Big Kickstarter successes make headline news, especially when it is either associated with a legendary game producer or a long-forgotten genre/series. It’s safe to say that some projects exist because of the hype-train surrounding Kickstarter after Tim Schafer’s multi-million dollar backed Broken Age got funded as the “Double Fine Adventure”, but even so it was obvious that people wanted to back other high-profile projects based on older games.
Wasteland 2’s funding quickly followed suit, but when the proposition arose to bring players back to the dystopian futuristic Seattle of Shadowrun – where artificial limbs are commonplace and addicts insert chips into their own heads for that special euphoric fix – plenty of fans of the SNES game leaped at the chance. Shadowrun Returns was swiftly funded and even though it failed to make its original target date by over six months, it is now ready. But is it incredibly wiz, or a steaming pile of drek?
Sat in a run-down flat with no work, your customisable Shadowrunner gets a video call from a former partner – Sam Watts. It turns out that he is using a dead-man’s switch, essentially a recording triggered upon his own death. Asking you to find his murderer for a large remuneration, you track down his corpse to a chop shop (read: morgue) to find that he is the latest victim of a notorious serial killer. Narrative is by far Shadowrun Returns’ biggest selling point, combining simple text-based conversations with an easy-to-distinguish narration that provides detail on what your character might sense from their demeanour. As a result, despite its rather lo-fi presentation, the campaign is incredibly captivating – with twists and turns throughout its admittedly short campaign.
But while the narrative excels, there are a couple of things that unfortunately break immersion. The first is that even though the game is a classic PC RPG in its looks, the fact that each area is scripted to flow in one path makes it nigh on impossible to explore the cyber-punk Seattle setting. Side-quests are contained within the local area, rarely introducing you to brand new ones. Missing side-quests the first time around means that you’ll never complete them. The other design choice is that auto-saving happens at the beginning of each area, meaning that should you perish in battle, you will need to play the entire scene again – choices and all.
Shadowrun Returns does however manage to incorporate a fun turn-based strategy battle system that is faithful to the table-top RPG. Classes are generally a loose framework for developing your character at the beginning, as you have the freedom to pick skills that you want – though your character’s race plays a huge part in setting limits. You could start off by focusing on gunplay, but you have the freedom to pick up skills for any of the other classes. Particularly interesting classes include the Rigger – who can activate robots to kill enemies, and the Decker – who can enter the matrix to take care of foes in cyber-space. Other core characteristics help in terms of how far characters can run for a single Action Point (AP), or even outside of battle in negotiating your way out of a tricky situation, including learning the lingo of certain organisations.
Battles themselves are rather similar to XCOM: Enemy Unknown in how they function, with certain levels of cover helping your characters avoid getting hit by enemy gunfire or spells. Each character uses AP to use their skills, with each class having access to a huge variety of different skills to aid your party or hinder your foes. But if there is one thing to criticise is that there are very few instances where Deckers would be useful to the rest of your party. One battle where the Decker shines is when a Yakuza Decker is controlling BTL (Better than Life) addicts in the matrix. It’s just a shame that there aren’t many ways beyond that battle for that class to take the spotlight. Thankfully, the game is rather generous when it comes to Karma – the currency for obtaining skill points; but it is rather stingy on Nuyen – the currency for buying kit and hiring mercenaries. Being heavily outnumbered is a problem that not even checkpoints could fix, so managing your cash is essential to success.
Even though the campaign is rather short, there is another big draw. Harebrained Schemes have included a robust editor. At this early stage, it is impossible to tell via Steamworks what projects will be worth looking at, but the game already has a modding scene that is using the editor to create campaigns of their own. The learning curve is rather intense, but thankfully the game links to a Wiki that can teach people how to create their own campaigns. If there was one thing that could have completed the experience, it would be that people had the ability to join each other in a campaign as a party, with another player acting as a GM in order to simulate the Shadowrun table-top RPG directly – but sadly this was not meant to be. The editor has so much potential already, so this option would have sent it over the edge.
Pipe dreams cast aside though; Shadowrun Returns shows that the classic PC RPG is showing no signs of going the way of the dodo. As a tribute to iconic titles of the past, the story it tells is fascinating because its world is well realised. You truly feel that you are your character hunting for clues. You truly feel that conversations matter. But it is the seemingly little things that prove to be Shadowrun Returns’ undoing – good or bad. Recommending this game boils down to how aspirational you are, and whether you wish to look at the creations beyond the campaign. With both Harebrained Schemes and modders designing new campaigns as we speak though, this little Kickstarted gem has a lot to look forward to.