddeningly slow crawl from point A to point B.
Seriously, how good is the music in this game?
I’ve seen some criticism of Shadowrun Returns’ graphics because they’re simplistic and presumably made that way to accommodate the game being available on the weaker hardware of the iOS and Android versions, but I think they’re oozing with charm and atmosphere regardless; every location looks different and distinctive while still feeling like a part of the same world, and the character portraits are gorgeous. However good the game’s aesthetic is, however, the music blows everything else away. If you’ve read this site before, you’ve probably noticed that I’m a bit of a soundtrack snob. I gravitate toward memorable, unique tracks that reinforce the atmosphere of a game without being jarring or out of place, and the soundtrack in this game is definitely that.