An orc a troll and an elf walked into a bar
Shadowrun Returns is one of the first big-name Kickstarter games to actually release, because of that there’s a lot of hope riding on it. Kickstarter is all about faith in developers and while you’re paying for a game that will be made (or you get your money back) the quality of the game is completely out of your hands. Set in the sci-fi fantasy RPG universe of Shadowrun, the game is a turn-based RPG from an isometric perspective. IT tells the story of a gloomy cyberpunk world where magic and technology coexist with poverty and addiction. It’s a unique setting that has rarely been tapped into for the sake of video games, save for a current-gen multiplayer shooter (that was often panned but we enjoyed) and a much older group of adventures released in the 90s.
In terms of gameplay Shadowrun is somewhat of a mix between X-Com and Baldurs gate. During combat you move around on what is essentially a gir,d using up action points to shoot or heal or move, and hits are calculated in terms of stats and percentages. Just like in X-com, 90% shots seem to miss far more often than you’d expect but there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had in executing perfect attacks without a single man or woman (or monster) on your side taking any damage. Ammunition is fortunately unlimited and you heal between fights so much of the annoying micromanagement has gone, it’s all about how well you position your peons and use their wide variety of abilities. Those abilities really are broad, from summoning elementals to healing other units, to shooting an array of weaponry and throwing grenades. There’s plenty of different playstyles, and many that allow you to avoid combat altogether.
The main meat of the game revolves around an RPG system where you explore areas and speak to people. In each conversation you have dialogue choices, and those choices are governed by your stats. So say if you have some knowledge of security you’ll be able to convince police you know what you’re talking about to get access to a crime scene, or if you’re an academic they might open up to another brilliant mind more than they would a shambling idiot. The conversations are all presented via text but pacing has been well executed with each piece of dialogue having just enough character behind it to establish a tone and draw you in, and just enough information to keep the story progressing, but never too much. I’ve never had to sit through anything I thought was a waste of time, it’s concise and effective writing at its best.
Of course there’s more to progression than just talking and shooting, if you want to be a hacker you can take that path and get around many obstacles without having to even interact with another living thing. This kind of choice isn’t particularly new in a RPG but for a small development team to pull it off so spectacularly well is very impressive. The choices you make in the first twenty minutes while you’re designing your character feel like they have a real impact on the game, and you don’t feel hamstringed by poor choices later on as it appears every kind of combination is viable. If you want to be a magic-using troll feel free, you might not be able to get as far down the skill tree but then you can spend those extra points on something else so you could be a magic using troll that’s also handy with an assault rifle and knows his way around a computer. Or you could be an elf who knows everything there is to know about weapons and survival, and brute force your way through most of the encounters.
The game isn’t as difficult as something like X-Com, it appears as though the odds have been stacked slightly in your favour. This might mean a lack of challenge for some (although you can still easily die due to carelessness or extreme bad luck) but it means the story isn’t interrupted with impossible-feeling fights and instead you feel like some kind of (anti)hero as you progress, with the many thugs and robots along the way simply being fodder underneath your unique skillset and fighting style.
As you move through the game different characters come and go out of your party, and more than just a massive boost to your combat abilities, they’re genuinely charming and entertaining. It seems as if the developers have shied away from making you help particularly seedy or horrible people (of which there are a lot in Shadowrun) and instead give you a team full of folks with a heart of gold. It may not befit the series but it leads to you genuinely caring for the characters and having genuine empathy for them, rather than treating them each like disposable meatbags.
Graphically the game is simple but with such a strong art style it creates an enveloping and immersive atmosphere of technology gone grimy. Characters all look distinctive and the environments are full of beautiful little details. It all feels incredibly coherent, to the point where some more freedom would have been nice. You’re usually shepherded from area to area and there’s certain parts of the game I’d love to revisit but can’t as they’re not vital to the story line. That’s not to say the game is entirely linear, there’s plenty of sidequests and room for exploration, but when a game world is this complete it’s almost criminal to block off access to much of it. One of the strongest aspects of the Shadowrun universe is it’s bizarre aesthetic with monsters and guns being represented in dark browns and greys but streaked through with neon blues when the fighting kicks off. It really looks like nothing else and is one of the main attractions of the titles, as long as you can love with 2D based graphics.
The main campaign is an absolute joy with elements of film noir mixed in with cyberpunk and gang-movie themes, but it’s not the be all and end all. Complete with the game at release is a powerful editor that not only allows you to create your own campaigns with branching plotlines and epic battles, but also share them on Steam Workshop. I imagine within a month or two of release there’ll be all the Shadowrun stories you could ever wish for, with a dedicated community of fans who will lap this game up.
At times, the game can get repetitive. It’s not the deepest RPG in terms of combat, and while there are plenty of options, on your chosen path many, many fights will play out the same way. If you try and rush this game you will get bored quickly, you need to soak the atmosphere in and immerse yourself in the plot and the setting in order to get the best out of it. If you’re after a quick burst of action, you might want to be looking elsewhere.
This game is a real gem and a testament to the potential strengths of Kickstarter. If you hate isometric turn based games this might not win you over, but if you’re at all curious I strongly recommend it. It’s only £13.49 and for that you get an incredibly stylish and accessible RPG with the potential for unlimited free DLC. That’s a hard offer to refuse.