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Harebrained Schemes' Shadowrun Returns was one of the first big hits on Kickstarter, racking up over $1.8 million by promising a turn-based strategy RPG inspired by the pen-and-paper game. Shadowrun Returns delivers on that promise but you should keep your expectations in check.
Shadowrun imagines a mid-21st century world in which magic is a reality. Elves, mages, ghouls are all commonplace. Technology, meanwhile, has advanced to stunning heights. Citizens can replace their limbs with cybernetics or connect to a global virtual reality system called the Matrix. Powerful megacorporations battle for dominance and hire freelance mercenaries known as shadowrunners to do their dirty work.
Simply making a game set in the Shadowrun universe that explores all these diverse aspects is a challenge. Harebrained, to their credit, includes all the essentials. Players can become a cybernetically augmented street samurai, a spirit-conjuring shaman, and more. They can hook into the Matrix to recover sensitive files or summon combat drones to strike down their enemies. All the character archetypes from the pen-and-paper game are represented.
Harebrained's commitment to delivering all of the technology, magic and gunplay of Shadowrun spread them too thin, though. The turn-based combat doesn't have the sort of depth seen in games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Combat takes place at one height with indestructible environments. Most of the enemies encountered are humans with the same skillsets as the playable characters. We only see a small sample of the diverse adversaries seen in the tabletop game. As such, you won't need to employ very complicated tactics to plow through the battles. The relative ease of combat makes the lack of manual saves not all that concerning.
It doesn't seem as though much time was put into balancing the various character classes. Street samurais will steamroll everything with shotguns, automatic rifles and grenades. Magic users may as well be tossing lightning bugs at their enemies. I was pretty happy with my troll physical adept (a martial artist who uses magic to strengthen their melee attacks) but I was forced to make him one-dimensional to keep him relevant in combat. Shadowrun's skill-based character progression lends itself to hybrid play but the battles of Returns encourage min-maxing.
The RPG side of Returns is fairly shallow. The character you create at the outset of the campaign is the only one that you customize and progress over the course of the game. You're joined on missions by a rotating cast of fellow shadowrunners with skills and equipment you can't alter. The gear choices for your character are limited; you purchase a series of clear upgrades for your armor and weapons over the course of the campaign. You're never left thinking, "Hey, this shotgun's got slightly better accuracy but this one's got slightly better damage." Instead, your choice is between keeping a crappy gun or buying a better one.
Shadowrun Returns ships with a campaign called "Dead Man's Switch." It's a witty and surprising detective story that serves as a great introduction to the Shadowrun setting. It's more linear than you'd expect; while there are some side quests sprinkled throughout the game, you're forced to travel to locations in a set order. Furthermore, there's a minimum of choice in dialogue or how you complete quests. Even with those restrictions, though, the story was engaging enough to keep me playing.
The "Dead Man's Switch" campaign also serves another purpose: it's an example of what the accompanying mission editor can do. This editor allows players to create their own adventures and then share them over Steam Workshop. The tool's a bit intimidating because of its reliance on jargon but Harebrained included written tutorials and pre-made maps to help you get started. The entire "Dead Man's" campaign can be surveyed through the editor as well, in case you're wondering how the developers pulled off certain scenes.
The mission editor is what has me most excited about Shadowrun Returns. There are already some very competent player-made adventures cropping up on the Steam Workshop. In time, I'm sure fans will make stories that surpass "Dead Man's Switch" as well.
Shadowrun Returns isn't as complex or open-ended as the pen-and-paper game that inspired it. If you don't have a group of friends to play Shadowrun with, though, Returns is your best way (if only by default) to experience this cyberpunk/fantasy universe. It tells a great story while providing the tools for players to craft their own.
Platforms: PC (reviewed), Mac
Developer: Harebrained Schemes
Publisher: Harebrained Schemes