"Shadowrun Returns... is about potential realized and potential squandered."
The coolest thing about Shadowrun has always been the concept
. Take your modern day world, add a magical apocalypse where dragons suddenly appear, humans start mutating into elves, dwarves, orks and trolls... mass hysteria. Now fast forward several decades and enjoy the implications. The world has changed utterly in terms of geography, politics, and laws. But humans (and meta humans) have not really changed much at our cores. We are still divided by class economics and the way we look, even more so than before. Throw in a new law where corporations are recognized as sovereign states that can govern themselves however they see fit, and you've got the recipe for a hotbed of storytelling action.
That action revolves around "Shadowrunners," people who are not part of any corporate or government system. These are people who live on the fringes of society, scraping by the best they can by taking jobs of often dubious moral quality.
As awesome as the setting has always been, Shadowrun has also thrived on a labyrinthine ruleset that makes actually sitting down and playing the tabletop game less an exercise in storytelling and more in waiting for your turn and looking up rules. This is not a criticism of the tabletop game per se — the game simulates the type of combat it wants to promote quite well with those rules — it can just sometimes be very time-consuming and occasionally frustrating when you just want to get to the part where something cool happens in the plot with your friends.
Because of this, I've always thought of Shadowrun as being particularly well suited to video games. With the nuances of the different combat systems (magic, weapons, decking, rigging, etc.) abstracted to button presses or mouse clicks or screen taps, you could really focus more on all the awesome stories waiting to be told in this universe.
Shadowrun Returns aims to do just that. The Kickstarter-funded game throws you directly into the role of a Shadowrunner who gets a mysterious call from someone in his past, with things quickly spiraling out of control from there.
Let's start with the story. It's terrific. It has been criticized for being the type of thing that a 16 year old would come up with behind his first Shadowrun game master screen, but I think it works. This is a mashup of what makes a good noir story: a dubious protagonist with a past that comes back to haunt him, the femme fatale, getting more than you bargained for, darkness and rain, all combined with futuristic and fantasy elements. That to me is pure Shadowrun. I won't spoil any of the story, as it has (sometimes predictable) twists and turns about it. I'll simply say I found the dialogue well written and the plot very fun. It's easily the best part of the game out of the box.
Everything else leaves something to be desired.
The graphics are excellent at setting the mood and are cleanly, often beautifully, drawn, but they aren't likely to win any awards. The sound and music aren't terrible but aren't particularly memorable either, and the tracks loop quickly enough to become noticeably repetitive in longer battles. The controls are mostly straightforward, but sometimes it is more difficult than it should be to click exactly what it is you're trying to click. You can't rotate the camera, and while this isn't a show stopper, it can be annoying. The save system is simply inexcusable for a game released in 2013, but more on that later.
Most of your time playing Shadowrun Returns alternates between two specific activities. Everything moves along linearly — you have sections of the game where you engage in dialogue (most of which won't have any effect on game outcomes), buying gear, and hiring fellow runners. Those sections are usually followed by a combat section. Then it's back to mission prep again.
Combat in the game is fun, and it has a lot in common with X-Com: Enemy Unknown. It is turn-based and tactical, and you'll be looking to end every turn behind some cover to defend yourself against spells, bullets, and drones. When at its best, it presents multiple tactical problems at once. Sequences where a decker is inside the "Matrix" (a VR network) trying to disable security systems while your mage and street samurai are ducking in and out of cover are extremely well executed. When at its worst, though, there are serious imbalances between the classes that make it blatantly suboptimal to approach the game in something other than one specific way. Guns are far more effective than magic, to the degree that it starts to become dubious planning to bother bringing a mage unless required. Deckers are mostly dead weight except in sequences where getting into the Matrix is necessary to complete mission parameters. It's a shame, because the variety of stuff on offer here could lead to some really interesting tactical combinations if just walking up and shooting a guy in the face wasn't the best way to solve almost every encounter.
The save system deserves special mention because of the level of insanity around it. There are no save points in this game, nor can you save in the middle of a sequence. Checkpoint saves are all that is available to you. If you have to quit the game, you are guaranteed to start over at the beginning of whatever sequence you had previously started. There is no other choice.
Harebrained Schemes mentions the save system specifically in the Shadowrun Returns FAQ and has mentioned numerous times that a) save game features are hard because they involve tracking the state of your game and b) save games would require a change to the core infrastructure of the game. The usual retort is that the sequences are only 15-20 minutes long in most cases, so your time between saves isn't that long.
Every one of these is a terrible excuse. "It's hard" is not a reason to not have a feature that everybody takes for granted in their games these days. This becomes particularly frustrating during the final battle, which can take a long time. On multiple occasions while I was playing the game, something else came up in real life that needed to be done, and I'd end up simply leaving the game on overnight, since quitting would have required me to start the entire sequence over again (particularly frustrating with regards to the last encounter in the game).
That is dumb. There is no other word that can be used. The fact that it is too hard/late to fix does not make it any less dumb.
The last feature that needs to be discussed is the mod system. This was one of the things that got folks very excited about the Kickstarter, and it is very well implemented. The mod tools are actually some of the less cryptic tools I've seen for this type of game, and there is already some pretty decent user-created content out there. This review is entirely about the PC version of Shadowrun Returns, but I would recommend the PC version over the iOS version for the mod content alone.
Shadowrun Returns, like the Shadowrun universe itself, is really about potential realized and potential squandered. There was potential here for this to be a game of Editor's Choice quality out of the box, and the story reaches those levels of quality. But the combat imbalance between classes and the absurd lack of a save system make it fall short. The terrific mod tools and a very passionate community still give this a chance to be a fantastic storytelling engine. It seems appropriate, since it's the passion of the Shadowrun universe fan base that has kept it alive for so long despite its flaws. Shadowrun Returns carries on that proud tradition — it is glaringly imperfect, but that won't stop me from downloading another mod and playing some more.