A merely passable RPG, but one with a lot of future potential
Shadowrun Returns is probably most notable for being an early kickstarter success, riding on the coattails of Double Fine. While it didn’t reach the heights of Wasteland 2, Project Eternity and Torment, it still made a respectable 1.8 million, four times its initial goal. The pitch was to bring back Shadowrun, the “Cyberpunk with Elves” setting of a pen and paper game, as well as two well-regarded games for SNES and Genesis and make a RPG hearkening back to those two titles as well as the pen and paper ruleset. And, on paper, that sounds pretty great. Unfortunately, the main campaign for Shadowrun Returns (which is what I am reviewing) should probably be equated to the original campaign for Neverwinter Nights (or the single-player of Little Big Planet), more a demonstration of what the module-creation toolset is capable of and less an interesting game in its own right. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it for the 10 hours it lasted, but its particular brand of RPG-lite probably won’t be confused with the better Role Playing Games of the last 10 years.
Mechanically, it’s pretty straightforward. You have 5 races (Human, Elf, Dwarf, Orc, Troll) and 6 class archetypes. (Street Samurai, Mage, Shaman, Decker, Rigger, Adept, or you can just spend your points however). Other than Orcs and Trolls being more inclined towards melee combat, you’re pretty free to spec your character in whatever direction you want, hiring other shadowrunners to fill in the gaps that your character doesn’t cover. Rather than being based on experience and levels, the character progression in shadowrun is handled with raw skill points (called Karma here) that you gain for progressing in the story or solving tasks. I made my character a Troll Adept (basically a monk, in that you punch things exceptionally hard), and that worked fine for about 75% of the game before enemies finally started doing threatening amounts of damage and I realized that the game ends if your character dies. I get the impression however, that the optimal way to go is guns with maybe a bit of support magic or rigging drones backing you up. While pistols are decent and SMGs are lame, Shotguns and Assault Rifles are absurdly powerful, the former having spread and an incredibly spammable special attack that reduces enemy action points and the latter having range, accuracy and a full-auto burst that can hit up to 5 times. The way stats and skills are split up makes going for heavy hybridization a bit risky, as I found out with my Troll adept. Having to split my points between strength and willpower to be useful instead of just maxing out quickness as a gunslinger would probably be able to do was a bit unfortunate, and I was unable to see the higher level adept abilities for myself.
Despite what Fallout might have told you, there’s no real reason to invest in Charisma unless your character is a shaman, whose magic is based on it. The bonus dialogue choices granted with high charisma are intriguingly split up into “etiquettes”, basically a knowledge of how to talk with a particular group of people (i.e. Street, Corporate, Shadowrunner, etc). Other than some additional dialogue, some skipped combat and some extra money (which you’ll probably have more than enough of by the end of the game) this campaign doesn’t really give much incentive to invest in these, both because it’s a bit of a guessing game figuring out which ones are useful (as far as I can tell, “Socialite” is used exactly once in the entire campaign) and because the benefits of these bonus dialogue choices aren’t really that exciting.
The combat resembles the original Fallout games with some cover mechanics reminiscent of the recent XCOM. With a set amount of action points and a multitude of options at your disposal between the various weapons, drones and the three different schools of magic, the combat is pretty fun. It’s unfortunate that Deckers really don’t get much to do, besides a rather weak ability that makes a targeted enemy easier to hit. (in fact, I’ll go on record and say that there’s no reason to use deckers except in the few situations where they are required). You can use drones or summoned shamanic spirits as meatshields or distractions, then flank the enemy from behind, you can set your guys on overwatch and it will do exactly what you’d expect if you played XCOM, or you can sit back and throw grenades or area-of-effect spells. As I said earlier, assault rifles and shotguns seem to be the winning choices, but the game is not especially difficult on the normal difficulty, save some rather annoying end game enemies who require specific weapons to dispatch.
Unfortunately, it’s the parts of the game that aren’t combat where the nature of this campaign becomes a bit clearer. It starts off with a pretty great hook and is something of a detective story… and then becomes something else entirely in the second half, complete with predictable twists, evil fake scientology cults and some cameo appearances from characters who are apparently pretty important in Shadowrun lore. It’s not going to win any awards, but it does a decent job of emulating what I imagine could be a rather typical pen-and-paper campaign. Maybe a bit too much. The writing is actually quite good for the most part, and having never been exposed to anything Shadowrun-related in the past I think it does a pretty great job of introducing people to its world, and other than the inherent cheesiness that comes with it being a product of the late 80s (especially the future slang), I’d say that I’m pretty sold on Shadowrun as an interesting world. Pacing wise, however, this is where it all starts falling apart. The game is critical-path linear at all times, with exactly two optional missions if you choose to take them (and of course you do), but otherwise you know where to go at all times and other than a few fetch quests here and there you are given no reason to go off the critical path. No hidden items, NPCs to talk to or anything. Then of course, there’s the lack of manual saves, which is pretty self-explanatory why that is a bad thing. You can roll-back to any previous autosaves (being that the game saves at every area transition and you’ll never be in the same area for more than 20 minutes), but it still seems like a rather important oversight on part of the developer, or perhaps a sacrifice made for the sake of the iOS versions of the game. As I said before, it took me 10 hours to get through Shadowrun Returns, and while I think most people will probably take a few more hours, it’s not an especially long game, even for $20.
It’s a bit unfair to ask for a full-scale RPG given this game’s level of funding, but it’s clear that the main emphasis is on the creation tools and the vast potential for user-generated campaigns, and if that takes off it will be pretty great. I’m not sure how flexible the tools are, or if the mechanics are necessarily deep enough to attract a large community, but the potential is there for some awesome stuff. Sadly, in the case of this review, potential is still just potential and anyone interested in this game who hasn’t bought it already should probably wait for a sale or for the first big wave of fan-campaigns to be released. As it stands right now, I found Shadowrun Returns a decent way to sate my RPG appetite until something bigger like Wasteland 2 comes out. And sometimes, that's good enough.