Shadowrun Returns Review

Article Index

Eschalon: Book II

Developer:Harebrained Schemes
Release Date:2013-07-25
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
Shadowrun Returns is a turn-based isometric role-playing title set in the cyberpunk-meets-fantasy pen and paper Shadowrun setting. It's developed by Harebrained Schemes, a small indie developer that previously only worked on mobile and browser games, but that also houses Shadowrun mastermind Jordan Weisman.

Most importantly, it's the first major title to come out of the recent wave of Kickstarter-funded old-school RPGs, and has been the subject of some controversy when Harebrained Schemes revealed that the DRM-free copies promised during the campaign would only be available to backers, and wouldn't have access to the DLC that would be later published.

Is the game good then? The answer requires a few more words than a simple "yes" or "no", I feel. Shadowrun Returns is a solid, entertaining title with plenty of potential for the future, but also one that is difficult to recommend without at least a few caveats. Keep reading to find out why.

For the sake of full disclosure I have to state I was one of the backers of the Kickstarter campaign that funded the development of the game. I personally don't feel this actually influences my opinion of the title and I wouldn't be reviewing if I felt otherwise.

The Dead Man's Switch

While Shadowrun Returns has been structured to be modular - you can, in fact, already download and play mod campaigns - its main feature as of now is the main campaign, which is aptly titled "The Dead Man's Switch". Through the succinct prologue, which also doubles as a tutorial, you learn the basic premise: your former shadowrunning partner Sam Watts has died, and this activated his dead man switch, a recorded video call in which he asks you to find his killer.

Why should you care? Well, he promises a hefty reward, for one, but bringing him to justice for both your character and Sam's family might also prove to be enough motivation. While these two explanations won't work for every single imaginable character, the game does about as good a job as possible to justify your involvement in the story, without resorting to a blatant "save the world!" plot.  Even if it doesn't quite work for you, there's plenty of dialogue throughout the game that lets you reinforce or change your motivations.

While the game's writing tapers off near the end, it makes for an extremely enjoyable pulp detective story and an excellent introduction to the setting. Every loading screen includes well-written narration that sets the tone for the location you're about to visit. Almost every character has emotive dialogue, that feels both natural and colorful. More importantly, there's a sense of real self-awareness that permeates the whole adventure, an implicit and tacit admission of the ridiculousness of the setting that should not, however, be misconstrued as shame, but celebration.

It's true that the game never patronizes you with its need to be taken seriously, but people who are looking for it will find characters with believable motivations that are mercifully delivered in a far snappier, efficient way than the melodramatic dialogue trees popularized by BioWare and other RPG developers. Some rather heavy subjects are also touched upon, albeit not excessively, adding texture to a setting that might otherwise feel a little too sanitized.

This is not to say that the game's writing is perfect, far from it. I mentioned earlier that it tapers off near the end, and that's largely because it eschews the urban intrigue, detective work and character drama with a less-than-great plot twist. With the sake of hindsight, it's easy notice how this particular story beat informed the whole narrative, and the dialogue in the ending section and the ending proper does its best to make it sound less banal and more interesting, but this only slightly lessens the bad taste it left in my mouth.

There are also points in the story, mercifully only a few, where the dialogue suddenly gets clunky. Characters get unexplained "hunches", asylum mental patients come equipped with guns (though I admit there might be narrative reasons for that that I missed), and explanations that should make sense in-universe feel excessively "game-y" and directed at the player.
Many possible characters, only one (linear) story

While at times playing the campaign feels like playing a strong pen and paper adventure module, it also has to be said that I rarely played or DMed campaigns that felt as linear and directed as "The Dead Man's Switch" is. It's a campaign that barely gives you any breathing room, with few opportunities provided to explore or pursue side quests or missions. There is a system in place to start optional "runs" from the Seamstresses Union, your de facto base of operation, but disappointingly I can only remember one time in the game where it actually got used, with the only other fully-fledged side mission I can remember offered by a companion in the middle of the story. To add to this, some minor side quests are also sprinkled throughout the main locations, though they are brief and usually conclude after a combat encounter or one or two dialogues, and you can get additional info and loot if you explore the story locations thoroughly.

The game doesn't branch in any way, and only offers a few very minor choices: stuff like choosing not to give an heirloom to sell it to a fence later, or freeing a character rather than handing it over to your employers. It does, however, excel at offering you multiple ways to get to the same endpoint: there are a lot of opportunities to use your skills (though some are used more than others), bribe individuals, and also gather information and items to use to accomplish your goals. For example, early on in the game I was able to lull an officer into a false sense of security by offering him some coffee (or soykaf, to be precise), which gave me the chance to get on a crime scene without having to pass any skill checks. It's an excellent approach to quest design that unfortunately doesn't shine as much as it could due to the plot's linearity and the numerous instances of unavoidable combat.

Combat and character progression

Shadowrun Returns makes use of a classless system that is, from what I gather, loosely based on the 2nd and 3rd iteration of the pen and paper ruleset. After choosing your gender, which is essentially cosmetic and has no bearing on actual gameplay, you get to choose between five races - humans, elves, dwarfs, orks and trolls - each with their own attribute limits and bonuses. This effectively means that, for example, you will never be able to make a troll that is as charismatic as the most charismatic elf or human, but you will be able to make one that is still reasonably charismatic and put the extra Karma points - which get awarded to you after completing objectives - you would have spent on Charisma elsewhere.

After selecting your race, you get to choose whether you want to select an archetype - premade skills and attributes allocations that essentially act as nonbinding classes - or distribute your Karma pool how you see fit. Every skill is governed by an attribute and can't be raised above its level, and every specialization is in the same relationship with its governing skill. To offer a concrete example: to raise Shotgun to 4 you'll first need to be sure that your Quickness and Ranged Weapons values are at least 4, otherwise you won't be able to. Aside from offering numerical bonuses, like increased chance to hit, skills and specializations also unlock special abilities at certain tiers, like special attacks for specific weapon categories. The aforementioned Shotgun skill, for example, unlocks the Kneecap attack, which adds Action Point (AP) damage to a successful hit, if you put at least one point into it.

Pretty much every skill and attribute is designed to offer combat benefits first and foremost, with eventual additional benefits on the side. Charisma, for example, is the attribute that governs the Shaman skills' effectiveness, but also offers the obvious benefits you associate with it in dialogue, and awards you an etiquette at every even number. Etiquettes are essentially dialogue traits, and unlock new options during conversations: a character with the Security etiquette, for example, might be able to convince guards or police more easily than other characters.

One big exception to this combat focus is the Decking Skill and its specialization ESP Control. Decking is used consistently throughout the game to hack computers for a variety of purposes, like unlocking doors, getting extra information, loot, etc., but its most important function is the ability to access the Matrix, Shadowrun's worldwide cyberspace/virtual reality. To be fair, calling the Matrix sections non-combat gameplay would be wrong, and it's more correct to call them special combat scenarios. When in the Matrix, Deckers have to rely on their Matrix-only special abilities and summoned Programs to fight security and other Deckers, given that their virtual personas have no access to real-world equipment. Furthermore, their real body is left defenseless, so it falls to the rest of the team to keep them safe, a set up that is used to good effect in a few sections in the second half of the campaign.
This leads me to the combat proper. As I've mentioned earlier, Shadowrun Returns uses turn-based combat mechanics. Your Action Pool determines the amount of actions you can take during a turn, with certain special attacks and spells requiring more than a single Action Point, some of which also come with a cooldown attached. Basic movement also requires a single Action Point, with longer travel distances consuming more, and the way it's handled feels reminiscent of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, given you can only decide your destination but not the particular route taken.

Truth be told, the whole combat system feels reminiscent of Firaxis' 2012 turn-based strategy title. I'll mention just a few elements that are evidently indebted to the recent X-COM reboot: the interface, the way the Overwatch ability works, the small amount of actions per turn, the lack of ammo as a resource making reloading an Action Point sink (the Pistol skill tree has an ability that lowers reload cost to 0, making ammo capacity a complete non-issue, but that's an exception), the way turns are divided discretely between your team's turn, the enemy team's turn and neutral turns with no initiative system in place. All these influences come with their pros and cons, of course. It's an easy to understand system that presents its trade-offs in a remarkably transparent way, but it also lacks some of the finer control that fans of the genre are used to.

Furthermore, and this is in no way a direct influence of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the game is fairly easy. While I won't go as far as to say that the game is a piece of cake, especially at the higher difficulty levels, it certainly presents no particular challenge. Assuming the player's build isn't completely inefficient and the team of runners hired for the job - while initially you get assigned companions for story events, later on you can hire pre-made runners for money - is adequate, pretty much every combat encounter is beatable without needing to change or adapt your tactics too much. Some of the late encounters in the game feel a bit cheap, with enemies spawning in the middle of your turn and attacking you, but I get the impression it was more of a careless design choice than an intentional move to make the encounters more difficult. Another way in which Shadowrun Returns feels different from XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the game's tendency to pit you against enemies that adhere to the same ruleset as your characters do, rather than having you fight monsters with their own hand-tailored mechanics. There are few instances in which you'll fight monsters, especially in the latter half, but for the most part you'll deal with orks, humans, elves and trolls, using the same abilities and gear as you. These abilities, incidentally, don't necessarily feel perfectly balanced, with some archetype feeling overall less useful than others, like, for example, the Adept.

Speaking of gear, I unfortunately have to note that the title is a bit lacking in this regard. The game doesn't have any kind of random drops, or indeed any loot drops from enemies at all, which given the mission-focused structure of the title didn't feel like a huge drawback from my point of view. The itemization is overly simplistic, however, with every archetype getting a simple armor progression without trade-offs or side choices (shamans have armors that add Charisma, Spirit Control and Conjuring, deckers get armors that add Decking and ESP Control and so on), and every weapon category following a similarly straight progression path, with higher level weapons locked behind skill requirements. You can also spend money on items, with your standard array of buffs and medkits (the modern equivalent of potions), and upgrade your body with cyber-enhancements. These enhancements raise your stats and award you extra abilities at the cost of Essence, which governs your spell cooldowns: the less Essence you have, the longer your cooldowns will be. I didn't dabble in this system too much, given my main character was a Shaman, but I didn't get the impression these bonuses were particularly notable.

Graphics, music and performance

While Harebrained Schemes' choice to go for a stylized look won't please everyone, the team is worthy of recognition for executing on their stylistic choices perfectly. Every 2D location is colorful, detailed and consistent, and the low-poly 3D character models blend in perfectly with their easily readable silhouettes communicating their race, gender and class effectively despite the limited polygon budget. Animation, on the other hand, can feel a bit spartan, and I encountered frequent minor animation glitches, including NPCs suddenly becoming extremely fast while running into cover, and other similar small but noticeable blemishes. The soundtrack is also good, if not exceptional, with a small selection of catchy electronic and electronic-meets-rock themes that enhance the atmosphere.

Given Shadowrun Returns is a low-budget game developed with Unity, you'd expect it to not tax your system and run well, and so it did on my platform, with a smooth framerate at maximum graphical settings. I did, however, encounter some issues with sound micro-stuttering occurring while the game streams assets, a bug that is apparently caused by the engine's multi-threading code. Despite searching for workarounds on the internet, I wasn't able to find anything that solved the issue for me, but aside from that, the game was pretty much bug-free for me. I did however read reports of bugs and scripting issues which hopefully will be fixed by the undoubtedly upcoming patches.

A final mention goes to the checkpoint-based saving system, which is the most aggravating I have ever encountered since Alpha Protocol. While at least Obsidian's title had the excuse of featuring heavy choices and consequences, making checkpoints a way to prevent you from reloading and making another choice after finding out the outcome, Shadowrun Returns' only excuse is budget. It offers no benefit whatsoever for the players, preventing them from playing the game at their own pace and forcing them to replay dialogue encounters and scripted scenes, should they happen to die during pivotal encounters. I'm not sure whether it's doable, but patching a proper save anywhere system in its place would do a lot to make the game easier to play for people who are pressed for time or simply find themselves frustrated by this design choice.


When I finished Shadowrun Returns, I found myself hungering for more. While I take that as a sign of my enjoyment of the game, it's also a result of what little the title has to offer at release: only a short, linear campaign, albeit a very enjoyable one. Shadowrun Returns might well become a very content-rich game later down the line, with promising mods already in alpha state and a DLC campaign already in development, but right now it simply isn't. It is, however, a solid title, if a little bit too short and shallow for its own good.

For some chummers this might be well worth a purchase. For others, however, purchasing the game now might just feel as stupid as cutting a deal with a dragon.