Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Shadowrun Returns

Post-Launch Review
Shadowrun Returns (PC)
Developer: Harebrained Schemes
Released: July 2013 (PC) / September 2013 (mobile)
Played: complete in 10h:36min


Set in a future where magic has returned to the world, you are a shadowrunner, a mercenary operating in the underworld independent of the megacorporations. Your friend Sam has died, and he's left you a message offering you a huge payout to find his killer. You're on the job, but the case quickly grows bigger than you imagined...

At Launch

Shadowrun Returns earned average review scores of 76%. Reviewers enjoyed the setting, personality, and tactical combat, but disliked the save system, and many found the game a little too simplistic or narrow in scope. Views on the old-school feel varied between critics. Several reviewers voiced their suspicions that the game wouldn't be at its best until some time after launch with great mods and custom campaigns.

Post Launch

Quite a few patches were released. These included bug fixes, balance updates, language support, and improvements to UI and the editor.
Mobile and Linux versions released some time after PC launch.
One major DLC item was released - Dragonfall - which adds a whole new campaign and the ability to save anywhere. Dragonfall was later rereleased in a standalone Director's Cut version with new content and improvements. (note: this review does not cover the Dragonfall DLC; there will be a separate post for the the Director's Cut version).

Picked the wrong intentionally dumb name - an NPC is also called Coyote
I bought the Shadowrun 5th edition rulebook about a year ago. I love the cyberpunk-fantasy setting, and I love the classless build-your-own approach to character creation. Unfortunately it took me three hours to figure out character creation and I never managed to get a group together. But hey, Shadowrun video games! Finally I'll get to experience a unique world!

...that feels ancient. Shadowrun Returns feels like an HD remake of something from the 90s. I guess that's not inappropriate given that there was a Shadowrun game for the Super Nintendo in the 90s and this is a follow-up - I just wasn't expecting such an old-school feel. It's an isometric turn-based RPG with a percentage accuracy system, simple rhythmic synth music, and zero voice acting with a lot of text. As a point of comparison, The Banner Saga has isometric turn-based combat but with some neat ideas and other gameplay systems, while Bastion and Transistor are isometric RPGs with real-time combat. I'm going to try not to be overly harsh about the '90s feel, but we'll see how the review turns out.

The story starts out in an unexceptional way - a friend has died and he left you a message asking you to find his killer. Shadowrun Returns rises above that unexceptional premise by immersing you in the world. Your investigation throws you into shadowrunning and the criminal underworld, for-profit morgues and cops, shamans and spirits, technological limb replacement and the digital world, corps and religions... All kinds of interesting lore and people are thrown your way, and it's a very interesting world to explore.

Too bad all that stuff doesn't stick around. The story moves away from cyberpunk criminals and corporations into much more generic stuff with a religious cult and a save-the-world thing, with a threat that's also fairly uninspired. Which is really too bad because some stuff with the corps keeps running in the background and it's a lot more interesting than the main plot. I'd love to leave the bug spirits behind and instead deal with the corporate-hired shadowrunners running sabotage and espionage operations.
I was also disappointed that so much of the setting went unused. The rediscovery of magic, the transformation of normal people into elves/dwarves/orcs/trolls, and native cultures' traditions and beliefs being proved right all got only minor mentions in optional dialogues. Similarly, racism and dragons were briefly mentioned, but their magnitude and effects seem nonexistent. Magic itself feels rather unspectacular compared to the way it's presented in the RPG - you geek the mage first because he fills the encounter's miniboss slot, not because you're terrified of the hellfire or monstrosities he can unleash.

As a bit of an odd aside, something that stuck out to me is that I ran into exactly one side quest. At one point in the Union I was able to talk to a guy who offered a run to extract a wage slave from one corp and send him to work at another. It had zero tie-in to the main plot and no consequences later on. Weird.
I found most combats to be pretty easy and a few very challenging. You can be killed very suddenly if you haven't invested in defense, so sometimes I think I'm doing great and BAM I'm dead, restart. Those difficulty spikes don't play well with the crappy checkpoint system. When you die you have the option to restart the level or to load the latest save... but it seems that the game only autosaves at the start of each level, and you can't save during combat. I don't know I'm getting into a hard fight until it's too late, so I end up having to restart the level entirely or getting paranoid and quicksaving constantly. Even worse, some fights occur in several stages, so if the first bits of the fight are really easy, I have to repeat them each time because I can't save during combat. Still, this is better than the original release which ONLY saved at level start.

Difficulty aside, I was also frustrated with some technical and design issues. There's no "undo" button for movement, so if I accidentally sent a character to the wrong place by trying to click out of an ability I didn't want, well, that's that. I also noticed that clicking UI buttons often failed to do anything and I'd have to click again, even though it made the "you clicked on a button" sound. 
On the plus side, there is a lot of freedom in how you can choose to operate in many of the exploration segments. There are small areas and conversation paths and options that are locked unless you have the right prerequisites, but care has been taken to ensure that almost every character has interesting options to explore, and you'll never be completely stonewalled even if your character is purely built for combat. Maps also include special combat options for certain character types: riggers can send drones through vents, shamans will always have a summon option in key battles, and mages can find leyline boosts.

With all this in mind, I'm conflicted as to whether I'd recommend Shadowrun Returns. My problems aren't so much about what the game is, but what it could have been had it brought in more of Shadowrun's lore. This feels unfairly specific to say, but if you're a fan of old-school isometric turn-based RPGs, you'll enjoy Shadowrun Returns. Otherwise, it feels dated and the story is more conventional than I expected.

Recommendation: maybe.

That said... I have a very different opinion about the standalone Dragonfall expansion. That review will be coming up in a couple of weeks. 

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