Shadowrun Returns Review: A Return To The Classics

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Posted on August 2, 2013, James Murff Shadowrun Returns Review: A Return To The Classics

It’s hard to take cyberpunk seriously after all these years, so it’s a good thing Shadowrun Returns doesn’t take itself entirely serious either.

It’s a fundamentally ridiculous concept, after all. Magic and technology have both grown unchecked, leading to a world of mages performing corporate espionage and hackers stealing from dragon hordes. Shadowrun Returns plays this concept straight, but does a fine job of providing characters and situations that toe the line between “so serious it’s goofy” and “just plain serious.” At the same time, it’s a fusion of game mechanics from both new and old western RPGs, and as a result is the first truly classic-styled RPG I’ve played in a long time.

Shadowrun Returns
Platforms: PC (Reviewed)
Developer: Harebrained Schemes
Publisher: Harebrained Schemes
Released: July 25, 2013
MSRP: $19.99

Shadowrun takes place in a world of powerful magicks and futuristic technology. On Christmas Eve 2011, an event known as The Awakening occurred, bringing magic back to the world in a big way. Native American shamans found themselves wielding real magical power, and fantasy races such as trolls and elves were introduced into the ethnic moshpit of global culture. Alongside this, corporate power grew without restraint and countries gradually ceded power to their new money-driven overlords. It is into this world that you were born, and it’s this world that you are driven to explore.

More specifically, Shadowrun Returns is an isometric RPG where you explore Seattle to find the killer — aptly titled the Emerald City Ripper, after Jack The Ripper — of an old friend. Said old friend promised you a healthy chunk of change through a dead man’s switch (an event that occurs when a person dies) for finding his murderer, so your reasons are not entirely altruistic. Unless you want them to be.

The result of this journey is a thoroughly enjoyable, medium-length RPG campaign. In around 12 hours, you will meet a collection of well-written characters that, despite being little more than noir and cyberpunk stereotypes, manage to have more depth of interaction than you might expect. For example, my personal favorite is the “gentle giant” bouncer troll Mr. Kluwe, as his dialogue emphasizes his strength, brutality, loyalty, and kindness in equal measure and does so efficiently. These characters use the classic text-only, dialogue tree style of RPG dialogue, and thanks to the focus on detailed, descriptive writing, it works quite well. It also helps that Harebrained Schemes brings a lot of knowledge about Shadowrun — several developers worked on the console games and the tabletop RPG – as well as an obvious love of traditional RPGs to the table, so characters and scenes strike a careful balance between goofy, heartwarming, and sinister.

Shadowrun’s RPG mechanics may be simple, but they offer enough choice to give an experienced RPG player a good time. You are not restricted to a particular class, and can distribute your character points, or Karma, among attributes and skills however you like (although you are capped based on your race of choice). Skill checks in conversations and exploring the field are automatic and always succeed, as long as your skill is of that level (for example, having Strength at 4 allows you to intimidate characters in some conversations), and using combat abilities is as simple as clicking on the icon and the target.

There’s a definite effort to make everything accessible, even though one skill, Decker (the ability to hack stuff in cyberspace), is rendered mostly (but not completely) useless by the main campaign’s flow. There’s also no way to grind through levels by doing things such as killing enemies, as karma (skill/ability points) is earned by doing campaign actions, not through fights.

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