Shadowrun Returns Review (PC)

Disclaimer: I don’t know if it matters to anyone, but I want to get it out in the open at the start that I am a backer of Shadowrun Returns. I don’t think it compromises my critical ability regarding the game, at least no more than any other game I’ve paid money for, that’s why I’m still going ahead with the review. If anything it makes me more critical as my expectations are higher, but at the same time like any game I’m looking forward to I want it to succeed. I’m not getting any money from Harebrained Schemes or anything so I don’t think it’s of any consequence, but I just wanted everyone to know. Right, now on with the review of Shadowrun Returns, my brand new incontrovertible and inarguable Game of the Year!

Kidding, although it is still a good game even if it’s not absolutely incredibly mind-blowing. Shadowrun Returns is set in the sci-fi/fantasy tabletop world of Shadowrun, a futuristic world ruled by megacorporations, technology and magic. It fuses high fantasy with cyberpunk and it’s as compelling as it sounds. Humans, elves, dwarves, trolls, and orcs are the main races and can all be chosen to be your player character (with various bonuses for each). After that you aim for a speciality, such as Mage, Decker (hacker), Shaman (can summon elemental beings), and Rigger (can control Drones). Shadowrun Returns itself is an isometric RPG with turn-based combat, which I’ll get into more shortly – but first, plot.

The world of Shadowrun looks open, but it’s just a series of corridor-like streets. Shame

It takes place in Seattle about fifty years from now, where bad stuff is going down. A brutal serial killer called the Emerald City Ripper is murdering at will and removing organs from his victims, one of whom is your character’s old friend Sam Watts. As one of the few Shadowrunners Sam trusted he sends you a message via a ‘Dead Man’s Switch’ (an implant that sends a pre-recorded video over the ‘net once its owner is deceased) asking for your help, in return for previously-arranged payment. Since your character doesn’t have a lot on their plate they take the job, but as you can probably guess the investigation becomes a lot more complicated than just catching Sam’s killer.

One of the best things about Shadowrun Returns is the writing. It’s believable, interesting, frequently humorous (the only good thing the game can say about your apartment at the beginning is that “it’s not on fire”) and yet also goes to some really dark places. The writing makes a world that mashes up Blade Runner, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix and Game of Thrones and makes it feel like a real place, and the twists in the story are both crazy (even to the people in the game) and unpredictable but still feel believable and relatable. In game terms the best thing is that conversations are kept funny and relevant yet still brief, and that’s something even the best games trip up on. Only LucasArts adventures like Monkey Island have managed to so successfully make short gameplay-first conversations so entertaining, so extra props to developer Harebrained Schemes for this. That’s good writing, and it kept me engrossed in the world all the way to the end.

Which is a shame, since probably the biggest flaw in Shadowrun Returns is that it never quite makes enough of the world. It’s very linear for a start, which isn’t necessarily a problem but if you’re expecting to explore an open-world Seattle, deciding Deus Ex-like whether to hack a door at the back of a building or talk your way in the front door, forget it. All areas present a straight line (for the most part) to victory, the lovely isometric backgrounds are a bit static, and side-missions are always just a result of finding something on the way and taking it to someone (there is just one single optional proper mission in the game). This isn’t really a criticism as such, but the way only a handful of situations can be solved with more than one outcome and, more importantly, how many characters don’t say anything or how many things can’t be examined are all definitely problems. Your party of Shadowrunners for example is often made up of mute guns-for-hire, and I don’t think that’s more fun than gathering a group of interesting characters. With writing this good and a world this interesting you want as much dialogue and text as possible to engage you in it, and the world can often feel far too empty.

Combat though is an absolute delight, largely thanks to it being almost whole-heartedly influenced by XCOM: Enemy Unknown, specifically Firaxis’ recent reboot of the series. Fortunately Harebrained Schemes have added their own tweaks to the formula to keep things feeling a little different, but on the whole it’s very XCOM. For example movement works identically at the start, with a “near” area you can move to and then still shoot and a “far” area that you can dash to but give up the ability to shoot. There’s still Action Points but only 1-3 (meaning you can sometimes “dash” and yet shoot if you start with 3 AP), and while this offers the main distinction from XCOM the fun value and the simplicity of the combat definitely carries over from Firaxis’ Strategy Informer Best Game of 2012. Missions regularly turn into permanent combat which literally turns Shadowrun Returns into a cyberpunk XCOM, and I don’t think anyone would complain if that was all the game was.

Summoning an Apocalypse demon against a group of mental patients. Yay

Basically that’s how Shadowrun Returns goes – walking around talking to people in a futuristic fantasy world interspersed with turn-based combat. There is more of course, including upgrades for all the various classes. Shamans, Adepts and Mages can unlock different spells, and there are always better clothes, guns and grenades to check out. There are even Deus Ex-style augmentations to upgrade your body, but you do it at the cost of Essence which will make it tougher to play as a Mage since that’s where your magic comes from. You can mix and match classes too, although remember the jack of all trades is the master of none and it may be fun to be called a Technomage but you won’t get access to the high-level spells. There’s no XP in the game, only “Karma” points, which are only earned by accomplishing objectives. I’m hoping I’ll get to continue my character on to the next campaign when that comes out since I came nowhere near the higher levels for any of the game’s wide array of upgradeable stats.

I personally played as a pistol-specializing Decker, so I was a master of the Matrix. The Matrix is the virtual reality replacement for the internet in the future, and hackers can travel through it as a “virtual essence”, summon ESPs to fight with them, and take on firewall programs defending sensitive areas of cyberspace. It’s Tron basically, with a dash of, well, The Matrix. It’s an interesting area and plays much the same as regular combat (except you can’t die, only get kicked out), but not enough is really made of it. You only enter the Matrix a handful of times in the game, and it’s rarely optional. That’s that bigger problem with the game I mentioned before where a couple of places give you multiple tactical options but they’re often too few and far between, but the Matrix is especially under-utilised. It’s fun though… which is why I wanted it to appear more.

My biggest problem with the game though is saving. I don’t know if Harebrained Schemes had been chatting with their rogue-like fan backers, or the ones who play XCOM in Iron Man Mode and think anyone who doesn’t do so is playing the game wrong, but for some reason Shadowrun Returns doesn’t have any save options. There’s an autosave at the beginning of each “level” (and fortunately there can be several levels during each mission otherwise I’d really be angry) and that’s it. No checkpoints, no saves before hard bits or after conversations, no manual saving at all. On Normal difficulty I must’ve played the areas near the end of the game half a dozen times and only won by remembering where enemies came from and preparing – is that really what some gamers want to do? I personally want to just replay the hard section I died on, I don’t want to replay every fiddly little battle until I’m sick of it because fate dealt me a bad hand at the end. Give people the option, sure, but don’t force this on them just to artificially inflate the difficulty.

Enter the Matrix. In a good way, not like that crappy game

The campaign’s a decent length, roughly 15 hours depending on how well you do. The absolute best thing about Shadowrun Returns though is that it’s like Neverwinter Nights - there’s a fun campaign but the real aim of the game is to encourage modding and user creations. Right out of the box there’s a level editor with full access to every part of the game, and right under “new game” there’s the option to choose a downloaded user campaign to start instead. The game’s even on the damn Steam Workshop, and there’s already cool stuff on there (modders have had access to the editor since the beta) including a remake of the original SNES Shadowrun game. Harebrained Schemes themselves are already hard at work on the next campaign set in Berlin and are vigorously supporting the mod community, so there’s potential here for a lot of content turning up that could easily outdo the already-fun ‘Dead Man’s Switch’ main story. That £14.99/$19.99 might well prove to be excellent value for money.

While there are a few flaws in Shadowrun Returns, most notably linearity, the lack of a save function and a slightly under-utilized world, the excellent and consistently fun writing and XCOM-inspired combat make it a worthwhile experience. Even better as fun as it is the 15-odd-hour long campaign is not the end of Shadowrun Returns since the robust modding tools and encouragement from Harebrained Schemes near guarantee a steady flow of user content. It’s not the greatest RPG ever but it is a damn fun one in an engrossing world, and if you hadn’t backed Shadowrun Returns already it’s well worth a punt – and if you’re still not sure, wait a few months and see if the game’s Steam Workshop page has filled up with user-made goodies. Honestly though, if you just want to consider it a cyberpunk XCOM: Enemy Unknown with RPG elements that’s fine too.

Top Game Moment: Jacking in to the Matrix for the first time. Or summoning a demon from a pile of corpses.



By danfreeman (SI Elite) on Jul 29, 2013
Have to say i love this game,as soon as they pop out some dlc i`ll play it all again,this will probably be my game of the year,the mix between fantasy and cyber-punk is just perfect.

The writing is nothing short of excellent,it tells little but says a lot,that tiny text that is used to tell what a new character looks like says a lot more about him\her than if the character itself just came out and talked about him or herself.

I really agree with the save problem,i get that devs wanted you to take responsibility for your actions but what happens if i misclick? The checkpoints are also too far from one another so if something happens and you have to restart you lose a lot of time.
By w1ntergr33n (SI Newbie) on Jul 29, 2013
Great review, I would say sums up my experience with the game perfectly. Really hope that Berlin + mod content makes up for the slightly short & 'lite' campaign.

Re: the saves - Harebrained did actually state specifically that this was due to budget/time constraints, was not a gameplay choice (they would have put in saves if they could have). Perhaps it will come later.

The writing though is a real pleasure. Such a shame more games can't reach the same level!
By Mindrax (SI Core) on Jul 29, 2013
Great game, it has its flaws but i think there is a good potential for it. Cant wait to see the campaigns from the player base.
8/10 from me, the wait was worth it :)
By Asphyxium (I just got here) on Jul 29, 2013
I just want to let all the people here who are experiencing the Shadowrun universe for the first time know that the Matrix concept was copyrighted property of Shadowrun's FASA corporation as of the 1980's or something and not a rip-off of 1999's The Matrix movie. By the time '99 came I believe Microsoft may or may not have been the owner of the Shadowrun IP and thus owner of the Matrix IP (as there is a separate copyrighting for the Matrix), in any case whoever owned the IP got some big bucks from the makers of the Matrix movie.
By Voqar (SI Core Veteran) on Jul 30, 2013
Inability to rotate the camera really sucks.

Inability to save whenever you want to sucks even more. I was playing last night and was falling asleep...can I I now have to repeat a ton of generic and boring dialog. Yes.

It's a decent game but it's primitive due to being setup for tablets, which sucks.

The campaign is ok but it's absolutely linear with zero exploration and zero illusion of choice. You hop around instantly to quest locs (which is a plus I suppose since travelling the world is and would be pointless in this game). There's next to no choice or freedom.

It's a good game for what it is. If you rate it purely as a low budget/indie game, maybe it's an 8.4...stretching and being generous. But compared to ALL PC games there is no way you give a game like this an 8.4.

IGN got it right with their score, IMO. Everybody else is just relieved that the first of this round of KS games isn't a total disaster and are being way too generous.
By Mindrax (SI Core) on Jul 30, 2013
Vogar, you seems to have totally misunderstand the genre and the concept of this game.
First of all, it is a isometric RPG, no camera rotation implemented.
The game campaign is supposed to be linear, it doesn't matter as long the story goes onward. It is not an open world, but upcoming campaigns and adventures can be a more varied than this, it is up to the creator of the campaigns.
And you can not compare this kind of games with ALL new games out there, it is just ridiculous.
You must compare to the same kind of games in the genre like X-COM: UFO Defense (1993), X-COM: Terror from the Deep (1995), Shadowrun (1989) and others.
Fixed cameras, linear game play, turn based combat and some amounts of strategy.
It is faithful to the genre and fulfill the standards of these games with ease.
The save system is good, i didn't need to save, i managed to complete it on hardest mode and it went very good. The save points worked very good and if you are playing games and need to sleep, maybe you should have stopped a bit earlier when the game saved your progress and go to bed.
And referring to IGNs review and saying that their score is the right one is plain silly my friend.
In the long run it is what the buyer and the community thinks and they say around 8 compared to each other.
So your KS theory doesn't quite hold up there.
By The_Tingler (SI Core) on Jul 30, 2013
I do disagree about the save system - I would like a few checkpoints at least during levels, particularly before tough encounters or after conversations.
By Mindrax (SI Core) on Jul 30, 2013
It would be more convenient for the majority of players to have a controllable save system. Maybe they will change that and i do not resist such a feature at all.
I managed just fine on hard mode but i am also a hardcore isometric, turn based games fan, but every one are not like me.
So i give you guys my voice in the matter too, change the save system for all players sake.
Maybe we can start a petition on the matter and kinda force Harebrained to implement the feature.
By BoneArc (SI Elite) on Jul 30, 2013
In my honest opinion, I think they should not change the save feature. Instead they should implement the Save option that XCOM has.
Either you play Hardcore XCOM without saving or let the less hardcore players save and reload .. I hope you guys do not take offense of my choice of words. But if you do not want to play with XCOM no save features then you might have succumbed to the detriment of this generation of gaming. Games have become way too easy.. In my opinion.
I love you not less for your choice of gameplay, nor for your love of saving. It is your own choice. I'm just trying to make you remember when games were the bane of our existense. When The wretched obstacles we faced would test our mettle and further strengthen our resolve.
But Alas, to finish this long text I must say that I myself play some games merely for the story.

I hope you all enjoy your gaming experience and I hope they do add the save option for the people who enjoy the story.
But for me... I love facing impossible odds that I have created by my choice of actions. it really trains me to let go of regret, and helps you get to the realization that the game is just like Life itself... There is No going back... you just Fight it out and keep moving forward... Never go back, never forget but never regret.
By Mindrax (SI Core) on Jul 30, 2013
Couldn't agree more, that is the best solution for all.
By The_Tingler (SI Core) on Jul 30, 2013
I do agree that being able to save on Normal but not on Hardcore would be the best option.

@BoneArc: You realise you could save in X-Com: UFO Defence don't you? And could quicksave in Quake? :) I don't understand this masochistic desire to go back to the days before hard drives existed, to be forced to replay boring bits dozens of times until we're sick of them just to get to a tough section that keeps killing us, or to not have the ability to stop playing whenever we want. My worst thing about Bioshock Infinite, a game out this year? Not being able to turn it off until I get to one of the few checkpoints. Also, f*** Super Meat Boy. Rant rant rant rant rant.
By leowaud (SI Veteran Newbie) on Jul 30, 2013
Sounds good, one for my wishlist