I had the tremendous pleasure of delving into Harebrained Schemes’ take on Shadowrun last year with Shadowrun: Dragonfall — Director’s Cut. I awarded it one of the highest scores I’ve ever given a game (92% overall), so I frothed at the mouth for the chance to travel to Hong Kong. Fans of Dragonfall will find much to love here as both games are surprisingly similar. After meeting their Kickstarter goal to create this new title, I had expected more variation or perhaps improvements from Harebrained Schemes, but when the initial title is so strong, treading new ground opens up the risk of pratfalls.
Hong Kong maintains the same noir, brooding atmosphere fans have come to expect from Shadowrun. The primary protagonist (that’s you) comes to Hong Kong from Seattle after receiving an ominous message from his foster father requesting his assistance. Upon arriving, he encounters a long lost friend: his foster brother, who’s now a police officer back in the US. Tension between the two indicates a regrettable separation and challenging past that isn’t immediately clear. Both brothers arrived to meet their foster father, but, as you might imagine, not everything goes as planned. Dear old dad isn’t at the agreed meeting place, and a bounty has been placed on their heads by the Hong Kong Police Force. After finding refuge in a nearby shanty town comprised of a syndicate boss, shadowrunners, smugglers, hackers, and other criminals, the protagonist and his brother find themselves trapped far away from home with few answers.
Similar to Dragonfall, Hong Kong takes place in a town, which serves as the base of operations. Here, players interact with denizens who slowly open up to the protagonist. Nightmares plague the poor inhabitants, but these dreams linger long after waking. Everyone in town seems preoccupied with these dreams, but nibbles of insight into their past offer a sense of progression, as they have fascinating stories to tell. After each mission, the NPCs offer bits of information and then shoo away the protagonist, only to further engage upon his return. The consistency of this delivery method feels like an artificial formula, which takes away from the authenticity and joy of the experience; this is a shame, because the characters feel like real people and the writers’ grasp on dialogue is matched by few in the industry. In short, the writing is phenomenal, but the delivery method demands some variability.
Let me step back a bit: the content is phenomenal, but Shadowrun: Hong Kong has a dire need for an editor. Initially, the near-constant typos were forgivable, but at a certain point, they distract players and trip up one’s reading. For most titles, we can read fluidly because we trust that the sentences will make sense. However, Hong Kong lost this trust, which forced me to read sentences over again or slowly process the information for fear that the odd sentence structure could indicate yet another typo. While this may seem like nitpicking, this concern definitely warrants attention. True, the substance of the game matters much more, but the immersion and my escape into this world were hindered in large part due to the delivery of the experience.
Dialogue options return as the protagonist can use charisma or other traits to avoid battle and stealthily navigate the shadows. Other choices can also substantively drive the direction of the dialogue, future relationship with an NPC, and tactical outcomes. Unfortunately, several options are almost exclusively available to charisma-heavy classes, like the Shaman. Still, when the gameplay is as engrossing and viscerally fun as Shadowrun: Hong Kong, entering a few more skirmishes isn’t just okay, it’s welcomed.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong functions almost entirely the same as Dragonfall, meaning that ranged combat using cover in a strategy RPG format with action points per character in a team drives almost all of the playtime when one isn’t reading, reading, and reading. Each character has a mostly unique class, ranging from decker (hacker), to shaman (spells and pets), to street samurai (brute force melee and gun). Each has seemingly balanced offerings, with some used more as a combat-evading device. For example, I almost always had a decker on my team because they can gather intelligence and avoid traps by hacking into systems during missions. This ensures that the team maintains their inventory before the big battle at the end of a mission. Plus, this drives dialogue in a direction one might desire, meaning someone who wants to be stealthy and avoid killing can enjoy NPCs acknowledging this chosen path. These qualities add dimensions to Hong Kong in a way not all strategy RPGs do through simplicity and customization.
Decking, unfortunately, isn’t that fun. While avoiding defense drones following clearly labeled paths can create tension while traversing this realm, breaking into information hubs requires a Simon Says-esque number “game” and code cracking finale. Not only do these hurdles lack imagination, they’re also time-consuming and easy. The developers missed an opportunity to put a hacking spin on these gates, or to at least spice up the experience with some variation. For this reason, decking felt like a groan-worthy chore, yet I kept bringing one with me because of that juicy, delicious dialogue.
At times, I felt as if Shadowrun: Hong Kong put too much emphasis on story. Not for my own sake, but for the consumer-at-large. Those seeking a gameplay-heavy experience won’t find it here, unless one skips all of the NPC interaction and story-driven decisions. This would likely bisect the game time in Shadowrun (I clocked in at about 50 hours), but would also entirely miss what the developers have carefully crafted. To make matters worse, Shadowrun isn’t particularly challenging. I died twice in the entire game — both times out of sheer carelessness — and I ended my playthrough with 71 Karma, which are skill points one has to pay depending on the level of the skill. For example, going from 8 Charisma to 9 Charisma will cost 9 Karma, and then 10 Karma to move on to 10 Charisma. Skills get expensive quickly, but the system requires careful planning, strategy, and some mixing with other class areas. Thus, having a plethora of skill points left over at end game indicates just how powerful I was without extra skills.
Hong Kong’s presentation is identical to Dragonfall’s. I praised Dragonfall for its tiny details that flesh out environments. Similarly, Hong Kong’s locales feel like real places with history and culture because of these finer points, and not just with regard to grand structures or uniquely Asian décor. Slums are littered with empty containers, busted tables, and dingy cloths. Yet, at the same time, the dwellers maintain a sense of home. While this land is absolutely full of strife, drug addiction, and suffering, people get by with charming touches and improvisation. With visuals alone, I got a strong sense of who these people are, their degree of optimism and hope, and what is important to them. No exposition can replace that.
On the other hand, some of the models felt bland, simple, and blurry. Even worse, characters did not always match their portraits in dialogue. Although these portraits are beautiful and the style feels uniquely Shadowrun, when the models don’t match them at all, they lose their impact. A fast-paced player who doesn’t sit back and enjoy what has been presented here might not notice these touches, but someone diving into this world will, which, again, is the point of Shadowrun.
Musically, Hong Kong performs about on average compared to most titles. Some tunes have a satisfying Eastern vibe and instrumentation, but much of the music is ambiance that doesn’t add much flare to the experience. The subtlety, while appreciated, should not exist under all circumstances, signaling another missed opportunity to spice up Hong Kong. One also can’t help but notice the complete lack of voice acting in 2015 despite the successful Kickstarter.
Controls, unfortunately, can frustrate as clicking models or tiles directly behind another can be difficult. This woe was noted in my review of Dragonfall, but it remains yet another consistency across titles that isn’t really for the better. Even clicking dialogue options can be vexing, as sometimes the game didn’t recognize several mouse clicks, which bewilders me still. Overall, Hong Kong functions appropriately, but these nuisances shouldn’t exist, especially considering how obvious they are and how frequently they reveal themselves.
Technical concerns aside, Hong Kong is a wondrous experience. Few developers can craft a world or characters the way Harebrained Schemes does. They favored the cautious path, capitalizing on what worked rather than trying something new, which is a shame, but the end result is still a fantastic game. Those looking for an escape into a sci-fi fantasy realm needn’t search any further. Upon completing the game, I felt true accomplishment, as if I had actually helped this town of people who were important to me. This wasn’t surprising after spending as much time as I did with these poor, suffering individuals, but it was truly only possible with strong characterization. Even when characters did something stupid or rash — totally befitting them — I still loved them because they are not one-dimensional beings. They’re human. Or trolls. Or elves. Unfortunately, Shadowrun: Hong Kong may not appeal to everyone, as the emphasis is clearly placed on plot and dialogue. However, even if you’re one to venture toward the gamey side of gaming, try to cut your teeth on this title: if it won’t work here, it won’t work elsewhere.