Shadowrun Returns is actually two games, tied together with a strong and unique setting. The first game is a single-player campaign entitled “The Dead Man’s Switch”. The second is an engine for making your own campaigns, and/or playing through those others have made. Potentially, this second game could prove to reason to buy Shadowrun Returns in the long run (and I think it’s safe to say that the developers are banking on this, given it was a key feature in the original Kickstarter pitch, as opposed to a stretch goal as is the usual fashion). At the time of writing however, I can only comment on the included campaign, as there aren’t any significant user-created campaigns available. That said, I think it’s safe to assume that many of the strengths and limitations of The Dead Man’s Switch will be factors in future campaigns too, and if the campaign itself isn’t compelling enough, it seems unlikely that people will want to make or try out other campaigns.
Shadowrun Returns is broken in a number of rather important ways. But it’s so damn good I’ve enjoyed almost all of it, and am ready for more.
Above all else, the setting, the world that the game presents is very well fleshed out, something I’ve not experienced since Planescape: Torment. Undoubtedly it helps that there’s so much source material to pillage, but the campaign presents you with weird and wonderful choices from the outset: five races, six classes (or none), and seven “etiquettes” to choose from, with the guarantee that whichever combination you choose will be unlike anything you’ve played before. Pick a female Troll Street Samurai with Gang etiquette, or a male Dwarf Mage with Street etiquette, then ignore all of that and pick whichever skills you like from the comprehensive tree.
The game gives you minimal instruction on how to actually play it, with a single pop-up tip the first time you enter combat, pointing you to the in-game help system if you’re in need of further instruction. That’s OK though, the single-button interface is familiar to anyone who’s ever played a Jagged Alliance or an X-COM, and actually manages to be robust and keep out of your way for the most part.
The game world is realised in 3D from an isometric perspective, and it’s here we find the first problem: the view cannot be rotated. When exploring the world, this doesn’t matter a jot; it’s reminiscent of the classic Fallout games, and the artwork is delightful enough that it’s a constant joy to move around in (it’s one of the best-looking RPG’s I’ve ever played, despite most of it being mere decoration– the world of Shadowrun is full of doors that don’t open). The fixed perspective is clearly a limitation of the engine though, and as such, something that would-be modders will likely be stuck with too. As for why it’s a problem, we must first put the game’s combat system under the microscope.
Combat ins Shadowrun Returns is a turn-based tactical affair, seeming to borrow heavily from both Fallouts and the more recent (and streamlined) XCOM‘s systems. Unfortunately, it comes with their weaknesses too.
Every character will have a joyous variety of tactical options available each turn, whether it be casting spells, activating drones, summoning creatures, or good, old-fashioned violence with whatever weapons you have. Most of the weapons also have alternate fire modes, and unlocked skills provide yet more options for causing and preventing widespread death (I should note here that the inventory system seems to lack the ability to compare items, which is something of an oversight in a modern RPG). There’s also a cover system, where certain barriers provide light, medium or full cover, with shield icons that will be familiar to anyone who played XCOM.
As with XCOM, each character can move or perform an action, such as reloading or punching. But, as with Fallout, characters each have a variable number of actions they can perform on a turn. Some will be able to take two actions per turn, others more. Here the balance seems sensible; it doesn’t have Fallout’s nonsense of characters having 7 action points with which to punch (3 points) and kick (4 points).
I hesitate to label the combat as “too easy”, but I will say that the situation where I lost battles were almost always down to errant clicks. To attack with your active weapon, you set the options in the UI at the bottom (select weapon, select weapon mode, and so on) and then click on the enemy. Except when your mouse is a couple of pixels off, in which case your character will burn all of its action points to go over and stand in front of the enemy.
There’s no undo.
There are other cracks too. Every criticism I levelled at XCOM’s combat system is present and correct here. You can’t initiate combat manually, even if you know it’s coming up, which leads to the groan-inducing situation of having combat initiated whilst you’re stood in the open, totally exposed, while the enemies are all perfectly entrenched. The next issue is that though the hit probabilities for every enemy is helpfully displayed above their heads, you don’t know how they will change until after you’ve moved there (this is further compounded by the fact that different weapons have different effective ranges, but nowhere is it shown how these translate to optimum positioning on the battlefield).
This brings us back to the issue I mentioned earlier: the inability to rotate the view. When exploring the world, it’s an annoyance because it’s hard to spot things behind it (this can be mitigated or even turned into a positive by good level design, of course). When in combat, where things like line of sight and direction of cover are factors, the inability to rotate the camera seems like an unforgivable flaw. You can’t judge line of sight properly at all (this was hard enough in XCOM, and there you could rotate the camera), and characters frequently get obscured. To make this even worse, it seems that the cover system itself doesn’t work properly in this regard, as moving “behind” (from the perspective of the camera) apparent cover doesn’t seem to provide any benefit (or at least, the UI doesn’t tell you that it does).
Then there’s the AI. The thing about AI in games is that you only really notice it’s there when it behaves unreasonably. Take for example, the situation where I mis-clicked, sending my near-death Street Samurai out of cover, right in front of an enemy with a shotgun (not mention wasting his turn). Did the AI take the opportunity to put him down permanently? Nope. It moved forward a couple of paces and took a pot shot at someone else on the other side of the map, behind cover. I won that battle with no casualties, as I did many similar ones.
Which is probably just as well because the checkpointing system is one of the worst I’ve ever experienced in any game, let alone an RPG. You cannot save the game, ever. The game saves automatically at checkpoints. I can live with that, provided the checkpoints are regular and don’t make me redo too much when reloading. Well, the checkpoints in Shadowrun Returns happen once, at the start of a level.
It’s not all bad though. The combat is still satisfying, and although often frustrating, it never got dull, which is important. The story is well-scripted, both in its use of colloquialisms and its prose, which is important because it sets a high bar for modders to follow. The locations are varied (including several trips into cyberspace), and the game itself will last around a dozen hours, not too long to feel like a grind, whilst still long enough that you feel you’re getting you’re money’s-worth (the pacing is pretty good too, with the first half showing you the ropes and the second getting out of your way).
As with the Fallout series, there are multiple ways to complete many objectives within the game (although the game is extraordinarily linear overall). That said, I didn’t notice any consequences of choice that made much of a difference (beyond say, a certain skill getting you entry to an otherwise locked room, or having the right etiquette curry favour with an NPC), but the potential is there for modders.
There’s no experience system here; instead you’ll be lavished with some combination of credits (or the occasional bit of loot) or “Karma” points for completing missions. The credits are of course used to upgrade your gear (and to buy your way out of difficult situations), whilst the Karma can be spent on progressing through the branches of the skill tree (which become increasingly expensive, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to respec them at any point).
I’m very optimistic as to what modders will be able to do with this engine. Though it seems unlikely that many of the issues with combat can be addressed, even these are not enough to detract from the notion that we could start to see a lot of really enjoyable, high quality user-created RPG content for this game, in a way we’ve not really seen on Mac OS. Time will tell of course, and until then, there’s an enjoyable story set in a fascinating world waiting for you.
Disclaimer: I personally backed the Kickstarter for Shadowrun Returns. I don’t believe that has any bearing on my review, but I provide that information for the sake of completeness.
Performance & Quality
The visuals are rather striking, although the animations and sound effects are rather pedestrian. I encountered no issues during my playthrough, other than the interaction icons in the game world fading in and out unpredictably (I honestly have no idea whether this is by design or not).
Shadowrun Returns comes with a built-in (and Mac-compatible) game editor, and user-created content can be installed via the Steam Workshop.