Within the first twenty minutes of Shadowrun Returns, I felt a deep, genuine sense of sadness. By the end of its introduction, I was already teary-eyed at the thought of a character being killed, despite having only known the guy for less than half an hour, and was hellbent on extracting revenge on whoever committed the crime. In essence, this idea exemplifies what Shadowrun Returns does best: it builds an uncompromising world that is chalk full of more personality than seen in most other big budget, AAA titles and makes its characters have purpose and meaning. To make matters even better, Returns isn’t just a game with a good tale — it’s one that knows how to deliver an intelligent, satisfying roleplaying experience that truly is difficult to forget.
Shadowrun Returns, at its core, is a tactical roleplaying experience in the vein of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Jagged Alliance and Final Fantasy Tactics. What this means is the game is divided into combat encounters and more roleplaying-heavy portions. To tackle the latter first, Shadowrun’s story feels enchantingly nostalgic. From the thematic poignancy to the loud, neon-drunk setting, Returns’ campaign clearly longs for 80s cyberpunk. We say this with glee in our voice as the game pays an admirable amount of homage to the franchise that gave way to its very existence, while also managing to capture a time in storytelling that’s long since passed. Aside from that, this isn’t a game for the kiddies; Shadowrun‘s world is dark, grisly and merciless. Fortunately, all of these elements are used cleverly by the writers to deliver a sensational campaign that never feels melodramatic or cliche. In actuality, Returns’ script in general consists of some of the strongest, sharpest, most impressively clever writing we’ve seen in a video game in years. We want to say a decade, perhaps two, though that seems rash. But the mere thought that we could possibly make such a bold claim is a testament to how fantastic the script and dialogue really is. Characters come to life and have distinct personalities because of the proficient work of the writers.
The other half of Returns plays out through combat situations. These battle scenarios take place on grid-less maps and emphasize tactical movement and a keen mind to plan and execute attacks with deadly precision. It employs nothing revolutionary in the way of new mechanics, but what it does feature is a sophisticated strategic combat system that is familiar right from the start. In battle, players will take note of two aspects primarily: how many actions they can complete in a given turn, and where the enemy is located so they know how to best dispose of them. It’s a little deeper than just that, however. There are subtle stats to keep track of, such as how many bullets are left in the magazine of a character’s firearm, which counts as an action and will deplete a player’s action gauge. Choosing ammo types is also integral to having a successful run.
And then there’s the cover system. Much like many strategy games, characters can enter into cover on the battlefield. Depending on the environment and surrounding obstructions, players can have no cover, half-cover or full. Naturally while in full-cover players (and enemies) will take less damage in addition to being harder to hit. These nuances don’t sound all that ground-breaking — and that’s mostly because they aren’t — but when they all come together, they create such a refined combat experience that we never once bemoaned having to step foot onto the battlegrounds. Since so much of Returns’ experience takes place in this arena, it’s a breath of fresh air to have all the action go off without a hiccup. Certainly this is a tried and true system, but that doesn’t mean it lacks gratifying punch because it essentially lays a solid foundation upon which the game builds everything else. What’s more is the fact that players can choose to approach combat situations in whatever way feels best to them. There were instances where I defeated enemies without ever firing a shot; I instead used characters that I had recruited to hack systems and do the work for me. Having free rein over how to dispatch foes and subsequently complete objectives felt wholly rewarding.
The streamlined nature of the combat isn’t the only offering that Returns gives players. In fact, folks will delight in the ability to customize their character to their heart’s content. This has always been part of the Shadowrun experience, no matter the medium in question, therefore it’s a pleasure to have it so firmly in tact here. When starting up the game, players will create their own shadowrunner. They will choose from a selection of five races, all of which have their own stat bonuses, an avatar portrait to reflect their appearance during talking segments, physical attributes — unfortunately this part doesn’t feel particularly fleshed out — and then finally decide on a character archetype. There are several types of “classes” in Shadowrun, but none of them are entirely limiting. The ones that are there are nevertheless unique and put a fresh spin of the overused trinity system of most RPGs these days. So while players can choose to be a Street Samurai, a Decker, a Shaman and a few others, they can also opt to create their very own class, which has no specific stats, weapon specializations or skills, like the six pre-generated ones. Of course, as folks progress through the game, they will earn experience points, level up and have the opportunity to further build a character that fits their style no matter the archetype they pick in the beginning.
But player customization isn’t the only aspect that makes Returns a personalized game. In fact, much of the title and its longevity will be built by the community. Returns implements an expansive scenario editor that lets GM’s generate stories, missions, battles and characters to no end, further granting them the option to share their constructions by uploading them for others to download. Developer Hairbrained Schemes has gone above and beyond the call of duty here to ensure that Returns is a game that can be played countless times through player-driven scenarios, essentially creating a game that has an endless supply of content. The editor itself is fully-featured, granting players the power to build anything they want using a library of supplied assets. This system, while not original in theory, is a welcome addition to an already beefy game. The integration of this mechanic shows yet again that Hairbrained wants this to be an experience that is only limited by one’s imagination. Thus, a player’s mind is the only limitation to their creativity and enjoyment in Shadowrun Returns, truly. It’s rare to have a developer give us the tools to make our own fun, but Hairbrained clearly isn’t on a power trip, nor do they seem all that concerned with being the sole authority on how folks play their game.
Another quality that players will notice immediately is that the entire game has an old-school feel to it. Its isometric view that harkens back to the SNES and Genesis titles, its emphasis on player choices, the accessible, steamlined combat, deeply customizable characters and the overall narrative-heavy gameplay experience means Shadowrun Returns’ design is decidedly vintage. Some players will immediately get this, especially those of us who grew up on 80s and 90s gaming of any kind. Newer players may not find it as appealing, but will more than likely appreciate it all the same as it feels so unnatural and new at a time in gaming where there’s far too much overlap between games, regardless of genre.
There’s Shadowrun Returns audio and visual presentation to talk about as well. The graphics in the game are simple, no doubt. That being said, environments are vibrant and filled with fluorescent hues, depicting and endorsing the ways of cyberpunk with a distinguished level of beauty that is every bit science-fiction as it modern era. But this art style doesn’t carry the graphics alone, and as mentioned, they are markedly basic. Characters especially lack any kind of significant detail and their texture work leaves something to be desired. But for every time we wished for more graphical prowess, we were humbled by the game’s cybernetic soundtrack. Thumping beats, pulsating electro-rock and gorgeous 80s revival synth ballads make for one hell of a soundtrack. If there was anything to remind us of just how juxtaposed the 80s were, what with their bright colors yet dark moral acts, Returns’ aural accomplishments do just that.
Even with the few flaws it possesses, Hairbrained Schemes have knocked it out of the park with Shadowrun Returns. This is one of the most satisfying and complete tactical roleplaying experiences to come out of 2013 and realistically the last few years. It’s strong in narration, sporting one of the best scripts we’ve seen in a long time, rich in customization and solid in its combat sophistication. This is a game that unabashedly understands how to deliver the full-bodied, total package experience. To cherry the Sundae, though, the game editor means that Shadowrun Returns goes from being a game that is a handful of hours long, to one that truly could never end. And honestly, we hope it doesn’t end — we hope that community takes to the game faster than Vin Diesel to a new Fast and Furious film, because this is the type of title that deserves to be played by many, and live a long and prosperous, cyberpunk life.