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Shadowrun Returns: Review (PC)

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“Never, EVER cut a deal with a Dragon.”

Since the pretty abysmal first person shooter with the Shadowrun name, it seemed that the popular future tabletop game was going to be lost to the void of time. However, the founders of the original FASA Interactive and developers of the Shadowrun universe would not be denied, and thanks to one of the earliest and most successful Kickstarter campaigns to date, Harebrained Schemes (the reincarnation of FASA Interactive) have gone to the well one more time to pull out Shadowrun Returns. Does Shadowrun Returns show the rest of Kickstarter how its done, or should they have let the Shadowrun video game franchise die with the first person shooter?

As a fan of the tabletop Shadowrun and both the Sega and Super Nintendo Shadowrun titles, I was looking at Shadowrun Returns with a pretty harsh set of eyes. I really enjoyed the Super Nintendo isometric role-playing turn-based shooter, and it turns out that Harebrained Schemes went with that format for Shadowrun Returns. Having spoken with Mitch Gitelman from Harebrained Schemes about Shadowrun Returns and how it reminded me of the original XCOM for the PC, he made sure to tell me that the Super Nintendo Shadowrun game borrowed ideas from that turn-based strategy game as well. It should come as no surprise that Harebrained Schemes looked long and hard at last year’s fabulous reinvention of XCOM: Enemy Unknown while putting Shadowrun Returns together.

You start out selecting your main character’s gender, race and class. Unlike typical fantasy role-playing games, Shadowrun Returns has a little different slant when it comes to character classes. A “street samurai” is a basic fighter, while a physical adept takes your monk role. Your mages and shamans are somewhat self-explanatory, but you also have the ability to become either a “rigger” or a “decker”. Riggers are tech geniuses that use drones to do their fighting for them, while deckers are hackers that are able to physically manifest within Shadowrun’s internet, also known as the “matrix”. You see kids, before the 1999 movie of the same name, Shadowrun had that idea on lockdown. As for races, your standard role playing fare applies: humans, elves, dwarves, trolls and orcs. Humans are middle of the road with everything, elves are good with magic, while dwarves, trolls and orcs get bonuses to their strength and fare better as melee classes.

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For people not familiar with the universe Shadowrun Returns is set in, the year is sometime in the near cyberpunk future of 2050, where a great cataclysm has occurred bringing magic back into a world that is plugging the internet into their skulls. Corporations are all powerful entities with their own code of law and order. While these corporations may play nice with one another in public, they hire mercenaries called “Shadowrunners” to conduct military operations to extract high ranking scientists, destroy prototypes of new technology, and generally wreck each other quietly. In Shadowrun Returns‘ campaign they give you upon purchase, “Dead Man’s Switch”, you play the role of one of these runners in Seattle, and you find out that a low-life buddy of yours, Sam Watts, is mysteriously killed by a serial killer known as the Emerald City Killer. While Sam may have been a dirtbag, he set up the titular dead man’s switch to activate upon his death, and call you up to solve his murder for a nice chunk of change. The hunt leads you far and wide, chasing down various leads which eventually lead you to some pretty crazy revelations as to what is going on and why Sam was killed.

Some issues with the story line for Shadowrun Returns: the story could have absolutely been broken down into three or four chapters or future downloadable content. Every time I hit a crescendo on where I thought, “Well, this must be where the game ends,” my runner would uncover another series of new characters in another new conspiracy that needed solving. The developers claim Dead Man’s Switch is a twelve hour campaign, and the estimate seems on the low side. I even skipped over some side missions to keep pelting through the storyline. I know I’m complaining because Harebrained Schemes is actually giving the player too much of a good thing, you definitely get your money’s worth with the game. The story is absurdly well written with a cast of supporting characters I actually came to care about, which is a pretty tricky feat for not having any voice acting.

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As for gameplay, Shadowrun Returns is a turn based strategy game based around action points, meaning you can generally move and/or perform an action or two based on how many action points you have. Some more extensive magic and attacks take more than one action point to use, meaning you have to think before you run into an open room, spraying your submachine gun at some guards. Everything in the environment can be used for full or partial cover, which help shield you from a variety of attacks. The majority of early gameplay is shooting and melee based, but later in the game, one or more of your team will be simultaneously attempting to complete objectives within the Matrix. For example, you’ve been holed up in the CEO’s office of a major corporation and the security forces keep throwing guards at you. Your team has to hold off the guards while your decker jacks in to disable enemy control of the elevators.

In Shadowrun Returns, the Matrix is simply a neon blue grid where a digital representation of your decker spawns into. Based on the decker’s intelligence skill, he can carry a variety of “decks”, the tool used to allow him access to the Matrix, and programs to help him defend himself from the intruder countermeasures (IC) found within the system. The Matrix runs I’ve done through the game were fairly simple, and a tiny amount of preparation led to me wiping the floor with the system’s defending Black Ice programs. Gun battles, however, I was not so lucky, and several I had to restart entire sections as my main character got clipped by a surprise shotgun blast to the face. If your character gets knocked out, it’s a lose condition and you’re forced to reload back to the start of the mission. While there is no difficulty slider to make things more difficult, there also is no autosave every time you move your entire team up in a perfect formation one square. It does force the player to think a little about how they plan on executing a mission as opposed to the die-reload-die trial-and-error some games allow.

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The major issue with Shadowrun Returns’ gameplay is that I had a difficult time figuring out how some of the systems were in play. There’s no way to re-map the keyboard in Shadowrun Returns, and as far as I can tell, there’s no way to see what hotkeys do what. I was unable to find a way to rotate the camera (if it exists), as many times your line of sight is obscured by walls or terrain. There’s no way to take back mistake moves or check weapon ranges; if you click by accident, which happened to me multiple times, then tough, chummer, you just accidentally parked your guy right next to that troll with the meat cleaver and used up all your action points. Game systems like decking and rigging are not explained fully, leaving you to fumble around with the interface and “just kind of figure it out”. Once you do figure it out, the mechanics all work properly, but many of them are not explained at all. For example, I had a pair of drones mindlessly following around behind my rigger I’d hired for a job, but I couldn’t figure out why they wouldn’t do anything in combat. Turns out that you need to turn them on by switching weapon slots out, manually turn them on, and then start manually moving them around the map. Decking also was not explained at all; I know it’s an important part of the Shadowrun Returns universe, so I made sure my Street Samuari had some points in intelligence, but I was standing in front of the guy who sold decks and programs, spent thousands of credits on gear I didn’t know how or if I’d ever actually use. And it took me half the game to figure out the half-circle button next to my weapon indicator allowed my shooters to take an overwatch position to save action points and guard avenues of approach.

On top of that, enemies are not exactly the best and brightest, and it’s uncertain how they choose who they are going after. I had a troll bouncer park themselves right next to my shotgun- wielding rigger who was out of action points. I thought he was going to get iced, but that next turn, the troll ran past him and further into the room in a beeline towards my main character, completely ignoring the closer (and more common sense) threat.

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It may sound like I’m crapping all over the gameplay of Shadowrun Returns, but once I figured out how everything worked, I’ve been having a lot of fun with it. The big thing is that Hairbrained Studios allow access to the Shadowrun Returns toolkit, meaning determined fans of the series can create their own campaigns like they would in the old days on table top. Based on some of the reports of modders getting a hold of early dev kits for being Kickstarter backers, there are going to be countless hours of quality content at your fingertips likely fixing a lot of the issues of Shadowrun Returns. But of course, I can’t review a game on what it will likely become, only the product I have in front of me right now, and there are issues with needing a few more tooltips, a few more tutorials and a few more tweaks to the user interface. That said, I’m terribly excited for the future of Shadowrun based on this hell of a start.

shadowrun returns, hairbrained schemes, fasa, kickstarter, review, preview, shadowrun, mitch gitelman, mitch gidelman, Jordan Weisman, table top, role playing, turn based, strategy, XCOM, enemy unknown, 2k games, firaxis,