One of the things that make video games so great is how a great game can stick with you for years. It’s not just that you’ve seen something amazing, movies can replicate that. No, it’s that you yourself are responsible for what happened. It was you who made Mario jump and run through that obstacle course, it was you who finished off Ganon and it was you who took down Kefka atop his tower.
For me Shadowrun on the Super Nintendo was one of these games. That feeling of just being an absolute badass for having singlehandedly besieged the corporate headquarters of a mega-corporation, took out all of their personnel and then flew a helicopter to a volcano to brutally murderfy a gigantic dragon. Who is a badass? Me. Well, the character I controlled (Jake Armitage) was the badass really but I was controlling him!
With fans of the classic tabletop RPG, SNES version and the Genesis versions (to say nothing of video game RPG fans) all watching to see what would come of a new game, Shadowrun Returns had a lot to live up to. Well, it might not be the heir apparent to some of the best games ever released but it’s still a damn good game and it has a lot of room to grow thanks to some clever decisions from the dev team.
Possibly more than any other series, what makes for an authentic Shadowrun experience is the setting. Shadowrun has this bizarre mix of cyberpunk science fiction and high fantasy thrown into a blender with a dystopian future dominated by mega corporations that needs to be gotten right to really make the setting shine. This is why the in-name only first-person shooter was such an abject failure – it took what could have been a content rich world with lots of potential for an actual storyline in the shooter and reduced it to generic red team vs. blue team. Shadowrun Returns nails the feeling, this grunginess that’s part of the setting, but it chooses not to wallow in it. Instead, as a Shadowrunner, your character almost kind of seems to revel in it. Shadowrunners live in the underbelly of society, mercenaries for hire, and as such they love the dirty underside of society. So instead of seeing a grungy bar or hooker den they see a place to enjoy the finer things in life.
The main experience to this package is the Dead Man’s Switch campaign. This sees your freshly created character contacted by a friend name Sam Lake after he has died. The eponymous dead man’s switch contacts you with a pre-recorded message informing you of his death and a reward of a crapton of money for the capture of his killer. Whether trying to avenge a friend or just looking for a payday, your Shadowrunner sets out to avenge Sam’s death and stop the serial killer that has been plaguing the Seattle area.
This campaign is kind of short – lasting only about twelve hours or so – and that’s kind of a problem. Anyone who plays these sorts of RPG’s would be expecting a much lengthier experience so that is really disappointing. What doesn’t help is that the length feels artificially stretched by shenanigans such as an appalling lack of mid-mission save points or lengthy periods of non-action. Admittedly these periods of nothingness disappear by the end of the campaign but that presents another problem in and of itself.
Much of the early portion of Dead Man’s Switch plays out like an open world game. You run around chatting with people on the streets, learn about what’s going on and just generally move about as you please. But once you enter the Seamstress’ Union that becomes your home and you basically never leave it. The only time you go outside is when you’re going on a mission and other than that you never see the outside world again. There’s no freedom to explore, to learn or to become a part of the world of Shadowrun.
One could say that this was probably due to budget constraints or that it was part of an attempt to emulate the feel of the SNES game but that rings hollow. Even if they just reused the area outside the Seamstress’ Union and swapped up the NPC’s that you could talk to they could have given the illusion that there was more to the game world. Instead you get about four NPC’s to chat with and a few vendors and that’s it. It’s all so limited and bland. It's honestly hard to think of any game that I've seen that reused textures this atrociously since Dragon Age II.
Normally this would be a deal breaker for me but Shadowrun Returns isn’t just that one game nor is it just whatever DLC they throw at us. The developers have put in a rather powerful campaign creator that reminds me greatly of the one included with Neverwinter Nights. There’s already a rather bustling community of scenario developers throwing stuff up on Steam which extends the value you are getting for your buck when you buy this game.
Another perk in favor of the game is the sheer quality of the missions. There’s some damn good writing and even better combat design on display here. No character build, no matter how obtuse, feels underutilized. A spellcaster works just as good as a hacker who works just as good as a well-trained gunslinger. Every class is given a chance to shine thanks to level design that gives you a real chance to exploit your abilities, such as using hacking a computer to shut down defenses or using your magic's to summon up a spirit that infests an area to fight alongside you. You can even build a character who hides in a corner and lets multiple robot drones fight for him instead of getting your hands dirty. It's great.
The missions themselves are actually very interesting too. Getting attacked by stimulant addicts who have been programmed to attack you is a fairly new experience as is laying siege to what essentially amounts to a Scientology building. The fights get chaotic and intense. You’ll need to use the cover system (familiar to anyone who played X-Com Enemy Unknown) if you want to survive these hectic messes of gunfire you'll have to be careful, move slowly and pick your targets for return fire. Unfortunately this intensity comes back to bite you in the rear when you get killed by a lucky shot 30 minutes into a mission and you have to redo the whole bloody thing. Even better is when something just doesn’t trigger, such as an enemy you need to kill not appearing, which forces you to reload and start the whole damn mission over. It’s intensely frustrating and it feels like it shouldn’t be a problem in this day and age.
Beyond the gameplay and setting there isn’t much else to Shadowrun. The soundtrack is fine – it’s barely there and there’s no voice work but it fits the mood of the game. Graphics are much the same. Honestly it’s all very utilitarian and it gives off the vibe that they really wanted to make sure that the gameplay was up to snuff so the art and sound design is a bit on the lax side of things. It looks fine, it’s got an interesting neon-noire look to it, but it’s just not incredibly impressive in this day and age when ever our MMO’s are getting really flashy.
What's important here is how the game plays and how well it executes the setting and on those merits alone Shadowrun Returns succeeds. Content may be light straight out of the proverbial box but that can be mitigated thanks to the community. It might not be the prettiest dame at the ball but it certainly works hard to keep your attention long enough for you to get your money’s worth and that’s more than a lot of big name game developers can honestly say about their game.