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EGM Review:
Shadowrun Returns

Posted on July 29, 2013 AT 02:08pm

//system_reboot: success

I didn’t finish Shadowrun Returns. I plan to, but in order to write this review, I had to walk away. The kicker is, I’m pretty sure I’m at the last encounter. I can see the finish line, but I just can’t cross it. This is partly due to a game-breaking bug. Sometimes, boss lady character gets taken down, but she doesn’t run away like she’s supposed to and instead lingers on the screen, unable to be touched. But sometimes, she does run away, and on those occasions, I’ve repeatedly ran out of special bug-killing ammo in a room full of otherworldly insects that can only be killed with Shadowrun’s steroidal version of Raid. Here, I don’t know if Shadowrun is just impossibly difficult, if I’m doing something wrong, or if this is another game-breaking problem.

And yet, for as frustrated as I am about all this—and, believe me, I’ve considered introducing my mouse to the nearest wall because of this game—I respect the hell out of Shadowrun Returns.

Sure, the unsubtle shift from wholly accessible to borderline alienating in difficulty caught me off guard. But I’ve come to realize that I respect Shadowrun Returns as a platform more than I do as a game. At its core, this cyberpunk tabletop RPG gone digital is enjoyable. It’s a pretty standard, turn-based strategy-RPG that fundamentally understands the principles of the genre, but it doesn’t ever fully realize them. Firefights, sword swipes, and movement—navigating the player-character and his or her hired runners (Shadowrun’s term for mercenaries) behind cover, advancing on the map, or going toe-to-toe with enemies when out of ammunition and left with melee as your only option—are exchanged for Action Points. Damage taken and damage given are determined partly by stats and partly by the invisible roll of dice. Various character classes (Street Samurai, Mage, Decker, Shaman, Rigger, and Physical Adept) all bring their own unique skills and powers to the table during combat, making each class feel useful and decidedly distinct—though some are more crucial than others. Only Deckers can jack into the Matrix and perform virtual infiltration runs, and there are two or three missions where having a Decker on hand is a necessity in order to progress.

But unlike other strategy-RPGs, there’s equal portions of exploration and—in the most streamlined sense of the term—sleuthing that balance Shadowrun’s immersive, RPG-centric experience. Conversations with various characters help flesh out an excellently constructed world in which, atypical of cyberpunk, magic and fantastical creatures—elves, dwarves, orks—have returned, and, more in line with traditional cyberpunk, megacorporations have effectively taken over the world. The world of Shadowrun is an interesting one, for sure, and it does offer something different than most sci-fi romps by blending fantasy into its fiction. How these elements come together narratively largely depends on the quality of a campaign’s writing.

Therein lies the challenge in reviewing Shadowrun Returns. Do I review the first (and, so far, only) campaign released by Harebrained Schemes, “The Dead Man’s Switch,” or the gameplay mechanics? Because the game isn’t without flaws, but it’s largely defined by the design and execution of its campaigns, which are theoretically unlimited in number thanks to inclusion of a campaign editor. With any luck, this will give Shadowrun and unprecedented level of replayability and longevity, but that content exists somewhat independently of the gameplay itself.

Still, there are little things that developer Harebrained Schemes needs to address before the gameplay stops getting in its own way. Since Shadowrun Returns employs a static isometric camera angle that can’t be rotated, it sometimes takes some very fine mouse work to select a tile that’s behind a character sprite because their hit box/selection box/whatever is just too big. The same thing applies to tiles that are partially, if not entirely, obscured behind environmental structures (half-walls, tables, that sort of thing). The inability to rotate the camera would be a non-issue, a welcome trade-off for Shadowrun’s great art style, if not for this shortcoming.

But the biggest bug—apart from the one that prevented me from completing the game—is when a new group of enemies enters the scene and interrupts your previously spent Action Point. That is, you command a character to move to such-and-such tile, and they start to, but their progress triggers the next wave of enemies, whose entry interrupts your character’s action, costing you that Action Point. In a turn-based strategy-RPG, AP is just about your most valuable resource. Losing one in such an undeniably unfair way is a critical flaw in a game like this.

Similar to other big-name strategy-RPGs, Shadowrun Returns tries its hand at something akin to permadeath. Players have three rounds to resurrect a fallen ally before they’re permanently removed from the remainder of the mission. Trouble is, while preservation is rewarded in other strategy-RPGs, it means nothing in Shadowrun. Disregarding emotional attachment and focusing solely on utilitarian purpose, keeping characters alive in, say, XCOM, means that you don’t need to spend resources on their replacement. They level up. They improve. They become better soldiers. You invest in your team members, buying them armor and upgrades and weapons, and in turn gain value from their continued existence. In Shadowrun, however, hireable Runners don’t level up during combat. You don’t spend Karma points to increase their skills and proficiencies and stats, you don’t outfit them with better gear, and so you never grow attached to them. Whether a character lives or dies during a mission is inconsequential because after they depart, come next mission, you’ll be spending money on hiring them again or hiring another in their place all the same.

And, honestly, if they did level up, it would probably break the game to pieces, because “The Dead Man’s Switch” is such a linear tale lacking in sufficient sidequests that there’s only enough money to upgrade the player-character’s armor and weapons and hire new Runner crews for each mission. With the exception of the final stretch, I never had enough in my wallet to purchase cybernetic enhancements to bolster my character’s stats beyond the two cheapest upgrades available.

Don’t get me wrong. Shadowrun, while possessing several notable faults and flaws, is still fun. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in a futuristic version of Seattle populated with troll cops, dwarf coroners, and elf hackers. It’s the sort of world you actively want to slip into, a ride that would be a blast if not for a few jostling bumps along the road. It’s hard to assign immediate value to what it is now, because it’s something that will ultimately come into its own over the next few months to a year, when user-generated campaigns start pouring in and Harebrained Schemes pumps out more “official” ones. For all my frustrations and stretched patience, I wholeheartedly maintain that Shadowrun Returns is worth the $20 asking price—as an immediate experience, but also as a platform for future magic-infused cyberpunk adventures.

Who knows? I might even write one myself someday.

Developer: Harebrained Schemes • Publisher: Harebrained Schemes • ESRB: N/A • Release Date: 07.25.2013

Though hindered somewhat by game-design oversights and one hell of a game-breaking bug, Shadowrun Returns remains a satisfying strategy-RPG largely defined by its world and lore, but also as a platform for more and more standalone adventures.

The Good Fundamentally enjoyable gameplay set in an atmospheric, well-built world..
The Bad Lack of sufficient sidequests to earn cash and purchase upgrades.
The Ugly Game-breaking bugs and a stratospheric difficulty spike.
Shadowrun Returns is available on Windows PC, Mac OS X, and Linux. Primary version reviewed was on Mac OS X.
Chris Holzworth, News Editor
Chris Holzworth has wanted to write about games all his life. He first cut his teeth writing for enthusiast sites such as RPGFan, and after writing for just about every other enthusiast website he could came across, wound up as EGM's east coast news correspondent (read: editorial intern) before relocating to LA to serve as news editor. You can follow his rants about storytelling on Twitter @manadrive.[Meet the rest of the crew]

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