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Shadowrun Returns Review
Posted on Saturday, August 10 2013 @ 17:37:18 Eastern

First, watch MrBTongue's Cyberpunk is Back

With that amount of well-considered optimism in view we must ask - was the wait worth it?  Did the game deliver?  For those out only for a purchase/don't purchase guide and nothing more - Yes.  If you like cyberpunk and/or turn based western RPGs with sufficient tactical depth to require good decision making to succeed then this is a game you want.

Mechanics

The out-of-combat systems utilize a standard recursive conversation model seen in such games as Fallout, Dragon Age, Baldur's Gate, The Elder Scrolls series, and Planescape: Torment (it should be noted that, sadly, Torment's crown is still firmly in place - this is not the game to dethrone it from its ever loftier perch) with hard skill and stat based lockouts to create avenues of strategic decision making for character development and point-and-click 2D isometric controls for exploration.  In combat movement across the various locations becomes a resource paid for in action points along with attacking, reloading, going into overwatch and using items.  While not the deepest system ever seen, it works well and there are no obvious dead zones or game breakers.

Aesthetics

Shadowrun Returns is built in the Unity Engine, for the good and ill that it bodes.  On the one hand it's obvious how the engine's straightforward implementation and off-the-shelf elements enabled Harebrained Schemes to go from concept to finished product on a short development cycle with limited resources.  Good art direction and clever use of assets ensures that each location feels unique and yet believable - by Shadowrun standards.  On the other there are some limits imposed by the nature of the project and the tools used.  It would be unfair to impose the standards of AAA development on a small scale indie project but one can wish and dream of a time when a more cerebral sort of game can reach a mass market.  Another mixed bag is sound.  The soundtrack is pitch perfect and tonally dead-on at all times.  On the other hand, the playthrough completed for this review was rife with sound glitches which got worse as the playthrough continued.

Writing

Given its setting, source material and inspiration, it was inevitable that the story would be a pot-boiler with a dead person needing avenging and a lonely, down-on-their-luck Runner out to do the job out of either loyalty to their departed friend, mercenary desire for cash, the thrill of the job or even an idealistic commitment to giving the dead their due and ensuring justice done.  The player is free to interpolate these motives into the character and express it through speech.  This is a central element of the game.  It is even possible to play Proteus and obfuscate one's motivations - betraying a deep-seated distrust towards others and a severe reservation about disclosing one's interior monologue.  None of the characters given dimension are overtly simple, complex problems beginning early in life spiralling outward into adult affairs have repercussions carrying on years afterward.  One is often chasing ghosts of a past that would be better if it could just stay there and not linger.  What visuals cannot do fun, engaging writing more than makes up for in several areas.  The Troll bouncer at a brothel turns out to be one of the most relatable, complex characters in the story and not for lack of competition.  Flavor text fleshes out bits of the world and develops character in interesting ways possible only to that approach.  It's not perfect, however.  The villain is an obvious giveaway the instant the player meets them.  It adheres to genre conventions for Noir, RPGs, Cyberpunk and detective stories.  It does not take time out to subvert them.  As writing is relatively cheap to do well, this is one area where the game could have truly shined and transcended its other limitations.

Gripes

Short and simple reaction loops provide a sense of secondary reality and it often works flawlessly but glitches give away the technical language of it to such an extent that it shatters the whole enterprise.  It's more or less a question of luck whether a player will run into them.  The biggest mechanical weakness in the game, to the extent that it is actually a weakness and not simply a glaring reminder of the extent to which games have become oversimplified and refuse to punish bad decision making is the importance of having a Decker.  There are several missions which are outright impossible without one.  They are always among the most useful characters in the game.  Lastly, though this is more than a bit of a whine, why the Hell couldn't Armitage stick around longer?  Dude's seriously cool.

Checklist

Score - 4.0 out of 5
+It's Shadowrun!
+What more do you want, for crying out loud?
+Good Turn-Based RPG systems
-With some balance issues
+Lovely art design
+Seattle campaign is fun, interesting
-But very short
+Toolset provided means it won't be the only one
+Jake Armitage makes a cameo
-But only a cameo
-Sound problems downright irritating
-Some bugs may create accidental plot holes
+/-Unity limitations not overtly problematic, but noticeable
+/-It's possible to play oneself into a corner, forcing a restart
+/-Deckers are essential, but it's a Goddamned Cyberpunk setting so that should be obvious
+/-Vote Dunkelzahn!
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