Shadowrun Returns – An Examination

I can’t speak to anyone else’s life experiences, but if you’re like me, your 2013 fucking sucked. I spent just about the entire year drunk, broke, bitter, and mortally constipated. I’m not positive I had a single uniformly positive experience at any point during the entire calendar year, which is really saying something when you consider that I can think of plenty of uniformly positive experiences I had in 2020, despite the fact that 2020 was a jello shot made of Malort and piss.

If there’s any exception to this, it’s that when I went to visit my parents for Christmas of that cursed year, I got the opportunity to play Shadowrun Returns. Not only was its fun as heck, the very opportunity filled me with glee; Shadowrun has always been one of my favorite tabletop RPG settings and rule sets (here’s a bit of unsolicited but also free advice for anyone designing a tabletop RPG: consider basing your rules system around dice pools. They’re fun and different, and provide a good incentive to buy one of those giant towers of miniature d6s, which everyone should have around already, anyway), but except for about four glorious Sunday afternoons in the summer of 2009, I’ve rarely had the opportunity to play the game.

Therefore, I’ve had to resort to the handful of Shadowrun video games out there, and my thirst for the system is such that I jumped at the chance to buy Returns on Steam sale last week. Prior to the release of Returns, the history of those games has been decidedly mixed. There’s a Shadowrun game for both Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo and, in direct contrast to many titles of the era, the two are completely different. (There was also a game called Shadowrun released for Xbox 360 way back in those days, but my understanding is that it sucks, and the gameplay has almost nothing to with the RPG, so I feel empowered to eschew mentioning it further).

The Super Nintendo version is, essentially, an old-school point and click adventure. You go places and search everything that the interface will let you search until you find the thing you need to do whatever you’re supposed to be doing. Sometimes there are people to talk to, and sometimes there’s combat. I’m told that it’s actually pretty fun, if you’re into that sort of thing. The Genesis version is closer to the modern style of RPG. You run around doing side quest missions until you’re strong enough to start chipping away at the story missions, and there’s a pseudo-real time combat system. I prefer the Genesis version, but it’s far from perfect. It gets points for the ambition of its combat system, but the implementation is janky, and it’s tough to find things to do in the early game that don’t get you killed.

In this context, Shadowrun Returns feels like a synthesis of the two styles. It’s an isometric point and click RPG with turn based tactical combat (hold this thought), and unlike point and click games of yore, the SNES game included, there are highlights placed on objects you can interact with and people you can talk to. The interface is mostly pretty intuitive, and since the amount of objects to interact with and people to talk to is typically pretty limited, time spent wandering around wondering what to do next is almost non-existent.

So, about the combat – this game was released in 2013, and it quickly becomes pretty obvious what game the dev team was playing in their spare time in 2012. Let’s see, you have limited movement, guns that require spending an action to reload, an isometric viewpoint, the ability to take cover behind objects (which is expressed in either half shield icons to denote half cover, and full shield icons to denote full cover), you can see your percentage chance to hit enemies before you attack, and you can set your main character and other party members to something the game calls ‘Overwatch’ if you have extra actions on your turn but nothing to do with them. Gee, where have I seen these before?

That’s right, just about every single feature of combat pointed out above is also a feature of combat in 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and there’s a very real chance that if you’ve played that game, you’ll find the similarities distracting. That list of features taken directly from XCOM isn’t even all inclusive! I don’t know that I could call this a complaint, exactly, because XCOM is an absolute fucking masterpiece and there are thousands of worse games the developers could have stolen from, and I’m not the sort of discerning consumer who thinks a game needs to have new ideas. Still, the more I reflect on it, the more galling I find the degree to which SR lifts from XCOM wholesale.

Shadowrun Returns has a handful of unambiguous flaws, to boot. The biggest bother was that the isometric viewpoint is fixed, with no ability to rotate viewpoints. Out of combat, this isn’t really a big deal, but remember, combat is so thoroughly based around tactical movement and positioning, and being unable to rotate the camera impedes your ability to do so. Say you have a party member taking cover behind a single tile box, and you want to move another party member into cover on that same box on the face directly behind and adjacent the one already being used for cover.

Good luck with that! Since the party member in cover is probably taking up most of the space in that second cover spot, hovering your mouse over the space you want to move to is going to instead highlight the party member already in cover. If you actually want to get a move cursor to that location, you have to go hunting for a maddeningly specific mouse placement, one that you’re likely to lose before you’ll notice you had in the first place. It’s annoying as hell!

I also wasn’t a huge fan of the difficulty pacing. Playing on Normal difficulty, the game starts out pretty damn easy and mostly remains so until about two-thirds of the way through, at which point it spikes and spikes hard. While it still wasn’t all that hard, there’s nothing gradual about this increase, and there were times that it felt like the percentage hit chance was lying to me (I understand that it is possible to miss on an 85% hit chance three times in a row, but also, seriously!?).

Out of combat, the game could have used a few quality of life improvements. There’s no maps in the game, anywhere. I would have appreciated both a map menu and a minimap on the HUD, and the game has neither. On top of that, many maps have areas that are visible, but not accessible, and it’s just about impossible to tell if an area is accessible or not just by looking. Since there’s no map menu to look at, the only way to tell if an area is accessible is by clicking and seeing what happens (compare and contrast with Baldur’s Gate, which also has the occasional inaccessible area but lets you check if something is accessible or not on the map screen), and that gets tedious.

The story is also a little too linear. Since every object you can find or interact with is highlighted, and every person you can talk to is highlighted, and there tend to be few of either on each screen, it takes very little time to find the object and/or person you need to find to keep things moving. There’s also very little sophistication to finding plot items; I counted two puzzles (here defined as any plot item collection where the means of collection is not immediately obvious) in the whole campaign. I’ll take that over being forced to search every single object on every single map any day of the week, but at times the game swings too hard in the other direction.

The main campaign is also a little too short. I finished the game last night, after a scant 13 hours of total play time. In a way, this is refreshing; games are entirely too fucking long these days, but 13 hours is still a bit slight, and I’m not convinced there’s a ton of replay value to be found here. You can count the amount of side missions on one hand. While I didn’t even sort of rigorously test the dialogue options, I don’t get the impression that they provide any substantially divergent game experience. I suppose I could play with a different character build next time, but I would mostly want to play as a Decker (that is, a computer/network hacker), and there are about as many opportunities for decking as there are side quests, so it’s hard to see that proving a good idea.

Being a bit too short isn’t a deal breaker as such, but I don’t think this game is worth full price. That said, there are a handful of additional, community created campaigns that I may check out yet. That’s pretty sweet, but there are less than I would have thought, and some of them are only compatible with the game on GOG and not compatible with the Steam version, and, well…you know how it is. Community created content is always a mixed bag. Unless these additional campaigns are mostly pretty awesome, I’m not sure their mere existence alters this value calculus much.

It’s also worth mentioning that it spawned two sequels which I have yet to check out – Shadowrun Dragonfall and Shadowrun Hong Kong. I’ve heard Hong Kong is particularly good, but since I cannot personally attest to its quality you should consider this hearsay. Note that you will have to purchase the sequels separately, which is all the more reason to wait until they go on sale. Shadowrun Returns is a fun diversion and quite good for what it is. It’s the very definition of a good budget pickup, provided you can find it on sale.

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