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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 DeeGee

I didn't ru

Posted by L44

Great! I'll definitely give this one a shot.

Typo?

As of this writing, the game is being patched every few days. I didn't ru

Edited by spankingaddict

I love your work , Patrick .

Edited by patrickklepek

@l44 said:

Great! I'll definitely give this one a shot.

Typo?

As of this writing, the game is being patched every few days. I didn't ru

Hah! Our editor autosaves periodically, and kept a sentence I ditched. Thanks.

Posted by YOUNGLINK

Its a mixed bag for sure!

Posted by Aoi

Wonderful review Patrick. And good lord, take a look at the workshop page for this thing. Fans have already put up a bunch of new art assets, a random mission generator, even a crafting system. It's amazing what people have done in just a couple weeks.

Edited by Nentisys

Having finished this yesterday I would call this game an RPG, not a strategy game.

Posted by JackG100

I am guessing he didn't run into any problems with the game, I played it on day 1 and didn't. It is a great game, and I am glad they skipped any tutorials. The kickstarter budgets are slim as they are, and spending time explaining all the systems to players, while it might help some people scared of pressing buttons at random, it certainly isn't time well spent on a tight budget.

Awesome game, a bit disappointed with its linearity, but hopefully some awesome stuff will be made in the editor.

Posted by Vuud

I bought it, played through it, and enjoyed all of it. Very challenging in some places and it's tense knowing you can't just go back to a quicksave if you die. But I am much more looking forward to Shadowrun Online.

Posted by 5Figh

When it appears on a marketplace with a price tag attached, it became a game that exists alongside every other game.

shouldn't that be 'when it appeared' or is that just me

Edited by ShaggE

Box quote: "I didn't ru" - Patrick "Trick Scoopy Scoops Hot Doggin'" Klepek, Giant Bomb.

F'real, though, nice review. This game is great.

Posted by Fobwashed

Picked this up on release and played 2 missions since.

I'm the type of person who really hates losing game progress and in most cases, just stop playing when it happens so I've sidelined this game in hopes that they put in a quick save function. . . though this review might inspire me to take a shot and maybe stop once I do hit that wall.

It also doesn't help that when I created my character, there was some sort of bug where the character model disappeared so I didn't know what my character looked like till I was in game. Not that I'm against being a skinny black elf, it's just that since he's got my name, I feel that much more disconnected from my character. Really, I guess I should have just restarted the game so it's half my fault. Well. . . maybe 1/4.

Thanks for reviewing this one, was wondering what ya'll thought about it. It sounds like it gets better the deeper in you get which is very promising =)

Posted by Hawkerace

Hope Wasteland 2 turns out good.

I wish I backed Shadowlands, I'm glad it turned out so damn well. It was worth the 20 dollar purchase.

Edited by BoOzak

Personally I enjoyed the save system, it made your decisions in and out of combat have more weight. It's not as if each mission lasts long and if you cant set aside 15-20 minutes for something your life must suck. (a bit extreme, but you get what I mean)

And as for the universe and class roles being poorly explained, I agree. The game could have done with a codex style wealth of information to explain everything. (I would have appreciated it) But people who play these sorts games (adapted from P&P RPGs) are expected to do the research ahead of time. A lazy excuse but it's true.

Anyway, glad to see a review up in these desolate times ;p looking forward to a Pikmin 3 review/QL.

Posted by Zevvion

This sounds a little better than I expected. I won't check this out soon though. I'm not really in the mood to read a lot of text right now.

I'll check it out sometime in the future.

Edited by Solh0und

Makes me wish my PC can run Shadowrun Returns. I would play the hell out of it.

Posted by mike28212

Great review, Patrick. The game sounds like a lot of fun. I will have to check it out after I clear some of my backlog.

Posted by StarvingGamer

Cool, glad to see a review for this game.

The real good stuff is going to come when some of the more ambitious DM's start finalizing their campaigns. A group is out there working on a remake of the SNES game in the new engine.

In 6 months it should be easy to find 100+ hours of high-quality content.

Edited by metalsnakezero

I think it safe to say that kickstarter is a good place to fund your game now that Shadowrun is not only out but doing well.

Edited by 2HeadedNinja

As someone very (very) familiar with the shadowrun world it's interesting to read how someone that has no clue about it could have problems understanding parts of the story and the game concepts.

I backed the game and enjoyed the result, but there is a way better game hidden in there that needed just a little bit more time and money.

While playing I kept thinking: "If they just went a little bit deeper on this [system], this would be awesome." ... the levels feel a bit narrow, the weapons just a little bit underwhelming, just a bit too few options for cyberware etc.

There is also a fair ammount of fanservice in there, especially some of the later characters would be pretty familiar with everyone that knows the system.

Edited by Brodehouse

Perhaps a nitpick but this isn't a 'strategy game'. It's an RPG. You engage in turn based grid combat. It's D&D.

Also the game does explain deckers, about two hours into the game. There's an entire mission based around it.

I would've preferred a little bit more branching and reactivity from something relatively short on the glamor. It's mostly a straight shot with a couple diamond paths, but they happen so quickly that you barely feel as if your build has really altered it. No one talks to you differently based on making this choice or that choice. That's not a good thing in an RPG, the player should care when they pick this option or that one. It shouldn't just be 'this is how I beat the level'. I don't get how a lack of systemic reaction opens avenues for roleplaying. That's completely backwards. That's entering input and receiving no feedback.

The good thing is the campaign creator. I backed it almost just for that. The quality of the campaign it comes packed with is one thing, the quality of what people can create is another altogether.

Posted by frytup

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.

Posted by brownsfantb

@5figh said:

When it appears on a marketplace with a price tag attached, it became a game that exists alongside every other game.

shouldn't that be 'when it appeared' or is that just me

Yeah, either that part would need to be changed or the second part could be worded as "it becomes a game...", if he meant to refer to Kickstarter games in general.

Nitpicking grammar aside, great review Patrick! Once I get enough money from selling Steam trading cards, I'll pick this up.

Posted by Humanity

Cool that Patrick liked it, although everything I've read and heard about this game makes it sound a little more bland than what this review describes. I might pick it up on sale at a later date but as of right now don't feel that itch for turn based combat and shallow dialog trees.

Posted by dungbootle

Embedding on the QL is kinda weird, isn't it supposed to be on the top?

Posted by Kaiserreich

Strategy game?

Edited by CoinMatze

I really don't want to knock the first game in the glorious comeback of isometric RPGs but here's my problem with Shadowrun Returns: I play charismatic characters in these types of games. I want to weasel my way out of everything by just being that bit smarter and manipulating. There are very little opportunites to gain something with Charisma. It was still a very enjoyable game. Hopefully, some of the community made campains will be able to fill that hole.

Posted by Veagle

@l44 said:

Great! I'll definitely give this one a shot.

Typo?

As of this writing, the game is being patched every few days. I didn't ru

Hah! Our editor autosaves periodically, and kept a sentence I ditched. Thanks.

That's what happens when you let people save at anytime!

Posted by beatnik11

Shadowrun is definitely a good game with some some flaws. The story is great, dialog is well written, the characters are very interesting, and boy the art is delicious. They really nailed the feeling of the Shadowrun universe, but the game does feel a bit too linear which I have a feeling is more of a consequence of a limited budget rather than anything else. Good thing they put in a robust editor so the community can make up for the shortfall in that department. The save system though is a shame, at first its just an inconvenience but once you get further into the game and the fights start to get tougher it really feels like the game is punishing you unnecessarily and it does discourage you from taking chances.

One little beef with Patrick's review is that there is actually a ghost at the Union that explicitly explains how Shadowrun came to be in a very breaking down the 4th wall sort of way which was really neat. Overall though I think a 4/5 is a fair score and although the game has some flaws, anyone who is interested in the Shadowrun universe or old isometric games will get more than their monies worth

PS: I kickstarted this game and am very happy with what I got

Posted by Mento

I should really check back in on this. Steam just processed a fairly considerable 250mb update for it, which might well be that Berlin campaign I've been hearing about.

Harebrained Schemes have thought up an ingenious way of producing a Kickstarter-funded project here. Because you can only guarantee so much revenue from crowdsourcing, often not enough to develop a fully featured game (if that Broken Age mess is anything to go by), having a contingency like a powerful editor means that the same community that supported you with donations can then also (and would probably be willing to) support the game by creating content for it. The latter also feels less exploitative too, given how modding communities spring up everywhere regardless. And as revenue comes in, the developers can keep on making modules of their own.

I mean, I'm conjecturing a lot of the above, but it seems like a really smart course of action you don't often see with the game industry. Any chances of you interviewing Weisman or the other HBS guys?

Moderator
Edited by Aleryn

Glad to hear it turned out well. And it's great how you became a strat-RPG fan so fast this year. Happy to have someone represent the genre on 'Bomb. Thanks.

Edited by frytup
Posted by JackSukeru

I'll hold out for the sequel Shadowrun: Tropical Freeze.

Posted by planetfunksquad

Awesome game. Stepping away for a bit now I've finished the main campaign, but I'll go back in a couple of months to see what kind of stuff the talented weirdos of the internet come up with.

Edited by MikeLemmer

@2headedninja: It sounds like the Berlin campaign will be much more open-ended. Personally, I think they decided to get the game out the door & the editor into the hands of the community rather than spend time expanding the first campaign.

I predict the eventual DLC campaigns for it will be much larger & satisfying than this first campaign. Is there a term for games whose DLC is better than the original content?

Online
Posted by TrafalgarLaw

I didn't ru, either, which is just fine, too.

Posted by frytup

I predict the eventual DLC campaigns for it will be much larger & satisfying than this first campaign. Is there a term for games whose DLC is better than the original content?

Yes... Neverwinter Nights.

Edited by CornBREDX

I'm a backer of the game, and I love it but I loathe the save system they chose. It's awful.

Edited by Hailinel

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

Posted by Lydian_Sel

I'm playing the game at the moment and finding it to be interesting, I really wish there was more info available about what my choices mean and the ideal way I should be building my character.

For example, I'm playing a Decker who's primary skill is Intelligence but I've found myself putting the same amount, if not more, points into Charisma because it seems to help facilitate your way around the game outside of battles. I'm yet to find a real significant reason to stack more points into Intelligence.

Posted by jmic75

I'll agree that the classes are not covered very well, but the world backstory is covered though it is worked into conversations very naturally and doesn't hit you over the head with exposition, which I liked. I believe it appears in conversations with Mr. Kluwe, in psychologist logs and in other small mentions here and there.

Posted by yeliwofthecorn

As frustrating and confusing as the game can be early on, for some reason I kind of enjoyed that aspect. There's a moment in everyone's first playthrough where everything finally just... clicks.

You move your mage onto a Ley Line, use your Shaman to summon a spirit, buff it out the wazzoo, then max its AP and send it far away into the middle of a group of enemies to wreak havoc. Your Street Samurai waits by the door, shotgun ready to unload both barrels of hell into the first poor sap to come your way, all the while your Decker is racing against the clock, trying to hack those turrets that are the only thing standing between you and total destruction. You see all the interconnected systems and tactics, and gracefully weave a tapestry of utter carnage, because you are no longer just a player, but a Shadowrunner.

For those looking to do a second playthrough, I cannot recommend Shaman enough. It's a nice support class that can give you temporary allies, and its main stat is Charisma, so you can talk your way out of (or into) pretty much anything.

Posted by dantebk

This game looks really neat, but the save system means I probably won't play it. Forget saving and loading constantly to make battles go your way, I'm a grown person with responsibilities, and if I could be stuck in situations where I can't quit my game for another 30 minutes without losing a bunch of progress, then I'm just not going to bother playing at all.

Posted by WeaponBoy

It's kinda sad that the Ghost of a Grizzled Veteran isn't visible to everyone in the bar. He's only visible to backers and is literally Jordan Weisman who gives a bit of backstory about the creation of the Shadowrun universe, and I don't mean metaphorically. It would've been neat if he'd been there without the backer comments (and free items) to give you a bit of an explanation about what Shadowrun is (The whole Mayan 2012 end of the world thing turns out to mean that magic returns to the world and turns people with the right genes into elves, orcs, trolls, etc., plus a hearty dose of Neuromancer to explain the tech).

My biggest gripe about the game, aside from the unforgivably awful save system (seriously, fuck) was that the combat felt kinda limp. It is similar to XCOM, which is good, but melee feels hilariously slow and shooting someone lacks the kind of feedback you'd expect from blowing someone away with a shotgun blast, a fireball or a barrage of SMG fire.

Posted by fistfullofcats

Great review, I feel the same way. Couldn't be happier with the first Kickstarter game I've backed.

Edited by huser

Not 100% sure on this going from memory here,

The 2011 thing was related to the Mayan calendar. It marked the end of the world, but not quite doomsaying apocalypse, just the return of magic for the next cycle, ie magic and the supernatural WERE real, now they are real again. The old world ends because cultures that were more open to folklore and spirituality suddenly become world powers with a strategic power that more technologically focused nations cannot initially even describe let alone negate. Also, people became trolls or elves because they had latent genes for that. They were always trolls or elves, just not expressed until magic came back.

Edited by Phototropic

I created a Steam account and purchased this game based on the quicklook Vinny did. It's the right mix of artwork, turn based combat, and dialogue to keep me interested although I'm not as deep into the combat as what is clearly possible in the game. It's an enjoyable experience on the normal difficulty, and I've yet to have any issues arise from the between level save points which still seems like a poor choice.

Posted by Veektarius

I would have given it 3 stars, with the main knocks being not giving you a party of characters with personalities to get to know and the writing itself, which starts out very pulpy and becomes more generic as the story goes on. Not sorry I bought it, but I hope someone puts more effort into a mod. I gave it a shot myself but the tool was too tedious to work with.

Posted by shinjin977

This game is great. I am done here.

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