Rising out of the ashes, thanks to the efforts of Harebrained Schemes and fans from Kickstarter, is Shadowrun Returns. Does this new attempt to create a game true to the role-playing world of Shadowrun succeed? Or are we better off letting it fade back into the shadows?
The year is 2054 in Shadowrun Returns, and the world is full of magic, technology and strange creatures. Elves, trolls, orcs and dwarves live alongside humans in a bleak reality that's been painted in this game. You take on the role of a Shadowrunner who's a bit down and out financially, when you receive a message from an old friend and fellow runner by the name of Sam Watts.
It doesn't take very long for the Sam in the video message to inform you that he's already dead and that this communique is the result of a dead man's trigger, allowing him to contact you with a message upon his death.
Because you were such tight compadres back in the day, he wants you to look into his murder and bring him some justice from beyond the grave. Of course, he's not expecting you to do it for free, so he's promised you a tidy sum of cash to be rewarded to you by his lawyer upon completion of your mission. Avenge a dead friend's murder and score a bunch of cash? Sounds like another day in the Seattle Sprawl.
Very quickly, you'll realize that the star of Shadowrun Returns is the world your character inhabits. It is an absolute joy to discover new characters, locations and the history of the world. That's not to say that the gameplay takes a backseat to the narrative and the environments, but it's definitely more engrossing to wander around the 3D/2D downtown areas and talk to the denizens of the city rather than take turns shooting dudes with guns or magic.
Your adventures will take you through several different parts of town, where you'll be introduced to more of the Sprawl's more flavorful characters and locations. Your interactions are, to a degree, choice-based affairs that could lead to different outcomes, though the results are not all that world-shattering. For example, you can choose three different ways to complete an objective, but that objective will always be completed and played out a certain way. It's just up to you to pick which route you'd like to go.
Speaking of routes, there are many ways to customize your character to better equip them to deal with the dangers of the Sprawl. You can choose to be a mage, a decker, an adept, a street samurai, a rigger or a shaman at the outset, but you'll also be able to customize what skills you get as you progress. This ultimately gives you the freedom to create whatever kind of character you want.
You'll be able to acquire different skills by putting Karma points into different skill trees. Karma can be obtained by completing objectives. This can mean speaking to a specific non-player character or defeating enemies during a run. Finding optional items and completing bonus objectives can also net you Karma. The more Karma you acquire, the more powerful you'll be in battle.
Battles themselves are pretty straightforward, but are unfortunately, the most boring part of Shadowrun Returns. Fights play out much like battles on a tabletop role-playing game, complete with Action Points. Your AP determines what you can do in battle, so you'll have to be smart about your decision. Do you use up your two action points in order to fire off a special shot from your shotgun, or use one action point to move in closer and then another one to activate a buff? Do you use one action point to reload your weapon or expend two action points to hit a close enemy with a powered-up melee attack?
While this might be great for strategists and fans of tactical battles, it can come off as pretty slow and restrictive for players from outside the genre. Still, the depth is there if you want to find it. Battles are made even more intense with addition of team members, different items to use, and magic spells that can help turn the tide in your favor.
While the battles in Shadowrun Returns aren't as exciting as I would have hoped, it's always a joy to blast past them in order to find out more about the world. Some of the most fun I've had in the game was discovering new characters and finding out what they were all about. Why is that large Orc bodyguard so well-mannered? What's up with the old, Japanese woman who's running a bar/safehouse? What's the story with this girl named Coyote who now has a metal arm? What's with all of the dwarves and their ties to the underground black market? These are the kinds of questions you'll be asking and yearning to have answered.
Shadowrun Returns isn't a perfect role-playing game, but it is one that engrosses you in its world. The Seattle Sprawl is dank, foreboding, and has the look of a futuristic slum that's been abandoned to its fate. But ironically, Shadowrun Returns is a shining light that most RPG enthusiasts can appreciate.
Whether it's the deep customization system, the interesting narrative, the tactical battles or the cast of intriguing characters, Shadowrun Returns has something for most people to like. Welcome to the Sprawl. We hope you enjoy your stay.
This review is based on a digital copy of Shadowrun Returns for PC that was purchased for review.