Review: Shadowrun Returns

A little while back, I mentioned I’d been playing this. Well, I finally finished it this last week and figured a review might make a nice post.

Shadowrun Returns is an isometric, turn-based, role-playing affair. The player has dominion over a character who can be specced to specialise in in all sorts of wonderfully different proficiencies, thanks to being set in a fantasy world of elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, and humans all eking out their survival in a corporation-controlled future. Shamanistic and wizardly magic have returned to the world, alongside the emergence of metahumans, while technology has advanced much like we want it to and brought Deus Ex prosthetics, Matrix-inspired virtual-world hacking, and little drones to do our fighting for us while we control them with our minds from behind cover.



There is a wondrous amount of choice in just what kind of Shadowrunner you can be (Shadowrunners being the fiction’s general term for the mercenarial operatives such as yourself and your party members). Shaman it up and bring forth spirits from the ether to do your bidding, or try a more direct magical approach and lob fireballs all over. Try the “might is right” route and build up a troll that could use his enemies as clubs with which to hit his other enemies (okay, I don’t actually know if that can be done…). Or perhaps a quick and sprightly close-combat elf is more your deal, enhancing kicks and punches with a bit of magical oomph? Or take the rigger’s path, and you’ll have knowledge and control of all manner of mechanical implements, including building and vehicle controls and drones you can send trundling forth to spout bullet-hell upon your foes. Or deck it out and delve into the matrix – a virtual world of information systems, where avatars and programs fight for control of the system. Or… Okay, I’ll stop, you probably get it – the world of Shadowrun, which started out as a D&D’esque pen and paper activity many years ago, offers so many character possibilities, within such a rich lore, the mind begins to boggle a little. The variation is great, although it can have the effect of being overwhelming and requires time and experimentation to figure out. But experimenting with low-level skills is not what you want to be doing at normal or higher difficulty levels as you start progressing through the story.

The interface does a good job of facilitating and presenting your many gameplay options, but if you’ve played the recent XCOM reboot you may want to dial your expectations to a lower budget. The interface works, and works mostly well, but it’s also rather simple and utilitarian. While that lends it a clean look, there’s no pretending that you’re not just manipulating the available mechanics. The actual game looks pretty good – the art and levels really are lovely and the presentation does a lot to illustrate the narrative – but the mix of 2D levels with 3D characters creates some limitations. For one, there’s no camera rotation, and there isn’t really any verticality in the levels. Encounters end up being very tactically-straightforward affairs, for the most part involving just taking cover and making obvious flanking moves, so the depth in combat must rely almost solely on the abilities you bring to bear. This detracts a little from the allure of a pure gunslinger who wouldn’t have many exotic skills besides varying shot-types; there are lots of options for how you’ll shoot the enemy, just not from where you’ll shoot them or how you’ll get there.

A view of the matrix - I took the Decker route.

A view of the matrix – I took the Decker route.

On the sound front there’s not much to mention – sound effects did fine and really I can’t say I specifically noticed them (which usually means they did fine, in my experience). I did rather enjoy the soundtrack, despite it getting a bit repetitive around 6 or 8 hours in. There’s no dialogue, and speech is handled entirely via text boxes – fine for some (I liked it), annoying for those who don’t like reading lots (and in my case this reminded me to keep the AAA expectations elsewhere).

Last but certainly not least, is the narrative. Man, I wouldn’t have continued playing this without the story. Shadowrun Returns‘ Dead Man’s Switch campaign is the best hook this game’s got. Without spoiling anything, you start off getting what’s essentially a video will of a recently dead buddy, with him asking you to look into how he died because he thought something was off and suspected something might happen to him (you getting the video makes it pretty clear something did happen). It starts as a grimy, gritty detective story in a world perfectly rendered for such a tale, spinning a web of plot and intrigue, from family histories to cultist followings and more, populated with genuinely interesting characters – if you take the time to talk to them and read all those text boxes. But while my biggest praise goes to the story, I also feel the narrative is where the biggest opportunity was missed – this story isn’t very personal. While you can pick between some options when replying to characters, you have little actual impact on how people react to and interact with you. Besides a line or two of dialogue, nothing changes when you pick mean or friendly, intimate or distant responses. The progression of the story and levels is very linear, and given the time that was clearly taken to flesh out the world and characters in Shadowrun Returns, not allowing for any meaningful differences in the results of the player’s choices seems like a waste.

You don't have to take a party along, but it can be tough going it alone.

You don’t have to take a party along, but it can be tough going it alone.

On a more technical note, I did experience a bugs here and there – on Windows 10 x64 at least, the engine has some trouble with initialising when you start the game up. I saw one or two instances of the game failing to determine what resolution it should use on game load and would crash to desktop, sometimes even throwing a video memory management bluescreen my way (ie. start PC, browse around, start game, load last save, crash, BSOD). It would then work fine on a subsequent attempt. I also experienced an issue where the game would occasionally lock up on exit, and again bluescreen (it never did this if I just saved my game and Alt-F4’d out).

All that said, I thoroughly enjoyed my play-through of Shadowrun Returns. I know there’s tons of user content I could play with and character options I could try out if I replayed it, but I’m a single play-through kinda gamer, and this single play-through was damn fine. I’m eager to get stuck in to Shadowrun: Dragonfall, and would whole-heartedly recommend Shadowrun Returns to any turn-based combat players and noir detective story fans.

A great story on a bed of rich lore, with more character skills and types than you can shake a stick at, Shadowrun Returns delivers a tight turn-based combat RPG experience. A pity about the linearity and bugs though, and all that skill variety can overshadow the more “vanilla” skill options.