Shadowrun Returns Review: A Return To The Classics

For those that found the XCOM: Enemy Unknown combat a little too difficult, Shadowrun Returns might be a better choice to slake that tactical, turn-based bloodlust. Much like XCOM, Shadowrun uses a two-action system, with different abilities and weapons requiring differing amounts of action points. You are also told to take cover, and the familiar percentage number appears above enemy heads when targeting them to let you know how likely you are to score a hit.

However, Shadowrun lacks a lot of XCOM’s more granular tactical detail — Overwatch, the ability to automatically attack enemies that come into a character’s range, is unlocked fairly late and is a lot more limited, for example — in favor of more abilities and great flexibility in using action points. It’s also a bit more difficult to navigate tight formations, as there’s no way to change the camera angle to better see the battlefield. You won’t really need that level of detail in the main campaign, though, and the wider range of combat options is nice.

It’s a fun combat system, but lacks in challenge for any character except one that has put all their karma into Decker. If you have put points into combat skills at all, you’ll find yourself steamrolling every enemy that comes your way, even in the later stages of the game. It’s fun to feel powerful, but it’s also fun to feel a bit challenged, and Shadowrun Returns does the former while completely side-stepping the latter. Besides a few points where I obviously made really stupid mistakes, I breezed through the campaign, despite starting off as a Decker. I blasted my way through with a rifle, with some healing and summoning magic to make my life a little easier, and I only reloaded as a result of death once or twice.

Along those lines, the spell options don’t seem to be important for any character except a full mage. If you have or want a decent skill in firearms, you may as well ignore spells; you aren’t going to use them, with the possible exception of healing spells. Buffs and debuffs are only rarely necessary, which leaves you with weak direct attacks, healing, and summons. If the combat was harder, buffs could definitely be important, but without that difficulty forcing more complex player choices, it simply doesn’t happen. Combat is mostly the exchange of gunfire between your forces and any enemies. However, this could just be a symptom of the main campaign being a bit easy, rather than any inherent flaw in the combat system.

Of course, players may fix that themselves. Shadowrun Returns comes with a medium-length campaign, but it also ships with a full-featured editor that links into the Steam Workshop (although there are no “incredible” campaigns as of yet). Want to make simplistic battle maps? Go for it. Want to program huge sprawling adventures with dozens of well-written characters and an emphasis on alternative player choice? You can do that, too. It’s an impressive editor and was apparently used to create the main campaign. This is great news for budding Internet game masters, and I personally have started on my own campaign with a group of friends. Even if you have never done this sort of thing, it’s worth checking out.

You’ll be getting a great look at the art if you decide to work with the editor, so it is a good thing that the art is rendered in a lush, painted style with incredible amounts of detail. It’s clear that this is the part of Shadowrun Returns that received the most work, as there is a staggering number of props and tiles to see. Character models are full 3D, and while they are simplistic and low fidelity, their overall silhouette design makes them easy to distinguish at a glance, which is what is most important in an RPG like this. Since you won’t spend a lot of time zoomed in, this low model fidelity will be difficult to notice. After all, you’ve got to focus on your overall strategy or the next spot you want to go to, and not so much the details on your shirt.

Besides being a bit simple, Shadowrun Returns has a few flaws, mostly revolving around its interface and technical execution. The interface is a very tablet-driven experience, and while that’s great for anyone playing on an iPad, it often feels like a waste of screen space. Some kind of alternate PC interface would have been great. In addition, alt-tabbing can cause the game to stop rendering (but not the interface), forcing a restart, and sometimes audio can stutter and skip. The technical issues were few and far between, however, and the interface design flaws ended up being ignored after a short while thanks to the strength of the writing and combat.

Shadowrun Returns aims to bring back the classic RPG feeling — much like BioWare’s Dragon Age did when it was released — and succeeds wholeheartedly. It’s not too deep, has a short main campaign, and has design flaws from being built around a tablet, but it’s still the best RPG in ages. When it gets something right, it does so with a bang; when it gets something wrong, it’s a minor inconvenience at best. As we get more and more user-created and developer-supported campaigns and content, Shadowrun Returns will likely morph from a “great” RPG into a “must buy” RPG. For now, enjoy the fantasy cyberpunk future, and try not to trip on too many hellhounds.


  • Extremely accessible
  • Styled after classic RPGs
  • Engaging combat system
  • Well-written and paced main campaign
  • Powerful editor and Steam Workshop support


  • A little too simplistic
  • Tablet-driven interface
  • Only one campaign
  • Occasional technical hiccups

Final Score: 80/100

Game Front employs a 100-point scale when reviewing games to be as accurate about the experience as possible. Read the full rundown of what our review scores mean.

James Murff’s other work can be seen here, and you can follow him on Twitter at @jamesmurff.

Join the Conversation   

* required field

By submitting a comment here you grant GameFront a perpetual license to reproduce your words and name/web site in attribution. Inappropriate or irrelevant comments will be removed at an admin's discretion.

1 Comment on Shadowrun Returns Review: A Return To The Classics


On August 3, 2013 at 5:50 am

A quick note on Harebrained Schemes: the head of the company was much more than “involved” in the tabletop RPG- he is the one who *invented* it, and who wrote the story/setting and concepts. It doesn’t get any more authentically Shadowrun than Jordan.

Also, I have finished the campaign with a straight Mage and it went as well as my Samurai. I found that the ‘debuff’ spells Mind Wipe and Blind were battle-winners. Preventing a powerful foe from acting for two turns can be the difference between defeat and victory. Also remember that since you only get a limited amount of money in Shadowrun Returns, how much you are forced to spend on consumables (healing items etc) can determine if you can continue playing. And there’s at least one effectively unlimited use heal spell (and Blind etc directly reduce the need for healing). Magic is strong.