Shadowrun Returns Review
Shadowrun Returns Box Art
System: PC
Dev: Harebrained Schemes
Pub: Harebrained Schemes
Release: July 25, 2013
Players: 1
Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p
It's Wizzer!
by Becky Cunningham

What happens when magic suddenly awakens in a dystopian, cyberpunk future? A lot of craziness results, and the way magic has integrated into a high-tech world is the basis for the Shadowrun role-playing setting. While there have been a number of attempts to bring Shadowrun from the pen-and-paper world into video gaming, few have been successful in the minds of fans. Thanks to the independence granted by Kickstarter, though, Harebrained Schemes' Shadowrun Returns manages to be both faithful to the setting and fun to play.

With only a couple million dollars raised towards the production of the game, the developers wisely chose not to attempt a sweeping epic, opting instead to design an interesting series of missions kicked off by a murder mystery. The player portrays a Shadowrunner, a mercenary who lives in the shadows of society, doing the dirty work for whoever pays best. When an old comrade turns up dead, the player's customized main character chooses to investigate his murder, be it for loyalty, money, or both.

Shadowrun Returns Screenshot

The game's writing, save for a few typos here and there, is quite good, with interesting characters and situations that push the plot forward well. There are even a number of touching moments thanks to strong character design. Many details of the setting, such as Shadowrun's unique slang and the various factions that populate the world are replicated faithfully. There are even a number of references to the 1993 Shadowrun game on the Super Nintendo, the previously reigning favorite video game amongst setting fans.

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Although the story is fairly linear, the player is presented with plenty of dialogue options that allow for role-playing, a few story-altering choices, multiple possible solutions to some puzzles, and a number of side-quests to complete along the way. Although it's not incredibly lengthy, the campaign is well designed enough to feel satisfactory, leaving the player wanting more in a good way. I consider it a good value for a twenty-dollar game.

Shadowrun Returns Screenshot

The meat of Shadowrun Returns is in its character customization and combat systems. Although players have the option to start off with a basic class-oriented template, there are no class-based limitations as the player earns karma points that can be spent on any skill trees they desire. Want to play an uzi-wielding Mage or a Decker (hacker) with ninja skills that can also summon shamanic spirits? No problem, although there's a limit to the total number of karma points available. For most missions, the player is able to hire a party of fellow Shadowrunners to fill in any skill gaps, and finding a good party balance for a particular mission is part of the game's strategy.

Not all of the skill trees are perfectly balanced. Shamanic totems aren't worth the risk and cost involved until you gain access to high-level ones, and melee characters take a lot more damage than ranged ones without gaining enough corresponding advantages. Mages with healing spells and Deckers are invaluable party members, while other kinds of character builds feel unnecessary or interchangeable. Still, it's fun to experiment with different builds, and the game is short enough that it's fun to play through more than once with different main characters.

Shadowrun Returns Screenshot

Combat itself is turn-based, with strategic elements based on smart skill usage and taking cover behind various objects. It's fairly easy on the game's normal difficulty, so RPG pros looking for a strategic challenge should feel free to crank up the difficulty level. There's not a lot in the way of forced tutorial gameplay, so players will want to either use the in-game reference material or experiment freely with the various combat options in order to learn the ropes. As the game progresses and characters gain more abilities, the challenge and fun factor in combat both increase. Fights move fairly swiftly, but that also means they can be rather lethal, and careful strategy is definitely needed at higher difficulty levels.

A few design choices, which were apparently made due to programming and budgetary constraints, weigh Shadowrun Returns down. There's almost no loot to be found, which makes it difficult to boost the amount of nuyen (money) made on missions. This can be frustrating, as nuyen is needed in large quantities for buying supplies and hiring teammates. The game hands out a reasonable amount of money along the way, but there's little satisfaction in making it since it feels largely out of the player's control.

Navigating the non-combat areas of the game can be a bit tricky, as available paths aren't always clear, and the icons that denote interactive objects can't seem to decide whether to stay persistently visible or not. It can also be a bit too easy to accidentally leave side-quests undone, as they disappear if the character advances the main story even a touch too far.

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