Almost two decades have passed since Shadowrun last graced home consoles (ignoring one ill-advised attempt at a multiplayer-focused reboot in 2007). Its unique blend of medieval fantasy and cyberpunk noir left a memorable impression on the older crowd, but after the third game, the video game branch of the franchise went dormant. Thanks to Kickstarter, magic has once again returned to the world in 2013, bringing an old property with a new coat of paint along for the ride. For the most part, this return trip to Seattle is worth taking.
The story is set in motion after a cold call from a dead man; as the rest of the world deals with the reemergence of mystical forces and races (the standard orc, troll, elf and dwarf found in most fantasy get a futuristic overhaul here), you’re a simple mercenary attempting to solve the murder of an old friend for a hefty paycheck. Like every other detective story, it’s filled with plenty of crooked cops, heartless corporations and drug lords, while throwing in a few cults and twists for good measure.
The aforementioned corporations are the ones who call the shots around the world, waging cloak-and-dagger wars against one another to wrest more control over the average citizens. Keep an eye out, don’t blink and eventually, a chance to be at the center of one of these operations will appear. Engaging in corporate skullduggery significantly spices things up when the hunt for a serial killer grows stale, which makes it all the more disappointing when such opportunities are few and far between. It’s certainly fun to step into the shoes of a runner and play the role of a traditional noir detective, but one can’t help but wish that the writers went with a story that played to the strengths of their sizable universe.
The strength of Shadowrun Returns lies in its robust, pulse-pounding skirmishes. Anyone who played XCOM: Enemy Unknown last year will likely feel at home here; it’s isometric, turn-based strategy that involves cover and hit percentages. Your squad of four can easily take a beating, but a stockpile of medkits and a cool head will get you far.
Add in six classes with a number of unique skills and building a crew becomes even more engaging. The Rigger’s flying drones can take on street thugs while keeping the rest of the team out of harm’s way, while a Decker steals sensitive data and reprograms turrets in the dangerous realm of cyberspace. Any combination will get the job done, but half the fun is toying with the tools at your disposal, learning which classes suit your playing style to create your ultimate team.
While it offers countless strategic options, Shadowrun Returns turns a cold shoulder to experimentation by refusing to explain crucial details. The Decker class is useless with any physical weapon that isn’t a handgun, but it took hours of play before I was aware of its shortcomings. Likewise, it wasn’t apparent that I could buy “summon” programs for my character until I took another Decker for a spin on the next to last mission.
Worse yet is a time-consuming save system that relies solely on checkpoints. Progress is only recorded between zone transitions, leaving long stretches of time where a single mistake could set you back 30-60 minutes. One particularly devilish mission robbed me of several hours because I wasn’t permitted to save after a rough gunfight. Forget your work, family, or any other emergency; if you need to stop playing and the timing isn’t convenient for the game, you’ll have to leave it and the computer running as you go about your business. It’s disrespectful of the player’s time, and it’s unsurprising that several have decided to wait until manual saving is implemented before jumping in.
Thankfully, these issues might be fixed as fans build their own missions and stories using the complementary editing suite. The packed-in “Dead Man’s Switch” campaign took around 16 hours to complete, but community content could add a wealth of exciting new journeys (not to mention the satisfaction from building and showcasing your own creations). It’s no RPG Maker, but the tools skip the coding requirement and seem like a good place to start for wannabe game creators. With any luck, clever players will enrich and expand an already lengthy experience.
Between the infuriating save system and a story that merely scratches the surface of a promising world, Shadowrun Returns doesn’t quite live up to its potential. Still, there’s nothing quite like forming the perfect team to storm a corporate compound, “rolling” enough Charisma to pay less for a nice set of armor, and deciding what justice means to you on a case-by-case basis. It may not be as deep as Fallout, but given the tools in the hands of a diehard community, this might just be the prelude to an even grander adventure….
Disclaimer: A review copy was provided by Harebrained Schemes.