With Shadowrun Returns, there’s an overarching sense that Harebrained Schemes is covering all its bases. Rather than put all its chickens in the basket of a huge isometric RPG campaign comparable in length and breadth as the greats like Baldur’s Gate and Torment, it instead focused on creating a tightly guided experience that spans over the course of ten hours or so, and left the rest up to the community.
Among the first of the major Kickstarter success stories to actually be released, Shadowrun Returns was always on the weirder end of the spectrum when compared to the other nostalgia-filled proposals such as Wasteland and Elite. Instead of having a previous game that’s being given a new lick of paint and a modern engine, Shadowrun is most famous for being a pen and paper role-playing game, more akin to a cyberpunk Dungeons & Dragons than anything else.
And it’s here that Shadowrun Returns feels most at home, adopting all the sensibilities of a dungeon master in the way it tells its story, filling in atmospheric narrative where its often beautiful but somewhat limited graphics can’t quite do the job. At key moments during the campaign you’ll be informed of the smells and sounds of a room, or given brief descriptions of characters that go beyond the stylised portraits that accompany their speech.
This is a world with the aesthetic of Blade Runner and the fantasy sensibilities of Lord of the Rings, where elves run in gangs, and each night club is blockaded by the sizable muscle mass of an ogre. Magic flows as easily as information, and in between the two you’ve got the deckers, slipping into cyberspace to manipulate the physical world from the digital. It sounds like a mess, when you write it out, but in reality it’s in the moments where these systems interact that Shadowrun Returns is at its strongest.
Being a turn and party-based RPG, positioning and ability order are paramount to victory, and when you’re fighting a battle across different mediums, the way that you behave can have knock on effects that feel systemic in a way that’s surprisingly rewarding, the first few times you engage with it. Having a hacker manage to turn the enemy’s turrets against them, or shut down the elevators that are bringing in reinforcements, draws you into the world that much more; you can see what’s happening when you press this button, in a real and tangible way that isn’t just shooting a dude, and that’s a rare pleasure.
Shadowrun Returns’ campaign takes you through the criminal underbelly of future Seattle, as well as a quick tour of the upper echelons of its Megacorporation-driven elite, assaulting office complexes as well as dealer slums, filled with the catatonic bodies of ‘Better Than Life’ addicts – literally living their lives precariously through those of others – with a little technological aid. It’s abundantly clear that this is a world that is steeped in history and a dizzying clarity when it comes to the ways people interact, how the social structures are formed, and how people decide to escape from the worst of it all.
Which comes with the territory when you’re adapting the decades of work that have gone into Shadowrun’s pen and paper version. The biggest surprise here is how easily the exposition slots into place without being unpleasantly blunt or overly obvious. The plot follows the attempts of your character to track down the killer of an old acquaintance, in the hope of receiving your deceased friend’s life insurance payout once you find him some justice. It feels like there’s a conscious attempt to keep the scope of the story restrained rather than global, and while it loses some of that restraint in the later stages, it just about manages to sidestep turning you into a messiah figure.
Regardless of Harebrained Schemes’ success or failure when it comes to the main campaign, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that this is somewhat of a stopgap to tide people over before the real meat of Shadowrun Returns starts to come to the fore. Coming packaged with Steam Workshop integration and a comprehensive and powerful editor, there is already one sizable player-made campaign available for download, and if Shadowrun’s storied heritage of allowing players to create stories in its world is anything to go by, the true value of Shadowrun Returns is going to be found not in what is available on day one, but what happens over the next six months, or the next couple of years.
What players can’t do on their own is rectify some of the niggles that are inherent to the engine that they’ll create those stories in. It’s often a frustrating exercise to select the right target in combat, and we regularly had the misfortune of sending a ranged character within punching distance of some large unpleasant enemy, because I didn’t select quite the right pixel before clicking. Similarly, there were a few times we had to completely restart the game after a scripted trigger didn’t fire, for whatever reason.
All this together makes the job of recommending it an unfortunately awkward one. One the one hand what’s already here is enjoyable and compelling, for the comparatively short amount of time it’ll take you to play through it, but the promise of more makes me feel like Shadowrun Returns is only going to grow in value as time goes on. If the players really latch onto the capabilities of the editor, it’s going to be an incredible rich offering, and one that could theoretically never stop giving.