Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of Sci-fi that has seen a lot of attention over the past year or so, games like Remember me and the CD Projekt RED upcoming game Cyberpunk 2077 are both doing their bit to remind people that this world exists. With Blade Runner being most people’s first introduction to the concept of a future where not everything is white and well designed, but infact a grim time to live where gangs run the streets and the corporations run everything else. Shadowrun Returns brings this world to a new collection of gamers, and if they are willing to read a lot of text then the game pays back many times over.
Shadowrun was a pen and paper RPG from the 80’s, quite popular at the time it spawned a spin off in the form of Earthdawn. Shadowrun wasn’t the first Cyberpunk set RPG, but it was one of the most interesting. The game mixed the concept of a dystopian future where corporations run the world and corruption is as common as the rain with the idea of fantasy. Magic has been rediscovered and in the process the year 2050 is now filled with not only jaded gangers that live in the slums but also elves, orks, trolls and dwarfs. Shadowrun was turned into a game for the SNES and Megadrive in the early 90’s and it has become a cult hit. If you try to buy a SNES copy in the UK with box and instructions you’re looking at around £50, just the cartridge costs around £30.
Shadowrun Returns is a modern take on the original SNES/Megadrive games as well as the pen and paper original. There is clearly a lot of love for the source material, the game takes place shortly after the events of the original game. It starts with you creating a character, you can choose any of the races I listed above and then you work on a class. In this game you can be the all rounder Street Samurai, a Decker, who is essentially a hacker who’s vision goes all ‘Matrix’ or a magic user like a Shaman or Mage. There are other classes that show potential to be exciting like the Rigger, but for the starter like me, who maybe hasn’t played an RPG in a long time, the more recognisable classes are tempting.
The story relates to your character, in my case a Street Samurai named Denvir, finding out an old friend has been killed. Shadowrunners are people who are happy to work on the darker side of the morale compass. Taking up mercenary jobs from ‘fixers’ in brothels and bars the shadowrunners get the job done as long as they’re paid. Sam was killed by a serial killer in Seattle called the Ripper, this leads the main campaign to be essentially a crime thriller, unfortunately to find out the identity of the killer you must first perform tasks for people to find out valuable information. The game is one part point and click adventure and one part turn based strategic shooter. Shadowrun Returns is not for the faint of heart, I in the past whilst playing RPG’s have often become bored of reading and just clicked through all the dialogue trees, and whilst that is possible with Shadowrun Returns you will be missing out on one of the strongest parts of the game, the writing.
Every character is interesting to talk to, the dialogue responses vary from the polite and caring to the ‘I’m the 21st century’s biggest nob’. In certain situations you can use charisma traits you have leveled up with experience, for example to cross police tape or get more information you can sometimes use your Security knowledge and blag your way around. You will never be trapped because of not knowing enough but you may miss out on some extras. A lot of situations have multiple outcomes; one such situation saw me trying to get a pass card off a drug dealer, I tried sweet talking him but it wasn’t going well so myself and my squad turned to violence to sort the situation out. The one flaw with all this reading is that the game’s glossary isn’t fully fleshed out. Many terms used in the future are complete nonsense, I referred to a homeless guy as SINless at one point, I checked the glossary, which is accessed through the menu, and found no entry. A much better design choice would have been to have the game automatically underline certain words, when the player hovers the cursor over it they would be shown a pop up window with the definition. These situations are few and far between but it does make the player feel like they’re being left out of something.
There is a level in humour in ShadowRun Returns that is hard to place, I hate to be one of ‘those people’, but it is very ‘Wheddon-esque’. It’s the style of humour that feels real but inappropriate, a lack of grasp on the situation at hand.The character Jake has a special take on the bounty on his head and the gravitas of his situation, like the fact he’s technically died, more than once, is always punctuated with a sly or off handed joke about the situation. Though his character is only present for a perspectively short time there are various characters, mainly the non-essential NPCs, that have a take on the world that can only be classed as non-chalant. At no point does the humour become too much, it’s not slap your thigh hilarious, but it’s enough to make the player feel like this world is real, despite it being the usual ‘dystopian future’, it still features a lack-lustre devil may care attitude that people excrete today.
Being cyberpunk but set in a recognisable city leads to further immersion then you might find in a fantasy RPG like Dragon Age, the sight of cars and motorbikes, or even something like a street corner donut stand all add to recognition of the location but skewed by the donut seller being an Ork. The world and its art is something to behold, the character portraits whilst in conversation, the different locations you see around the city are well designed and have a great neo-noir feel to them. There’s splashes of colour on dinner signs, but the grey of the world and situation does a lot to counteract it. The game’s music does a great job of setting the scene for the player, drawing you in with ambient techno beats the music fits the aesthetics of the set up.
The game’s combat is deep enough to entertain the majority of players, at first glance it appears to be a click to shoot set up, but as you progress past the first few simple enemies you are shown that it is really quite a tactical combat system. At one point my gang of Shadowrunners and I were in a drug den trying to take out some dealers, but they had hacked the brains of some addicts to turn them into attack puppets. Without wanting to harm civilians I had to make sure my team was both in cover but also avoiding the druggie onslaught who were intent on punching me. Cover has a scaled usefulness based on its height, which plays a major part of your squads abilities to dodge bullets. With 2 actions points, at the start of the game, you must choose plans wisely and think far ahead, 1 action point on movement and another on shooting will generally work out well, but with reloading your gun taking up an action point things get complicated, more so if god forbid someone needs healing.
There’s a story creator built into the game, the building of cities and plots is relatively easy with the software provided and does have the potential to extend the life of this product. With the game having its roots in pen and paper role-play there is a good chance that some of the old school GM’s (Game-Masters) will bring some classic ShadowRun tales into the digital age. The average fan of the ShadowRun series is someone who is quite into their alternative literature and culture and more often than not has played, if not run, a pen and paper role-play game. This means that the majority of people creating new stories for the game, which are easy to acquire and install thanks to Steam Workshop, are highly creative folk who already have a base knowledge of the world and stylings of role-play. The main story is excellent, but as well as DLC with new assets and abilities I can’t wait to see what the community comes out with.
The game isn’t without its flaws, the save system is god awful. The game will autosave when you enter a location and that’s it, no manual save. This sounds fine apart from when you are in combat for about 20 minutes and have to replay conversations and any character upgrading you’ve done. With it’s slightly complicated choice of language and location the game may be hard to get into for some players, but with the potential for one of the most deep RPG’s of recent years and the sheer fun of reading what the characters have to say I heartily recommend this game to all. It’s also pleasant to see a Kickstarter game actually get released, sure it’s had delays but what has come out has real potential if the community picks it up. As a standalone game without the community it is still a fun ride that given the chance will grab you by the collar and not want to let go until you hand over your cred-stick.
Shadowrun Returns is out now on PC (iOS port coming later in the year)
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