Shadowrun Returns Review

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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.