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Shadowrun Returns Review

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You don't have to know a lick about Shadowrun to enjoy this deliciously weird, if flawed, strategy game.

Shadowrun Returns would not exist without Kickstarter, but the moment a game leaves the Kickstarter station, its crowdfunded background no longer matters. When it appeared on a marketplace with a price tag attached, it became a game that exists alongside every other game. That’s not a problem for Shadowrun Returns, fortunately, which functions just fine as a great strategy game, regardless of origin.

Unlike previous Shadowrun games, players have time to think about their moves in advance. It's a turn-based affair now.

The Shadowrun universe, a mashup of cyberpunk and fantasy, comes from the mind of Jordan Weisman, the designer also responsible for MechWarrior and Crimson Skies. Set in a 21st century Seattle taken a turn towards the dirty, Shadowrun exists in a world where magic exists alongside your usual technology, and orcs, elves, dwarves, and dragons are real. I don’t know why this is, and Shadowrun Returns never really explains it, either, which is indicative of problems within Shadowrun Returns that run far deeper than the premise. (Wikipedia tells me the world suddenly shifted in 2011, with magic becoming part of the world, and parts of the human population randomly becoming orcs and trolls. Children became a mix of human, elves, dwarves, and other things. Who cares? It’s cool.)

Whatever one makes of the universe’s mixtape elements, it sets the strategy game up for a wide diversity of play that makes the goofiness worthwhile. The Shadowrun games produced for SNES and Genesis took RPG elements from Shadowrun’s tabletop origins and combined it with fast-paced, real-time action gameplay. Shadowrun Returns adopts a much slower pace that will feel immediately familiar to anyone who’s played XCOM: Enemy Unknown or Fire Emblem: Awakening in the past year. Viewed from an isometric perspective, players control teams of one-to-four characters, with one being your primary character and the others often hired goons. Players choose from a set of races--human, elf, dwarf, orc, troll--and assign one of several classes--street samurai, mage, decker, shaman, rigger, physical adept--that automates early stats. You can opt to not choose a class, but entry level players may feel overwhelmed by the sheer choices in stat selection.

Races define certain characteristics, and classes refine that even further. Unfortunately, pick carefully and do some research ahead of time, as Shadowrun Returns does precious little to prepare players for the consequences of their decisions. I went with an elf mage specializing in rifles, given that my spells would already be slung from a long distance. Why? Because it was easy to understand what it meant to play that class. Little did I know there’s a difference between traditional magic and conjuring, another form of magic meant for shamans. Woops, that's a wasted a set of karma (upgrade) points! Did you know deckers (hackers) can access terminals throughout the world, playing in a separate reality that can manipulate turrets and security cameras? Until the game forced a decker upon me during a mission much later in the game, I sure didn’t.

About halfway through the game, I finally came to grasp the breadth of what Shadowrun Returns had to offer, and found myself profoundly disappointed at some of my decisions, choices made in ignorance. Shadowrun Returns primes players to play the way they actually want to during a second playthrough, but only because it spends so little time explaining its nuances. I understand not wanting to include a two-hour tutorial to walk players through every detail, but giving players the option to learn that for themselves would have been useful.

But when the game finally clicks, it clicks, and there’s so much to play with. The battlefield is a toy box. Every class approaches combat so differently, and this makes encounters ripe for discovery (which, sadly, it actively discourages, but let’s talk about the ideal scenario). My favorite lineup was a mage, rigger, street samurai, and whatever class I hadn’t touched yet. Riggers are robotics experiments, capable of sacrificing their turns to different types of controllable drones. Some drones are mobile medics, others are gun-toting mercenaries. Their tiny stature means they’re able to sneak through vents, setting up all sorts of wrinkles in your tactics. I’d use my drones to suck up aggro from enemies, buff up my street samurai through my mage, and send that sword wieldin' maniac into the thick of battle, slicing down fools left and right. My street samurai would often be hiding in plain sight, while everyone else took cover around the world. Cover and movement works similarly to XCOM, with the mouse hovering over environment tiles and communicating movement cost and whether a spot will provide zero, half or full cover. Your view is fixed, though, and this lead to some costly mistakes when it’s not entirely clear where a movement choice will leave your character. For the most part, it works just fine.

Other than movement and cover, Shadowrun Returns is defined by randomness, a fickle mistress that will both reward and punish those arrogant enough to test her wrath. There are few experiences more painful than watching a carefully calculated set of maneuvers to flank a set of enemies unravel, as the text bubble “missed” show up over and over and over. While it's easy to focus on the times fate works against you, it grants unbridled power just as often. The dice rolls happening behind-the-scenes in Shadowrun Returns feel fair, pulling off the troublesome balancing act of making the player feel equally parts frustrated and elated each turn.

What’s less random is Shadowrun Returns’ much-maligned save system, which compounds the game backing players into a creative corner. There is no way to manually save, which usually means missions must be finished before you can safely turn the game off. The autosave system kicks in during loading screens, which means some multi-level missions get you off the hook. It makes sense for Shadowrun Returns to ditch players’ ability to save and load freely, as it could eliminate any sense of consequence during combat. It’s sound logic, as I’m the kind of person who freely exploited loading to avoid permanence in XCOM. This leads to some unintended consequences during unexpected difficulty spikes, bad rolls that turns an ordinary combat sequence into a shit show, or life forcing you off the computer.

Here’s a good example. Money (nuyen) is tight in Shadowrun Returns, and every purchase is important. Hiring a squad is expensive, and for just about every mission requiring one, someone gives you money upfront to make it possible. One of the game’s previous few side missions skips that step, leading me to believe I could get along with only me and another shadowrunner. That was mostly true, but the final encounter, which kicks off after 30 minutes of otherwise ordinary firefights, is much, much harder. I was pummeled after a few dice rolls went in the enemy’s favor, and it was back to the start of the level. With some creative thinking (read: running away and regrouping), I was able to complete the mission, but having to crawl through 30 minutes of battles several times over was enough to make me consider giving up on the game entirely. A save system with strict restrictions in place would have encouraged players to take risks with the gameplay systems. As it stands, saving is an wholly unnecessary hurdle to immersion.

Though technically simple, Shadowrun Returns is a looker, with a subdued atmosphere driven by terrific artwork.

Once you learn to begrudgingly live with the save system and get up to speed with the various classes, you begin to sigh, realizing the campaign is beginning to near its climax. When it all comes together in Shadowrun Returns, it's satisfying to watch the narrative sync up right alongside your understanding of how the game works.

There are, if you click around enough, a few ways to extend the journey. Some side missions exist in Shadowrun Returns, but the game is a largely linear affair. Finishing the campaign will probably take you between 10-13 hours, but a powerful mission editor holds tantalizing promise.

An unexpected delight was how the game encourages players to further define their characters through branching dialogue trees without the patronizing good vs. bad split in other games. My shadowrunner, Scully, would regularly scuttle between a good person caught a bad situation to an opportunistic scumbag The lack of systemic reaction opened up avenues for roleplaying without worrying about if points were going up or down.

I hadn’t touched a strategy game with any serious intent until Firaxis turned my world upside down with XCOM. Though Shadowrun Returns assumes too much about the player’s prior knowledge about the universe and too often skimps over introducing key gameplay systems, getting over the hump is worth discovering the deeply gratifying strategy game within.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
86 Comments
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Posted by jred250

Shadowrun Returns is fantastic and flawed. I'm so happy that Patrick devoted some time to this very special game.

Posted by Chris2KLee

Having a great time with this one, but yeah, save system is brutal.

Posted by DeviTiffany

This is how the save system should have been. Autosaves after every loading screen and after every dialogue choice. However you're also allowed a set number of Quick Saves in combat Hitman: Blood Money style that are erased after you shut the game off.

Edited by ArbitraryWater

@hailinel said:

This review is the first time I've ever seen anyone call Shadowrun a strategy game.

It's not a strategy game. It's a RPG with tactical combat. I could see that mistake though, given how ultra-linear the game is and how underdeveloped most of the non-combat systems are. But I've said my piece, and from the perspective of someone who plays these games on a regular basis, the included campaign is decent, but nothing special. I'm far more interested to see what kind of modules people will make in a few months.

Posted by McGhee

When you are talking about the combat, it makes perfect sense to call this game "strategy."

Posted by bkbroiler

Yay, reviews!

Posted by shintsurugi

@patrickklepek: Great review. Been a long time fan of the Shadowrun tabletop game, and I really like this game that Harebrained has made. I agree with basically all of your points, in the review, particularly where they really don't tell the player anything. Which makes me think they really made this game for Shadowrun fans, and not as something to draw new people into the universe.

That being said, I think it has an incredible potential to do so, as the game does the atmosphere of Shadowrun exceptionally well. Really excited to see what the community comes out for this. Especially this project:

http://www.shadowrunidentity.org/

Ambitious as fuck.

Edited by Nekroskop

One of the few kickstarter video game projects that have been good and on time.

WHERE IS THE GAME, TIM! WHY ARE YOU TAKING THIS LONG?!

Edited by koolaid39

Great review, Patrick. Call me old fashioned, but I enjoy reading a review on this site.

Posted by bkbroiler

This review reads to me like worse than a 4/5. Game sounds neat. I'd really like to hear more of Patrick's thoughts on it. Too bad he's not on that Giant Bomb-cast any more.

Posted by YoThatLimp

Awesome review Patrick, will definitely pick this up.

Edited by Crysack

I think you're crazy Patrick. This was an enormous disappointment to me. Everything about the game feels incredibly lazy. Half the skills and classes are useless, there are bugs everywhere, the save system is awful, there's zero exploration, none of your choices matter, the implants system is shallow and bears no resemblance to the awesomely creative system present in the pnp game etc etc. It just isn't a particularly great RPG.

And before anyone goes on about the user made content, it is worth noting that the editor is not particularly well-featured. For one, it only allows the use of in-game assets.

Posted by BeachThunder
@mcghee said:

When you are talking about the combat, it makes perfect sense to call this game "strategy."

From what I've seen of this game, "tactics" seems like it would be a better term.

Posted by cabrit_sans_cor

One of these days, I'm going to get my friends to start a Shadowrun campaign with me.

I've been saying that for the past five years, though...

Posted by Morningstar

@frytup said:

Finished it last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. And glad I ignored the negative reviews.

If Project Eternity turns out to be this linear, people will have something legit to complain about. This game isn't trying to be a deep RPG. It's a bit of tactical combat fun with some RPG elements. And reading. If text screens bore you, definitely don't buy.

Not sure how Patrick finished in 10-13 hours. I'd say 16-18 hours is more likely for the first play through.

I finished it in 11 hours, and I'm usually quite slow and thorough.

Posted by Kevitivity

Good review. Thank you.

Posted by asphyxiate

@morningstar: Hm, thanks for the time quote. Still on the fence about buying this one...seems really cool, but I'm still not sure if it's worth my time/money yet.

Posted by bgdiner

As someone who didn't really enjoy XCOM, despite the critical acclaim, I'm hesitant to pick this up. Granted the Shadowrun universe seems much more enjoyable and fleshed-out (though maybe not to the degree that I want), but some of the flaws Patrick mentioned seem to be a bit much (especially regarding the save system). I might pick this up if a mod comes out, but I'm not really in the mood for games with terrible saves at the moment.

Posted by probablytuna

Sounds like something I would want to check out, nice review.

Edited by ultrapeanut

I'm so glad to see some positivity persist around this game. It's been a surprising treat and makes me even more excited for the other games of its sort that I did back.

There are some weird/grating facets of the game in the most bizarre places, but every time I started feeling annoyed I'd find something that made me smile so hard I forgot.

Posted by Baal_Sagoth

@hailinel said:

This review is the first time I've ever seen anyone call Shadowrun a strategy game.

It's not a strategy game. It's a RPG with tactical combat. I could see that mistake though, given how ultra-linear the game is and how underdeveloped most of the non-combat systems are. But I've said my piece, and from the perspective of someone who plays these games on a regular basis, the included campaign is decent, but nothing special. I'm far more interested to see what kind of modules people will make in a few months.

Man, I'm really on the fence about this game and your review makes a hell of a lot of sense. It's really in line with the vibe I've been getting from videos and such. I'd love to get into this game since the Shadowrun universe seems really interesting but I'm not a fan to the extent that just the lore and world-building will carry me through and make it worth my while. And the rest seems either really basic or even lesser than many previous RPGs. It seems the more familiar people are with straight oldschool titles the higher the chances they'll end up somewhat underwhelmed.

The save fiasco is confusing as well. I understand the wish to take save scumming out of the equation as that is one of the odder quirks of these types of games but that's a problem that's been solved a long time ago: include the ability to "save & exit" and erase that save when it's loaded up again. Thus, no save scumming nor having to continue playing even though you want to or have to stop. Of course having a fair share of minor bugs and balance issues really makes the save system a problem.

Oh well, maybe I'll wait for a discount and give it a shot anyway. That's what I did with Neverwinter Nights as well. I'm curious if the mod scene is going to enrich the game with the depth and variety it desperately seems to need and, more specifically, if that's going to happen anytime in the next couple of years or fall prey to the admirable but all to common over-ambition.

Edited by Humanity

@baal_sagoth said:

@arbitrarywater said:

@hailinel said:

This review is the first time I've ever seen anyone call Shadowrun a strategy game.

It's not a strategy game. It's a RPG with tactical combat. I could see that mistake though, given how ultra-linear the game is and how underdeveloped most of the non-combat systems are. But I've said my piece, and from the perspective of someone who plays these games on a regular basis, the included campaign is decent, but nothing special. I'm far more interested to see what kind of modules people will make in a few months.

Man, I'm really on the fence about this game and your review makes a hell of a lot of sense. It's really in line with the vibe I've been getting from videos and such. I'd love to get into this game since the Shadowrun universe seems really interesting but I'm not a fan to the extent that just the lore and world-building will carry me through and make it worth my while. And the rest seems either really basic or even lesser than many previous RPGs. It seems the more familiar people are with straight oldschool titles the higher the chances they'll end up somewhat underwhelmed.

The save fiasco is confusing as well. I understand the wish to take save scumming out of the equation as that is one of the odder quirks of these types of games but that's a problem that's been solved a long time ago: include the ability to "save & exit" and erase that save when it's loaded up again. Thus, no save scumming nor having to continue playing even though you want to or have to stop. Of course having a fair share of minor bugs and balance issues really makes the save system a problem.

Oh well, maybe I'll wait for a discount and give it a shot anyway. That's what I did with Neverwinter Nights as well. I'm curious if the mod scene is going to enrich the game with the depth and variety it desperately seems to need and, more specifically, if that's going to happen anytime in the next couple of years or fall prey to the admirable but all to common over-ambition.

I think the notion of "save scumming" is so completely ludicrous that it boggles my mind they would structure their save system around it. The idea that you will take away options from the player in order to force them into superficial consequence seems really unwise. If they are so concerned with how people will play their game there should have been a separate mode where you can save to your hearts delight for those of us that may not be too inclined in losing a whole bunch of progress. You can earn more money, you can get more material wealth, but time is a precious commodity that you can never get back and any game that presents the possibility of you losing an hour or more of your life with no progress to speak of is making a terrible design choice.

Edited by Magicnerd

Game seemed fun but save system kills it for me. Hoping for a patch that fixes it, otherwise I'm not touching it. I didn't even know the term "save scumming" existed. Apparently you are now scum if you save your game. Gotta love the free minds of the 90ies, where you could still just save your game in the old DOS titles, without fear of judgment and general panic among the gamer community.

Even Dark Souls' save system is more forgiving than this crap, cause at least you don't have to sit through the same dialog sequences every time you die.

Absolutely ridiculous, don't know what these devs have been smoking :).

And a 10 hour campaign only? No voice acting? This game got a 2mil budget through kickstarter, so when you want to get a budget like the big boys, you deserve to be judged like the big boys. They don't deserve mercy or sympathy just because they're a kickstarter project, they just delivered a poor final product except for the artstyle, and I really wonder where that 2 mil went. Some people are making similar games to this on their own or as a duo.

Posted by SolongWrex

This just reminds me how much I'd like to play a new Crimson Skies.

Posted by Lugixx

Just so everyone knows, manual saving wasn't omitted as a design choice. It was omitted since the developer thought that it would be too time consuming to implement manual saving. They seriously had almost two million but couldn't be bothered to implement manual saves.

Meanwhile, Expeditions: Conquistador (another kickstarter rpg, fantastic I might add) manages to create a game much larger in both scope and scale with both autosaving and manual saves as a part of a five man team with funding less than 100 000 dollars. And it sold terribly. Truly, there is no justice in the world.

source shadowrun

Edited by JesterPC238

@lugixx said:

Just so everyone knows, manual saving wasn't omitted as a design choice. It was omitted since the developer thought that it would be too time consuming to implement manual saving. They seriously had almost two million but couldn't be bothered to implement manual saves.

Meanwhile, Expeditions: Conquistador (another kickstarter rpg, fantastic I might add) manages to create a game much larger in both scope and scale with both autosaving and manual saves as a part of a five man team with funding less than 100 000 dollars. And it sold terribly. Truly, there is no justice in the world.

source shadowrun

As has been stated frequently around this site, $2 million is not as much money as it sounds like when you're talking about developing a game. Many games cost over $20 million to make.

I'm not trying to be too big of an apologist here, the save system is pretty bad, but I will say that I think some of the media (particularly Ben Kuchera) have blown it a little out of proportion. I am about 2/3 through the campaign and not once have I said "if only I could save here!" And I am an adult, with a social life, full time job, and live-in girlfriend. I can see it posing a problem to some people, but all in all it's not like you should not play the game because of this one issue. If you're on the fence, I could see it tipping you to not buying it.

As for Expeditions: Conquistador, I don't think that's a very fair comparison. That's like saying Skyrim sucks because it doesn't let you command armies like in Mount and Blade.

Edited by Baal_Sagoth

@humanity: Yeah, the save system generally seems like a bad choice for the type of narratively driven game they're making. I didn't want to overplay the "save scumming" concept - I always interpreted that as being more tongue-in-cheek rather than elitist. Maybe most people take the term more seriously and view it as derogatory. That didn't really occur to me since I apply the term on myself. I just think there's something to be said for limiting saves in some capacity like the old Infinity Engine games do (Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale). Save anywhere, anytime except in the middle of combat. It prevents you from making really bad, unwinnable saves and forces you to survive 2 - 5 minute encounters in one go. I personally like that style.

Either way, especially nowadays there's no damn reason to not make that an option or game mode like you said. And Shadowrun's version of this is much more punishing than even those oldschool titles so that's no good anyway. If budget limitations are the reason I'd still say that basic usability is not something you can afford to cut corners with. Just to be clear: with those oldschool games I use saves to experiment and as a safeguard all the time. If I'm in the mood for being scared, paranoid and weighing every decision dozens of times before comitting I play roguelikes, use ironman modes or simply impose "no reloading" rules upon myself (in Civilization for example).

Posted by Magicnerd

@jesterpc238 said:

As has been stated frequently around this site, $2 million is not as much money as it sounds like when you're talking about developing a game. Many games cost over $20 million to make.

Only if you compare it to triple A titles, which are made by a huge team and big production companies. When you just have a small independent dev team, it's a HUGE amount of money, don't fool yourself.

It's a fact that a lot more is possible with a budget like this. There's more than enough examples of that.

Posted by Viking_Funeral

I liked it. But I also backed it. So there's that disclaimer.

It could have been a little bit longer, and the save system is annoying, but I genuinely enjoyed my run through, and am looking forward to playing the expansion and whatever other crazy stuff the community comes up with.

Edited by sadsadsad

@magicnerd: Give me some examples, I am genuinely curious.

eidt: Im not trying to defend the devs.

Edited by JesterPC238

@magicnerd said:

@jesterpc238 said:

As has been stated frequently around this site, $2 million is not as much money as it sounds like when you're talking about developing a game. Many games cost over $20 million to make.

Only if you compare it to triple A titles, which are made by a huge team and big production companies. When you just have a small independent dev team, it's a HUGE amount of money, don't fool yourself.

It's a fact that a lot more is possible with a budget like this. There's more than enough examples of that.

Fooling myself? Let's do some math:

The SRR kickstarter raised $1,836,447. Kickstarter takes a 5% cut of that, which knocks it down to $1,744,625. Amazon payments takes 3-5%, we'll assume 3% for argument's sake, which leaves them with $1,692,286. Then you have backer rewards, which I have heard can be as high as 10-15% of the project budget, but we'll keep it low and say 5%, that covers t-shirts, physical copies, art books, etc. This is assuming their cost of producing that stuff is down to like, 5$ per item, which is probably far lower than what it really cost if you averaged it all out. After that it's down to $1,607,672. Marketing budgets are usually pretty big, but given the size of this product, let's assume a 5% marketing budget since they aren't paying for special shelf space, printing materials for retailers, or buying TV time. After that we're at $1,527,288. So that's around $300,000 gone that has nothing to do with actual development costs. Harebrained Schemes has a staff of 22 people, (for comparison Valve employs around 100 people) so yes, they are small, but not diminutive. If you divide $1,527,288 22 ways you get $69,422. This is a pretty good living for a recent graduate, but aside from a few guys, most of the people at the studio seem to be pretty experienced so they were probably working well below paygrade (not that I'm assuming it was equally split). This also doesn't account for the tens of thousands of dollars required for equipment, licensing, office space, supplies, travel etc.

The fact of the matter is that a company the size of HBS has to crunch to make a game for 1.8 million, your point is 100% valid for a two man outfit, and if that were the case I'd be a little less willing to defend them, but they were able to deliver a solid, high quality product in a year with a budget that was, all things considered, not that big. The lack of manual saves sucks, but I don't think it's fair to use the "wtf did they do with all that Kickstarter money?" Argument.

Edited by Magicnerd

@jesterpc238 Well I don't know how they exactly used their money, I just look at what their budget was and the end result. How they use their money in between to achieve an end result is their business and responsibility.

But as you explain it, apparently after substracting other costs it all went into employing a team of 22 people for about 1,5 years. Don't you think then that for a team of 22, what you get as an end result is a bit underwhelming? Dev time was short, but still, we're talking about an isometric game with text based conversations here, with a very short campaign for games in this genre.

Valve works on multiple games at a time btw including patching and steam etc, so comparing to 100 is not entirely fair.

@sadsadsad One good example is Bastion, which is pretty comparable in project scale if you ask me. Also isometric and was made by only 7 people (less than a third of Shadowrun team), also in 2 years. They didn't have any funding at all, funded everything themselves. Well, it's pretty obvious that result-wise and efficiency-wise, it blows Shadowrun away.

Posted by Triumvir

Man, this game was fantastic. I'm glad someone on this site is bringing it to the community's attention.

Reading this makes me want to jump back in with my decker, Vektor, and try some user-generated content.

Edited by JesterPC238

@magicnerd: Actually it was around exactly a year of dev time. Shadowrun Returns was funded in April of 2012, it takes around 30 days to get your money from KS as I understand it... So yea.

I'm actually blown away at the production value of the finished product, the backgrounds are absolutely gorgeous if you ask me and the writing is stellar. Voice acting is incredibly expensive so I was never surprised about it not being included. The campaign is around 11-13 hours by all accounts, which is, as you say, a little short for an isometric RPG, but it's also $20, which is pretty reasonable. Also the mechanics are rock solid. Furthermore, they spent significant time ensuring that the modding tools would be accessible to people without much coding experience, and they seem to have delivered a powerful set of tools.

I'm right there with Patrick, the save system sucks and the game could explain itself better, but I think they did a fine job with the money and time that they had.

Also you are exactly right, Valve does have multiple games as well as Steam in development all the time. That was kind of my point, they make games with similarly sized teams, but they also often spend 3-5 years and tens of millions of dollars on those games. I'm not saying HBS is as strong a developer as Valve, my point was just that the difference between a game like Shadowrun Returns and a AAA game like Portal 2 is not dev size, there are plenty of AAA developers that work with teams not all that much larger than Harebrained, money and time play a huge role.

Edited by Karkarov

Yeah it is a great game but you do need some background info before going in. One tip I would give to all players is this.... Outside of missions where you are specifically given a Decker all skill checks for hacking whatever are made based on your characters skills. So if the game isn't basically saying "Hire this Decker, you will need them for this mission" don't hire a decker, because without their decking skills they are just below average street samurai.

This is also why it is sort of a neat thing to play a decker, because there is lots of places a decker could have come in handy but I wasn't one so...