The Shadowrun franchise has been around since 1989, combining fantasy tropes like magic and creatures like orcs and trolls with sci-fi aspects like cybernetics and digital worlds in a futuristic version of Seattle, becoming one of the most successful role-playing games ever, and is perhaps the most well-known example of the “cyberpunk” genre.
Along the way, however, the series made a couple trips away from the tabletop, pen-and-paper style to the video game world, resulting in a couple of excellent 16-bit adventure games for the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis, as well as an arena combat game for the XBox 360, which was fine, but not exactly in the true spirit of Shadowrun. Luckily, though, some intrepid fans of the series launched a crowdfunded project to create the next chapter of the Shadowrun video game universe, today’s piece of The Pile, Shadowrun Returns, released in 2013.
Shadowrun Returns tells a story titled The Dead Man’s Switch, where you, a down-on-your-luck Shadowrunner, is tasked with finding out the circumstances surrounding the death of Sam Watts, a former partner of yours who has posthumously promised you a big payday for tracking down his killer and bringing them to justice. Motivated by honor (or just the promise of cold hard cash), you set off to Seattle to embark on your adventure through the city’s dark underbelly.
Before you set off, though, you have to create a character, which works much like starting a character in a traditional role-playing game. There are five different races and six character classes to choose from, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. For example, Trolls have an initial boost to their Body stat, meaning they can take more damage before going down for the count, but certain other stats, like Intelligence, max out much lower than other races, and Elves start with extra Charisma, but can’t build their Body stat as high as others. After selecting a race, you select a character class, from the classics like the gun-toting Street Samurai or the cyber-savvy Decker to more bizarre classes like Riggers, who pilot drones instead of putting their own bodies in harm’s way, and Shaman, who can summon demons from magical items or, in certain situations, from the environment around them.
The gameplay itself feels like a combination of a point-and-click adventure and a turn-based RPG. Most of the time, you move your character around by clicking where you want them to go. You can hold Alt to highlight any items in the room you can interact with, from pickups like medkits and grenades to jack-in points where Deckers can hack into the Matrix (Shadowrun‘s version of Cyberspace that actually predates the movie franchise). Conversations with NPCs are pretty basic, following a dialogue tree instead of a text parser or anything more elaborate, but there is a bit of a quirk to be found, thanks to the game’s Etiquette system; for every two points of Charisma you have, you unlock an Etiquette, a familiarity with dealing with different types of people you’ll run across, which can help make certain activities a lot easier. Need to get behind the police tape and find some evidence at the crime scene? Knowing how to talk to Security folks can grease those wheels easier than bribery. Trying to locate an objective in a giant office building? Talking like a Corporate salaryman is a lot less messy than trying to get that info at gunpoint.
Of course, you won’t be able to talk your way out of every situation, and you’ll eventually have to resort to good ol’ fashioned violence. When it’s time to rumble, things shift to a turn-based format, where you and the other members of your party have a number of Action Points per turn, which allow you to perform actions like moving, attacking, reloading weapons, casting spells, and using items like medkits or drugs that boost your stats temporarily. There’s a rudimentary cover system to be found here, symbolized by a shield that pops up when you move the cursor next to objects in the area; an empty shield provides light cover, a half-filled shield represents medium protection, and a full shield marks heavy cover. There are other environmental features that can shift the balance of a fight, also, like ley lines, which increase the efficacy of a Mage’s spells, and summon points for Shaman to conjure up spirits without having to use an elemental fetish. As you increase your combat stats, you’ll unlock special abilities depending on your skills, such as Overwatch, that allow you to ambush enemies that come into your field of vision during their turn, or Chainshot, which allows those proficient with pistols to target three enemies in a single attack.
Much like a traditional RPG, you’ll be upgrading your gear and skills over time. Your skills are upgraded by earning Karma, which you receive for accomplishing objectives, or, like the name implies, for doing good deeds for people. You won’t earn enough Karma over the course of the game to become an expert in everything, though, so you’d be well-advised to pick a handful of disciplines and stick with them. Your gear will mostly be replaced by buying better equipment from vendors, but occasionally, you’ll happen upon better weapons from downed foes or friendly NPCs, as well as finding goodies like medkits or drone repair kits scattered about. Although, unlike most RPGs, you won’t be able to tote around everything you collect at once; you’ll only be able to carry a couple of weapons and a few items at a time, and to access the rest of your loot, you’ll have to find stash boxes, which work similarly to the item boxes from Resident Evil.
While Shadowrun Returns does feature solid gameplay, and would be a fine choice for those unfamiliar with the franchise but intrigued by the fusion of fantasy and sci-fi, what put it over the top for me was the constant callbacks and references to not just the extensive Shadowrun lore, but specific references to the Super Nintendo and Genesis games. You’ll bump into Jake Armitage, the protagonist of the Super Nintendo iteration, and in a wink to his sordid past, you’ll find him on a slab in the city morgue. You’ll knock over the Halloweeners gang that made an appearance during the Genesis version. Megacorps like Renraku and Fuchi get name-checked, and even make some of the tools deckers use.
Even the structure of the game and its story really capture the spirit of Shadowrun‘s major concepts quite well. You’re forming parties, you’re breaking into the halls of giant corporations and other seats of power, uncovering shadowy cabals, not entirely sure who, if anyone, you can actually trust. You’re asking yourself whether the best way to pull this job off is to bust the doors down, guns blazing, or whether to be more subtle, find a jack-in point for the Matrix, hack the side doors open, and sneak your way to the objective. There’s a surprising amount of flexibility here, so no matter what character class you are or where your skills lie, there’s a way for you to get the job done.
Now, it should be noted that the main story is rather short and ends somewhat abruptly, to the point where I actually thought the game had glitched up or I had done something wrong because I couldn’t unlock the next chapter. Nope, the game really DOES end there. I suppose that a crowdfunded game like this might not have had the budget to really make a truly epic-length game on the first go, but it’s still a little disappointing. However, there is very good news, as there are a substantial amount of expansion packs and fan-made mods to be found in the Steam Workshop (I myself highly recommend A Stitch In Time for those looking for a more full-length Shadowrun experience), as well as a number of tools and art assets for aspiring modders to cook up their own stories. Shadowrun Returns also apparently sold quite well, if the handful of official sequels that have been ginned out are any indication.
Shadowrun Returns is an excellent effort, and whether you’re a veteran of the pen-and-paper versions, the 16-bit video game versions, or are completely new to the series, it’s definitely a worthy heir to the Shadowrun name, and seeing as this was crowdfunded instead of a project by a big-name developer, you definitely get a sense that the designers were fans themselves, and not just contractors given an assignment and a deadline and told to do what they could. There’s a lot of callbacks to the earlier games to reward diehards, and the gameplay itself is smooth and intuitive enough to win new converts over. The main story isn’t terribly long, but the different classes provide some replay value, as well as a litany of free, fan-made mods for those looking for a new story. I definitely recommend Shadowrun Returns if you’re already a fan of the franchise, or if you’re an RPG fan looking for a new spin on the genre.
Current Price – $14.99
Is It Worth It? – Yes, especially with all the extra free content floating around for it.