The Shadowrun franchise has a long and storied history with the videogame medium, despite never really becoming a series. Each Shadowrun game always appeared on a different system, and every one of them felt like something of a reboot. The most recent, a multiplayer first-person shooter from Microsoft, practically killed the franchise. Shadowrun Returns, is a unique revival. It places the videogame series in the hands of the pen-and-paper RPG’s creator for the first time, and attempts to establish something that draws from both of the series popular 16-bit RPGs, as well as the pen-and-paper games, and use that as a launching point for something new. That title is no accident; this is not a reboot, or a reimagining, but the return of a series that hopes to stay a part of the gaming landscape for years to come.
Shadowrun was a pioneer in its day, melding the popular cyberpunk aesthetic with elements of traditional fantasy to create something that was completely fresh at the time. That concept might not be as unique in 2013, but it’s hard to deny Shadowrun’s atmosphere. Harebrained Schemes has played to this strength on all fronts, from the story, to the artwork, to the memorable electronic rock soundtrack. The production values could have been considered a bit spare in the initial PC release, with 2D backgrounds and a total lack of voice acting, but on Android they seem quite lavish. In many ways, it feels as if this game was, in fact, designed as a mobile game, even if the PC release came first.
Returns doesn’t really play much like any of the previous videogame adaptations. This time around, it borrows more closely from the pen-and-paper game with a tactical-RPG set up vaguely reminiscent of games like XCOM. You’ll command and position your units individually, and fight it out with magic and guns, taking advantage of the environment for cover and other strategic concerns. Combat isn’t revolutionary, but it’s smart, and the game’s scenarios are interesting and varied enough to stay fun.
The real surprise, though, is just how strong the story is. Even though RPGs are a story-driven genre, they too often fall into tired tropes about good versus evil, ancient powers being resurrected, and legendary heroes that save the world. Instead, Shadowrun’s narrative is ripped from the pages of a hardboiled novel; a conspiratorial murder mystery that manages to grab the players interest without having to resort to grandiosity. The characters alone are able to give the events enough meaning that it doesn’t have to resort to over-inflating its scale.
This is a narratively dense game, and you’ll spend much of your tile reading through reams of dialog. You have three choices in your responses, allowing for at least the illusion of role-playing in conversations, all though most of the time these don’t seriously alter the course of events. In fact, Shadowrun Returns is hopelessly linear, moving you from one small environment to another, without any occasion for real, open exploration.
That linearity helps to mitigate – but not eliminate – one of the game’s most pressing flaws: Shadowrun Returns completely lacks the ability to manually save*. Autosave checkpoints are frequent enough that this isn’t completely frustrating, but when a game offers you multiple choices or approaches, it’s nice to be able to load an earlier game and play through a scenario different ways to see what happens. On the other hand, the current set up adds import to these choices, as there is no way to go back.
By computer RPG standards, this is a very brief adventure, clocking in around 12 hours long. It’s clear, however, that Harebrained Schemes wants Shadowrun Returns to be more of a platform than just a game. This episode, The Dead Man’s Switch is just the first of several planned, with future installments coming in the form of DLC. They’ve also left the door wide open for fan-made adventures, by offering mod tools to the community.
Shadowrun Returns is burdened with the unenviable task of reconciling all things Shadowrun and turning it into something coherent that new and old fans of its various incarnations can get behind. In that regard, Returns is a huge success. It acknowledges the games of the past and the series’ pen-and-paper roots, but still manages to create something new that sets the stage for so much more.
*Earlier this year, Hairbrained Schemes amended the save feature in an update. Players can now save their Shadowrun Return game anywhere at anytime. ~ed.
While linear and brief, this inaugural episode are undeniably a bit frustrating, it’s hard to deny the quality of what’s here, particularly in terms of narrative and atmosphere.