Game Review: Shadowrun Returns

Because it’s always nighttime in cyberpunk-land.

Developer: Harebrained Schemes
Publisher: Harebrained Schemes
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed), Mac OS, Linux
Available on: Steam

I have an ambivalent relationship with isometric RPGs. I respect the hell out of the intricate and complex systems developers can implement in these games to give them the ability create vast, sprawling worlds full of minute details. Worlds that truly seem alive and tell grand stories on a scale where the world and the characters both support the size and scope of any given narrative they want to present. However, I really get bored having to read mountains of descriptive text alongside gameplay that largely relegates the player to the backseat. Sure, there are tactical considerations you have to make concerning party composition, positioning on the battlefield and action point usage. But I just find it boring as hell clicking through all of this stuff and just relying on character skills to determine the outcome of any battle or conversation and not the skills of me as a player. Especially in cases like this, where you can stand at point-blank range, have an 85% hit chance and still miss the enemy with a motherfucking shotgun.

Which is why I have put off playing Shadowrun Returns for so long. I never played the tabletop RPG it’s based on and I’m also not familiar with prior video games based on the license outside of having heard of them. But the concept behind it really intrigued me. I really like the idea of a futuristic cyberpunk setting where elves, dwarves and magic all are real too. Not the greatest or most original concept on the planet, mashing together classic fantasy tropes with William Gibson’s writing, but I’ve seen worse.

First off, I really love the look of this game. It’s not quite the picture-perfect representation of what I see before my inner eye when I envision the word “cyberpunk”, but then again, nothing has ever come close to that in my eyes, but it’s still gorgeous to behold – if you don’t zoom in to the max, since at that point you can clearly make out the seams –  and the music definitely nicely enhances the general atmosphere of this world.

The characters also managed to endear themselves to me since there’s tons of descriptive writing outside of mere conversation, since the visual style of the game and the lack of voice-acting doesn’t really permit for expressive character models to indicate their body language.

Similarly, the writing of the actual narrative is mostly serviceable, but the narrative itself is kind of a weak point for me. It’s a murder mystery filled with some fairly played out clichés, where the player ends up knowing what’s going to happen next way ahead of the characters even without being familiar with the setting.

It starts with one of your old pals getting killed and having one of his organs removed. After you find out that there were other murders perpetrated by the same killer, who also harvested specific organs from his other victims, it becomes fairly obvious that this leads to a Frankenstein-situation, where these organs all came from the same donor whose identity is heavily foreshadowed by a conversation you end up having with someone.

I guess my problem with this narrative is, that it’s a) fairly predictable and b) it makes a dramatic jump in scale very suddenly, switching from the aforementioned murder mystery to some kind of corporate conspiracy, and it just doesn’t gel, since the link between these plots is basically as arbitrary as it gets. The game is also pretty damn short for an RPG with only very few locations to visit, which all in all gives me the impression that the main goal the developers had with this game was in creating a basic framework for modern game designers to use in order to create 90s-era style isometric RPGs with modern design sensibilities and player comfort in mind, given that they offer the necessary tools to create further campaigns, and they used this campaign primarily for demonstration purposes as opposed to telling a great story first.

This may also explain why my choice in race basically had no influence in the story and only marginally mattered with regards to the upgrade tree. In a universe such as Shadowrun, I’d have assumed that racial tensions would ensure that you’d have an easier or tougher time with a group based on what race you belong to, but unfortunately this isn’t the case. And it probably has to do with the fairly limited dialogue options the game offers.

Most of the time it’s just a checklist you have to go through in order to get all the information. Sometimes you get to use your skills such as charisma or strength or what the game calls an etiquette to convince someone, but it’s so rare that it really seems underutilized. Especially the etiquettes, since you can literally play the entire game and not come across instances where an etiquette would be useful, since you can end up unlocking an etiquette way after it would’ve been useful when it would’ve triggered during a conversation hours earlier in the game, and each etiquette is basically used more or less once during the game.

The gameplay also feels rather unfocused to me. It heavily borrows from X-Com in the way it handles its turn-based combat encounters. Maybe it’s because I’m unfamiliar with the tabletop game it’s based on, but as a newbie to the franchise, I have to say I found it very silly how a group of freelance spies have their infiltration missions end up consisting of tons of shoot-outs and not a lot of sneaking and hacking. I played as a decker and rarely did I get to actually use my hacking abilities. And even reducing the game back to the regular old combat, there’s hardly a lot of strategy involved to win the fights. Don’t position people closely to each other to avoid area-of-effect damage from grenades and pick off one target after the other to effectively reduce enemy firepower on a permanent basis. It’s hardly rocket science.

So in the end, Shadowrun Returns is somewhat of a mixed bag. The game already had an uphill battle against my personal preferences concerning isometric RPG gameplay, but the general somewhat lacking narrative as well as the fairly uninteractive world with not a lot of opportunities to actually use hacking all that often meant that it did little to endear itself to me beyond the beautiful visuals and interesting characters. I guess at some point I’ll end up playing Dragonfall or Hong Kong, since I already own them, but I don’t consider it a priority right now.

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