PLATFORM: PC (Steam)
ESRB RATING: RP
DEVELOPER: Harebrained Schemes
PUBLISHER: Harebrained Schemes
A note regarding this review: After putting about 8 hours into the campaign I ran into a bug that prevented me from progressing further, and unfortunately due to time and other factors it wasn’t feasible for me to start over from scratch. While I do feel that I experienced enough of the game to give a fair and comprehensive review, I just wanted to add this little caveat up front for transparency’s sake. I will also say that while the bug does factor into my review, it does so only in the context of other small technical problems I encountered and was not a major negative influence. Obviously a game-stopping bug isn’t a good thing, but given the difficulty in accounting for all factors on PC and the fact that nothing I’ve seen online has suggested this is a wide-spread problem, I’m inclined to give Harebrained Schemes the benefit of the doubt in this case. Now that that’s out of the way, on to the review!
UPDATE: As of patch 1.0.2. that particular issue seems to have been resolved. Since it wasn’t a major initial factor the final score remains a 3.5, but Harebrained Schemes is clearly on the case.
Ever since I underwent the Bicentennial Man operation and had my cold, unfeeling mechanicals replaced with warm squishy bits, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to adhere to the strict objective critique that is the hallmark of the game journalist. In theory your typical review should boil down to a simple formula of graphics + gameplay + story ÷ brand loyalty (squared if it’s first party) = worth, but in the case of Shadowrun Returns I found myself grappling with a number of pesky warring subjectives. Outside of a handful of novels and a brief dalliance with the FPS I didn’t have much exposure to the Shadowrun world, but a tailor-made premise (orks AND cyberpunk? SOLD!) and many years spent worshiping at the Battletech altar meant I was definitely on team Weisman. Add in the feel good story of a creator taking back his creation with the love and support of his fans and it’s hard not to wipe a single tear from your eye while quietly thinking to yourself “God bless disposable income.” It was just too damn hard to come into Shadowrun Returns with an open mind, and so Max the would-be fan was forced to butt up against Max, the guy who’s supposed to be writing about whether this game is any good.
So let’s get one thing out of the way first: Shadowrun Returns is good. I can’t speak to the game’s loyalty to the source material or fidelity to the original console games, but Returns accomplishes what some might call the Herculean task of making its ludicrous world seem totally boss. Alright, so that task may be more or less Herculean depending on the number of action figures you currently own (less than 10, I don’t want to talk about it), but if we’re being totally honest here Shadowrun’s basic premise sounds like the sort of hyperbolic fake description you would use to make fun of nerds. Elf hacker samurai! Cyborg shaman detectives! Dinosaur businessmen! Troll cops! Alright I made up one of those examples, but if you weren’t familiar with the universe I suspect you’d be hard pressed to pick which one. Yet between the grungy and grounded (but still slightly alien) setting and the sharp, cyberpunk noir storytelling, Shadowrun Returns manages to walk the tightwire of embracing its mash-up approach without ever feeling like parody. The game never shies away from its more outlandish elements, but by keeping the presentation matter of fact with a strong focus on character narrative, the fantastical elements became additional flavor rather than a distraction. An hour into Returns‘ story, and I’d have been disappointed if my illegal underground surgeon didn’t have a demonic familiar to help out with the spell portion of the procedure. That’s just competent doctoring.
I also liked that the story, which sees you investigating the death of a former colleague, goes to some refreshingly dark and interesting places. A game as reliant on text as Shadowrun Returns is going to live or die by its writing, and even if it isn’t all dialogue for the ages I found myself consistently engaged throughout. Of course having something purty to look at doesn’t hurt, and in terms of the world at least Shadowrun Returns delivers. The 2D art makes the grimy neon aesthetic pop even as it gives the game a charmingly old-school feel. Unfortunately the 3D character models aren’t quite as impressive, thought they’re certainly serviceable. Really the only complaint I had in terms of presentation was the lackluster combat animations, specifically the combat magic which often felt less like unleashing primal forces of the universe and more like whipping water balloons.
As good as the world-building is however, the actual game part of the game left me a little cold. Part of the problem oddly enough is the surprisingly robust character creation system, which seemed to account for all the major Shadowrun races and occupations. I decided to go with an elf Shaman dubbed Lady Eight, and immediately employed my typical RPG strategy of dumping all my points into charisma and hoping for the best. Much as in real life I’ve found that kind words and a friendly demeanor can take you a long way, and anyone who says otherwise should shut their stupid face up. In this case it proved to be a smart decision as elves have the highest possible charisma in game, though none of the racial bonuses/penalties seemed particularly drastic. Indeed, there seemed to be a definite “anything goes” mentality, with the option to ignore roles entirely and simply build your character’s stats from scratch. Which is actually where the issues start. See, in a sense Shadowrun Returns is an RPG, but it’s a much more focused experience than something like a Neverwinter Nights or a Planescape Torment. The narrative is broken into linear levels, and while there are a handful of side quests in each one, there’s no real exploration of the world and after the first hour or so the game falls into a fairly set pattern of hub, mission, hub, mission and so on.
Given that rigid structure and the breadth of character options, it’s unfortunately not surprising how little your character choices actually impacts the experience. An NPC may offer up some flavor text based on your race, or you may be able to bypass certain problems with different skills, but none of it ever feels like more than a token acknowledgment of your decisions. Compared to their pen & paper counterparts, video game RPGs have always been limited by their inability to improvise. By necessity a player’s choices must to some degree be limited because there simply isn’t a practical way to account for all options, but Returns traits are so far afield that the severe compromises that entails mean the substantial character differences seem restricted to combat. You can’t, say, go around breaking into people’s houses, or seducing the locals, or hacking into ATMs and so forth because the game’s design necessitates that players advance at a certain set pace.
Dialogue is broken into a general “rude, professional, polite” response system, but it often didn’t seem to have a lot of impact, and in some cases it was hard to see any substantial difference between the options. There’s also very little in terms of character morality, something reinforced by the game’s XP system which relies on generic Karma. Technically I suppose you could be a douche and simply ignore objectives like returning a homeless man’s blankets, but given the dearth of side quests and limited XP, from a practical perspective it would put you at a distinct disadvantage. Given the relatively bleak nature of the Shadowrun world and your own quasi-criminal status, the fact that the moral gray areas are limited largely to an occasional side mission and hassling people for money is kind of disappointing. While I tend to play RPGs like Mother Teresa’s more helpful sister, it would have been nice to have the truly cold-blooded psycho mercenary be an option. Without a semi-set protagonist ala a Commander Shepard it largely falls to actions to determine your character, and to me it just didn’t feel like there were enough opportunities to put my personal stamp on the narrative. Still, it’s a testament to the game’s setting and characters that even though my personal story wasn’t particularly interesting, I was always driven to keep moving forward so I could advance the overall narrative.
Of course the RPG-lite mechanics wouldn’t be an issue if the combat was the draw, but in this case much like the story it seems designed to simply keep you moving from A to B. There’s certainly plenty of tactical options to be had but again the broad vs. deep approach means that by necessity the tactics never get particularly nuanced. As a shaman I relied on minions and area of effect spells, but the fastest solution always seemed to be slapping Haste on my two shotgun totting cronies then just letting them sweep the room. Occasionally either you or one of your team will need to jack into the Matrix as part of a mission, but these moments add little to the proceedings as they’re basically just the same type of grid-based battlefield rendered in wire-frame, which means that instead of taking their turn with everyone else your decker takes their turn inside a 90’s screensaver.
There also isn’t much in terms of inventory management, as enemies only drop mission-specific items and lootable environmental objects are few and far between. You can purchase various sundries back at your home base, but it typically boils down to Gun Lvl. 1, Gun Lvl. 2, Pants Lvl. 1, Pants Lvl. 2 etc.. I don’t want to give an overly negative impression because the combat system is certainly competent, it just isn’t particularly exciting, and I was always happy to get back to the story. There were also a handful of small design decisions that I found consistently grating. While in many cases you’ll be rolling with a posse of allies and hired Shadowrunners, they’re apparently all lazy bastards because their stats and abilities can’t be applied outside of combat, so I can only assume that my decker minion is just staring at me smugly as I derpily try and hack that corporate terminal. Thanks guy. Also, in addition to the aforementioned game-stopping bug, I ran into a couple of instances were enemy AI didn’t seem to react to my presence, as well as cases were pre-set narrative events didn’t seem to trigger, forcing a quick restart. Also, as with any turn-based game chance can be a cruel mistress, and there were definitely a handful of “tough shit” moments were my character, whether through my own midstep or a gameplay trigger, was coldly gunned down before I could do anything. None of which would be a big problem if the game had a manual save function, but instead checkpoints are limited to transitions between levels, which in some cases can mean having to repeatedly skip through dialogue. On the plus side I didn’t have any real difficulty until the very end of my playthrough, so for the most part the combat was an innocuous bumper between story sections.
So entertaining story and world, decent gameplay, wish it had blown my mind but a solid first effort, 3.5 and moving on…is what I would be saying if there wasn’t that big user generated elephant in the room. Here once again is where Fan Max and Reviewer Max find themselves at odds. Throughout Shadowrun Returns’ development Harebrained Schemes has made no secret about the fact that it wasn’t intended to be just a game, but rather a toolbox for users to create their own stories and gameplay experiences within the Shadowrun world. Weisman himself has said that the campaign should not be taken as the definitive experience, but rather an example of the kind of story his team AND the community can and will be creating in the future. While I don’t consider myself qualified to judge the merit of Returns’ editor, having already dabbled with some of the early user generated content it’s not hard to see the immense potential there. The thing is, as a reviewer I can’t really critique potential; the question I need to answer is “as it stands now, is Shadowrun Returns worth your gaming $$$?” To which I can happily give a (qualified) yes. Warts and all I certainly enjoyed my time with Shadowrun Returns, and now that I’ve shoved Reviewer Max back into the dank cave in which he dwells, I’ll add that I can’t wait to see what the community can come up with. I expect Shadowrun Returns will be a fixture on my hard drive for some time to come.
Out of 5
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