Shadowrun Returns

Shadowrun Returns is the latest offering from Harebrained Schemes, developer and publisher of Crimson Steam Pirates and Strike Fleet Omega, both of which have garnered quite a following.

Jordan Weisman, one of the creators of Shadowrun is involved in trying to bring one of the great tabletop gaming standouts back to the world of video gaming after several outings on different platforms.

Weisman is one of the great standouts himself, with a terrific sense of humor and an involvement with the community throughout this game’s production. This includes fireside chats and diary videos which kept the Kickstarter backers informed of the development process after a hugely successful campaign to fund this title.

Shadowrun Screen 1

Back in the days of the SNES/Sega consoles, Shadowrun grew its roots in video gaming and those roots took hold of many of the folks who enjoyed their tabletop campaigns and even drew in more fans who helped make the funding campaign for this game such a great success.

It is to these platforms that Weisman wanted to make a spiritual successor, not another variation of Shadowrun FPS on more modern consoles. This means a 2D world with 3D characters , vibrant artwork depicting the urban sprawls of 2054, turn-based strategy, deep RPG character development, and player choices frequent throughout each adventure. Considering the limited budget and huge expectations of the community, this is no easy task. While the funds allocated to the project offered the developers many new options, that kind of money still doesn’t compare to some of the multi-platform games released with tens of millions of dollars in the budget.

Shadowrun Returns is launching July 25th, 2013 for PC and Mac with other versions planned for the future. The game is releasing with a full level editor so the community can make their own Shadowruns, each with their own team of runners, up to 4, plus drones and summoned companions depending on the abilities incorporated into the player’s team. The game’s MSRP of $20 or so makes it very reasonable, especially considering the community’s involvement in creating new campaigns and the development team stating they are creating at least one future campaign as well, perhaps more depending on the success of the title.

Shadowrun Screen 2

To alleviate any confusion, there are two Kickstarter campaigns for two separate Shadowrun titles. This version is single-player only on release. Shadowrun Online is a separate title, which is releasing sometime in the future after its’ successful Kickstarter campaign and will offer multi-player in an MMO setting.

Shadowrun Returns takes place in the year 2054, beyond the coming of a second age of magic in 2014 stemming from an ancient Mayan prediction. Two-thirds of the populace is devastated after a plague wiped out many humans replacing them with metahumans. Elves, Dwarves, Orks, and Trolls run amok amongst the remaining distrustful human populace and money-driven corporations. Prejudice runs rampant, and the use of magic and the awakening of magical creatures are mixed in with the benefits of technology through cyberware. Lose an eye or a limb in the shadows of this world and it can be replaced, if you can trust the surgeon doing the work.

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Shadowrun Returns allows one player character, and eventually the player can hire more Shadowrunners to complement their team. Each Shadowrun is comprised of a set of objectives given to the player by their “client”, who can be anyone from a distressed citizen to a mega-corporation and each contract is paid in the international monetary currency, nuyen. Nuyen is slotted onto individual credsticks which take the place of banks, everyone has one, and there are those that have limited balances, i.e. pre-paid. In addition, karma is given to players throughout missions for completing objectives and this can be used to enhance abilities, or saved for later use with each point giving a corresponding point to an ability or statistic. Stats familiar to RPGers like Body, Quickness, Intelligence, or Willpower govern the skills that work with them and in most cases players cannot allocate a skill that is higher than the governing attribute. Saving and planning is a wise and often necessary move.

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As the game is a solo affair, choosing the right character to represent you in the world is important and fleshed out nicely for this type of game. Players can select their gender and regardless of male or female there is no inherent advantage to either choice. Picking the race from Human, Troll, Dwarf, Ork, or Elf offers statistic/karma bonuses as well as maximum attributes for each race. Text at the bottom of the screen describes these options so creating your character is a real pleasure. The class system, as in the pen and paper tabletop Shadowrun, is based on archetypes, which allow the player to select any of the following in the game:

Street Samurai-wielder of ranged and melee weapons to devastate their enemies

Physical Adept-Disciplined fighter using Chi skills to engage or defend

Mage-User of Awakened Magic to produce effects from damage to healing

Shaman-Uses magic to summon/conjure nature spirits to do their bidding

Decker-Uses a cyberdeck to project their virtual self into the matrix where secrets are stored

Rigger-Uses cybertech to jack their mind into and control small drones for combat/recon

Part of the beauty of the Shadowrun system is that even if a player doesn’t find themselves liking a provided archetype, they are free to create their own. During the character creation process the last option allows players to start with a set amount of karma and distribute it themselves over all the attributes and skills available, allowing for a wide variety of choices. Adding this option into the game was a master stroke by Weisman and his team, and enhances replayability of the base game many times over. For players new to the Shadowrun universe, an archetype (this option allows for a few points to distribute) lets them get to playing right away , while for veterans, allocating all the points where they see fit is a huge plus.

Beautiful, painted headshots can be scrolled through as you select the above options, giving the player a vision of what they are looking for. Below the portrait you can select the 3D model of your in-game avatar and while there aren’t a ton of options here, you can select things like how the horns look on your troll, skin color, hair style and color as well.

Shadowrun Screen 6

Once the starting options are selected, the player continues to a stats screen with bars left to right ranging from one for starting skill all the way to seventeen in one case, for the maximum body of a Troll. Some of the numbered boxes have a diamond inside them, by clicking on these a player can see what special abilities they get later by progressing higher in that ability. Most of the statistics range from one to twelve and with starting points most players won’t go beyond six or so points in any one statistic. This changes very soon as the player makes a name for themselves in the sprawl, slipping through the shadows.

A complete campaign in the Seattle sprawl is included with the game, and serves as excellent groundwork for the community to start work on their own creations. “Dead Man’s Switch” is a journey into the shadows bringing the player back in time to try and help out a runner from days past who contacts the player and is willing to pay good nuyen once his job is done. By going back in time to see how the action unfolds, it not only serves as a springboard to teach the player the game combat system but also generates emotional pull as you develop a relationship with the faces from your past. The included campaign lasts about 12 hours depending on a player’s play style and how many side missions are finished and overall pacing.

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In keeping with the spirit of Shadowrun and the referee-based tabletop games, loading screens describe the upcoming scene much as a gamemaster would to his players. Traversing between scenes is accomplished sometimes by taxi or other means of transportation. A nice addition is that after a player has accomplished certain objectives it is common to be taken right back to your base of operations, so there’s no travel time included and you can get right to spending your hard-earned nuyen and karma.

Once in a scene and conversation begins, text popups appear on the right-hand side of the screen with various options. Some of the options are polite, and others include insults, outright mockery, and hilarious anecdotes which can lead the group into combat very quickly. Shadowrun has always had a lingo players learn through playing and this is expertly portrayed in-game throughout dealings with people encountered. Calling an Elf a “Dandelion Eater” or telling that Lone Star officer to “Frag off” are not recommended if the player is trying to be a “nice” guy/girl in the sprawl. On the other hand, using a friendly greeting like “chummer” will illicit a much friendlier response.

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Of course, treat people right and they might join forces with you or give you their credstick, which in some cases has some hefty nuyen on it to pad your own credstick balance with. This is where the game excels, with player choice and freedom, making friends where you want and enemies where you decide it advances your story. You can always try and get a better price for your wares/services from those involved, but haggle too high out of a person’s price range and you risk losing them as a contact or employer forever. Be polite to those who respect that kind of thing, and they might even return later on to help you out when you need it most.

Your skills also help in this and can add additional options to conversations. For instance, a character with a high enough Charisma statistic gets to learn new etiquettes. If your choice of etiquette is suited to the person you are dealing with i.e. gang for gang member, corporate for Mr. Johnson corporate types, a dialogue option may appear, sometimes with a humorous tilt. Now play through that same conversation with a Troll Street Samurai with a high Strength attribute doing the talking and the dialog that appears might have a bone-breaking slant to it. These can be humorous as well. It’s all about how you pick the skills that define your character and choose to use them in-game. The freedom afforded here in some instances screams out to the player to try the conversation again in their next playthrough with a different set of skills.

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Each character archetype has a different feel to it, with the fighting types using brawn, Shamans conjuring spirits, Mages spotting leylines, (centers of magical activity that strengthen their powers when standing upon them), Riggers using their drones, (providing buffs or to circumvent air vents and scout rooms ahead of the group) and Deckers jacking into the Matrix, the Shadowrun version of the worldwide internet.

In addition to separate itemsets for each archetype, like different clothing options, the Matrix has its’ own tileset when the Decker jacks in and uses their programs to get information. A dark nullspace with white transparent tiles, nodes, and portals awaits the Decker and their programs here. IC, or Intrusion Countermeasures, seek out intruders and the Decker needs to use their cyberdeck and available programs to counter the threats. They can make pets, heal themselves, run attack programs and glean information directly from the Matrix despite the corporations best attempts to protect their secrets.

The game plays out in real-time, with the player clicking the mouse to move from point to point, until combat is joined. Then the action freezes and goes to turn-based combat where a team of runners can be individually controlled to finish the battle. A mix of abilities is a must for most runs, ranged and melee combat options, some cybertech and a bit of magic can all serve the player well here. Special combat abilities are here in abundance, overwatch for getting the first shot off, disarm, headshots, area of effect spells, it’s all there. Some of these require your character to gain karma and spend it to improve themselves and in Shadowrun Returns there are plenty of great abilities your character just must have. While in combat the UI provides the player with exceptionally useful popups showing information like cooldowns, durations, and even info pertaining to why you cannot use an ability at the current time i.e. line of sight blocked, no movement left, etc. Each weapon has a number of abilities, depending on your rank with it and these abilities will grey out when you can’t use them. Improving game flow even further the game automatically switches to an ability you haven’t used that round whenever able. A help glossary is available as well covering many areas of the game so newcomers to the Shadowrun Universe will have assistance when needed. The combination of these helpful effects in game lets you get to the crux of combat.

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Rarely will two battles play out the same way, even if you reload a map section to play again. This keeps the action fresh and the AI, even on Easy difficulty will seek cover, and look for you to group your team in a close-knit bunch so they can toss a grenade right into your ring of runners.

Faced with overwhelming odds, the AI will not only run when it is outmatched, but will also call for help, either by running, screaming or using an intercom depending on the situation.

A cover system is displayed when planning each character’s move with a full shield offering heavy cover, half shield for medium, and an empty shield for light cover objects. Each runner has a set number of action points or AP to use on their turn, usually two points, which can be further enhanced by magic or cyberware. This enables a Mage to shield themselves and then cast a heal spell on another team member, or a Street Samurai to attack with their katana and then move to cover to get away from ranged attackers. For players with ranged weapons concerns, you always have ammo, the only AP spent on the turn is for reloading your gun. This takes the micromanagement out of your encounters and keeps you in the action.

Players are also free to select any member of their team to act whenever they want. The game will auto advance your turn after a runner is finished, but if the player clicks on the top right of their screen on the character’s icon, they get to choose who acts, and when. This is a huge plus for strategy with all the combat options available to your team. Once finished, players can end their turn and see what the enemy does. Traditional line of sight rules apply so always make sure to use overwatch (as soon as you learn it) for those hard to see spots.

Each map is a tileset from the Seattle campaign, (the developers are working on a Berlin campaign to be released sometime after launch) and those provided range from the slum districts to gorgeous settings in the better areas. Set pieces like a bar densely populated with objects familiar to the Shadowrun universe or a news ticker scrolling across an archway add to the immersion. It’s easy to see the love that went into the artwork in this game. The maps are static though, with immobile people at certain areas, and there is very little movement until a story trigger is activated. This is part of how the editor works however, allowing novice editors to put in triggers that activate when a player gets to a certain area or speaks to an important person in the story. It is very similar to the SNES/Sega versions in that regard, and occasionally a flock of birds or trash swirling in the wind breaks up the frozen feel.

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With the 2D perspective, at times it can be tough to see certain areas of the play area. For instance, in an area with walls or narrow corridors your view can be blocked and it can be difficult to target a running enemy or story trigger. Although the mouse can be set to pan when reaching the edges of the screen, there is no 360 degree rotation of the tilesets apparent. There are two switchable perspectives in the options menu but they are not all that different.
Targets are outlined in red when this happens in some instances and not always quick enough. In these cases, it’s a good thing the combat is turn-based so the player has plenty of time to get their target selected. If objects are around the battlefield, this perspective with no camera rotation can make it tough to get into cover, especially with another team member close. This happens very rarely though, but it is worth mentioning.

Other issues noted during this beta media review included audio skipping, and rarely dialog options not appearing, or just the blank space where text should be popping in on mouseover.

Since the game has a checkpoint save system, usually on entering/leaving the mapspace, if the dialog doesn’t appear after a time, the game sometimes needs to be reloaded. Since none of the maps are so huge this entails a large amount of backtracking time, this is certainly not a gamebreaker.

Concerns voiced by the community during development involved the checkpoint save system and also the decision to go with no corpse looting for the initial release. As mentioned the save system is not really a concern, there are no button mashing cutscenes or long cinematics to sit through in the rare case you might have to do it again. The game has four difficulty levels, set in the main screen options menu: Easy, Normal, Hard, and Very Hard so your mileage may vary based on those settings. As long as the redo times are not immense it’s very tough to imagine anyone having an issue with the save system as is. It does however make your choices in dialogues more permanent, as it’s easier to progress onward as opposed to replaying a map to avert a bad choice of words.

Other community members were offput by the decision to not have corpse looting in the game at release. Since this is not an RPG of the hack and slash variety where your character starts as a total lackey in the world, looting corpses is not that much of a concern. Every Shadowrunner starts with basic equipment, or will be given it by their employer. Throughout this title, there are plenty of in-game lockers, chests, desks that offer the player more equipment or credsticks. In fact I played for quite a few hours before even thinking about the lack of corpse looting, and that was only because it had been brought up on the forums by people who had not experienced the game.

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The game maps have vendors with inventories that change after objectives/map areas are completed. A handy feature in the store, especially when upgrading abilities is the items shown have a tag saying “owned” if you already have a particular ability in your arsenal. At the beginning of the provided campaign the choices are pretty much the same as your starting equipment, and that is what the enemies have as well. Like karma, the nuyen rewards are often and plentiful, so corpse looting is not as much of a concern as it might be in some other titles. With the editor that comes with the game it won’t be long before corpse looting is added in anyway.

There is something here for everyone, from the small side missions to the runs that occur over multiple objectives and maps, including investigations where players need to pay attention to conversations or certain people they might not think were so important at first glance. In addition, objectives can be completed differently depending on the player character and the team they have set up. For example, hacking a console to get to a closed off area might go very easily for a team with a good Decker, while breaking into an installation with a solitary security guard might be easier with an Ork or Troll Samurai doing the talking, or the busting up, as you see fit.

The sounds are excellent, from the reloading of clips in the player’s gun to the sounds of different spells going off, each with different animations depending on the element used. The conjured/summoned entities are especially well done, looks and sound, and I have yet to see one that seems out of place, or felt like it was just tossed in as an afterthought.

The music is perfect for the settings depicted and changes often, upon entering combat, a new tileset, etc. Composed by Marshall Parker (SNES Composer) and Sam Powell (Sega Composer) in a joint collaboration, it sets a great atmosphere for all your Shadowruns.

Weisman and his team have succeeded in creating a worthy spiritual successor to the Shadowrun games players loved from the past, despite their limited team size and budget.

Shadowrun Returns is the best game I have ever played at this release day price point, past or present.

With all the higher priced games coming out daily, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a title like this emerge with a decent price tag and plenty of replayability with future campaigns and a high degree of possible community involvement. Only time will tell what the community will do with the full-fledged editor, and since the developers are very open with their customers and backers about putting all the money pledged into the game and none into advertising, it will be word of mouth that gets this game to sell. With the ambitious plans to let the community take this game in future directions, you can slot your credstick on them eating this title up as fast as they can.

So chummer, as the street proverb made famous amongst Shadowrunners since the 1989 edition of Shadowrun goes:

“Watch your back, shoot straight, conserve ammo, and never, ever cut a deal with a Dragon.”

Game Details:

Developer: Harebrained Schemes
Publisher: Harebrained Schemes
Reviewed Platform: PC
Singleplayer 8
Multiplayer N/A
Replayability 9
Graphics 6
Audio 8
Overall 8