Game Review: Shadowrun Returns [PC]
Think about how many games stay with you indefinitely, the unforgettable ones. There aren’t many are there? I can think of maybe half a dozen or so that would sit on that pedestal; games that have genuinely changed a genre, or caused me to measure every subsequent game against it. In 1993, Beam Software released one of the few games that fit that description on the Super NES. Shadowrun. It remains to this day as one of my favourite games of all time, so you can imagine my excitement at the news of the Kickstarter for Shadowrun Returns.
The origin of all this is from the pen-and-paper RPG game of the same name. The canonical timeline sees megacorps take almost complete control of The Sixth World (Earth), with the help of a few new laws, effectively allowing them to have their own private armies.
In 2011, human mothers began giving birth to children that look like Elves and Dwarves, it was known as “Unexplained Genetic Expression”. Add to this the “Goblinization” about ten years later, where humans spontaneously began to turn into Orks and Trolls. Finally, we have the return of magic, this was known as “The Awakening”, the event also took place in 2011 and was attributed to a single date based on the Mayan solar calendar, which was also marked as the dawn of The Sixth World. In 2029 there is a viral attack on the internet causing a catastrophic crash (did no one save the porn?), which in turn lead to the creation of The Matrix. This acts as a virtual world accessed by those with Cyberterminals and Cyberdecks.
That is a glimpse at the incredibly rich world, which Harebrained Schemes has tried to recreate digitally in the guise of Shadowrun Returns. It’s no small order; the original game has a very passionate following, because of both previous incarnations and the pen-and-paper RPG. I originally thought this would be a very hard review to write, mainly because it can be difficult to keep nostalgia from overwhelming objectivity, but most surprisingly, to my disappointment, that wasn’t a problem.
The Shadowrun Returns Kickstarter garnered almost five times that of its original target, landing just over $1.8 million. I’m sure that most of us will be familiar with stretch goals for these types of projects, in the case of SR they have planned to add a second city to explore, that city being Berlin. There was also telling of a “less ugly” mission editor for the creative amongst us. Personally I only browsed over the mission editor, and if I’m honest, I have no idea what they did to it, as I haven’t ever used one. Additionally, a musical score that “resonates like the SNES and Genesis” soundtracks was also promised, but I will get on to the sound and visuals a bit later on.
A Mac version, for the five people that would actually play PC games without a proper PC (that’s right, I went there) was added, but apparently not counted as stretch goals, some additional language support is present and the Rigger class was thrown in for more variety. The reason I say all this is that, well, I don’t think they did a particularly good job for the money. Now I will fully admit my ignorance when it comes to games developing, I don’t know how things work on that end, all I’m trying to convey is, I’ve seen a lot more done with a lot less. Concordantly, this brings me to the crux of the problem with SR; everything feels like the bare minimum.
I agree that this sounds like harsh criticism when talking about a Kickstarter project, I get it, I really do, but we have just had far too many quality titles from the indie scene and Greenlight to let this pass. However, I don’t want to spend the next 800+ words bashing a game needlessly, so I will just sum up the main problems.
First and foremost is the lack of exploration and interactivity. When I say that, I mean it literally, for exploring anyway. There isn’t any, none at all. The environments are narrow and confined; the extremely small amount of time spent outside of buildings allows a miniscule amount of breathing room. You could argue that the SNES version wasn’t huge in regards to wide-open spaces, honestly though, I personally think the 1993 title had a lot more going on in this sense.
The interactivity (or lack thereof) is something that really stifles the game for me. Anything you can pick up or interact with has a flashing icon above it. Any people you can speak to will have a speech bubble above their heads, and this makes moving around the game world is like walking through an empty store full of manikins. It’s like the RPG equivalent to a modern military FPS. Follow icons everywhere. There just isn’t any personality to the city you inhabit, the AI moves around in an awfully lifeless manner; there is no ambient sound to speak of either. A final kick in the teeth is the fact that there is no save function, only autosave at checkpoints. As I said earlier, bare minimum.
I realise being derogatory about a Kickstarter funded game is worse than complaining about a homeless person being a cheap date, but I just can’t look past the fact that more could have been done. Initially, Shadowrun Returns seems promising. The character creation is robust and has several different classes to choose from. Ranging from Riggers and Mages, to Shaman and Street Samurai. You can choose your race and gender, and then allocate some “Karma” to bump up certain stats. It’s all user friendly, your primary stats are noted for you, giving a good idea of a decent starting point for your Shadowrunner. Anyone new to this kind of game should have no fear, as it’s all basic. Unfortunately, that rudimentary nature carries over to the rest of the game, and in this case, that isn’t a good thing.
RPGs are a genre that I demand sweep me away in its imagination, be it with a beautifully told story, or a huge open world to explore that promises to reveal drip fed secrets. Something has gone missing in that department, although in fairness, it’s not the story.
SR starts with you receiving a call from a recently deceased ‘friend’ via a “Dead Man’s Switch”. This leads swiftly to a combat tutorial, which consists of playing through a flashback that elucidates your characters attachment to the not so dearly departed. It’s a little jarring and the dialogue is somewhat awkward, but it’s done well enough to set up the main story of the game.
Every interaction between your avatar and NPCs during the course of play is done via a chat panel, there is no voice work but the narrative is written to a considerably high standard. Every emotion and digital stage direction is scrawled out for you to absorb. It really drives home the pen-and-paper origins brilliantly. The portraits of the more prominent characters are also superbly done. A few of the secondary characters don’t have one, but it’s no cause for concern being that they aren’t around long enough to warrant one.
The start of the main game pushes you quickly through a few locations towards what was worryingly, one of the highlights of the game. It comes in the form of a great nod to the 1993 title, involving Jake Armitage (pictured at the top). Anyone who has played the SNES game will recognise him as the main protagonist. It did force a smile to creep across my cynical jaw, it’s always nice to see fan service, especially handled in the way it was.
All things considered, without this strong story, it’s highly unlikely I would have managed to finish the game (had I not been reviewing it). Nevertheless, despite its slow start, SR does pick up noticeably once your quest hub is established, some solid personalities and engaging side quests push things along enough in between the rather archaic feeling, action oriented sections.
The combat in SR is relatively deep, there is nothing fancy here, but it’s done in such a way that requires at least a little forethought rather than charging head on in. Having said that, I don’t remember ever having to restart a particularly difficult section. The enemy AI does deserve some praise though, the simple cover mechanics are used well and opponents stage some aggressive manoeuvres. I’m unsure if changing the difficulty alters their attack patterns, but on normal setting it seemed very well balanced.
The action itself is of the turn-based variety. You use your ‘action points’ to move, attack or use items. You can set characters to ‘overwatch’ and cover your other Shadowrunners to make a steady advance, there is also various objects to use for differing amounts of protection. It never gets complicated, nor difficult for that matter, and once you’ve reached the midway point, it starts to become quite stale.
Something I’ve always found of immense importance in RPGs is your characters feeling of growth, specifically in ability and power. Besides the increasing numerals that float above your targets, lengthier, fancy descriptions of upgraded skills, it appears to be absent. The effects for spells do not increase visually to reflect their intensification, the higher level of which is impossible to differentiate between because of this. Sound bites for firearms and sorcery also leave a great deal to be desired.
As much as I dislike hurling a tirade of disparaging opinions about the work of a seemingly very humble bunch of people, it would be irresponsible of me to do you, the readers, the disservice of just ignoring them. Regardless of how the game was made, these things do drag the experience down to a level far below what I would have liked. However, some aspects of the game were handled expertly.
As you would imagine from a cyberpunk themed game, computers and hacking take a strong role, I mentioned earlier about the use of Cyberdecks, they are used by a class known as a Decker. Deckers can jack into the Matrix from access points (computers), projecting their virtual self in to a beautifully presented digital environment. The combat and movement remains similar, but utilises ‘Programs’ as abilities. They are of the same ilk as spells that Mages use, although you can also summon ‘Espers’ to help protect you. The better the Decker and his Cyberdeck, the more Programs and Espers you can use once jacked in.
Certain parts of the game require you to protect a Shadowrunner whilst he hacks a terminal, albeit for gaining access to doors or retrieving information. Once doing this the combat will alternate between the real world and digital. It gives off quite a hectic feel (as much as turn-based combat can) and I found them to be the best parts of the game by far.
Another high point is the use of colloquialisms, moreover, the general theme of the source material. Thankfully, there is an information base within the game that you can search to find the meanings of many of the oddities used as words; despite being well versed in the franchise, I still stumbled a few times. The visual style does some work to help the particularly apt narrative; I personally would have liked a bit more of a dark and dingy vibe to it, something similar to the upcoming Satellite Reign. It’s nicely done, but as with the NPCs that inhabit the world, it often looks quite stagnant.
The nostalgic soundtrack we were promised, I’m sorry to say, is also not of a particularly high standard. There seemed to be only a few looped tracks, none of which was memorable. Music and ambience is an important part of any game for me, especially when trying to immerse in an RPG. In fairness, they carried the mood of the game adequately; I just felt they could have been considerably better.
SR comes packed with the main campaign and the aforementioned level editor. I always feel overwhelmed when opening them, so I didn’t really play around with it. There is however, already a large amount of content on Steam, not least of which is the alpha code to the remade SNES version. It’s still early days in its design, but after a short play with it, I can tell you that the author of the code has the start just right. The dialogue was spot on; I could even remember the layout of the initial zone. A lot of work still needs to go in to it; nevertheless, this is something that could turn out being better than Harebrained Schemes’ offering.
PC users often scream for such editing tools, rarely do developers supply them, for whatever the reason may be. It’s great that we are given such creative freedoms right out of the gate, as user created content can turn out some incredible results. It does seem that since release, Harebrained Schemes has been taking some feedback and they are hard at work regarding updates. The new area (Berlin) and some fixes are in the work, but I can’t honestly let that affect the review any more than I can let what content people might make, have any impact.
I originally was optimistic for SR, from the first screens that showed the game still adopted an isometric view, to the feel of the streets in Seattle. The problem is, there wasn’t any noticeable change in quality from those first screenshots and videos, to the game that was released. SR isn’t a terrible game, even calling it a bad one is a little harsh. The literary bashing I’ve given it comes in part from dented expectations, although that doesn’t excuse what I believe to be at best, an average game. I imagine the quality of the story will be enough to make many of you disagree with me, vehemently so in some cases, regardless, that is where the problem lays with this game, the quality.
With possibly some more production time and if I’m brutally honest, a little more creativity and flair, Shadowrun Returns could have been something special. It’s still likely that the community, or even Harebrained Schemes themselves, will improve the game to a level I had hoped it would be. Fans of pen-and-paper RPGs may well find something of merit here, there’s potential in abundance, although as it stands, this is a game that doesn’t inspire, nor execute where it needs to. Instead, it sits in the shadow of some great source material, whilst never doing enough to quite live up to it.