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Shadowrun Returns

It's too bad that Cherry Bomb doesn't do much outside of this scene; a recurring issue with many of the NPCs

Rating: B+

Playing Time: approx. 25 hours

Before playing this game, I didn't know much about Shadowrun; I had played the SNES game ages ago, but that was mostly forgotten, and I never played the TTRPG. Granted, this game was short enough that I still wouldn't say I know much about it, but the point that I'm trying to get at is I didn't go into the game with any sort of strong feelings for the IP. It was suggested to me by a friend who is a big fan of the setting (if not exactly on board with all the math expected to play the TTRPG, and that says a lot to me given that she's someone who'll put up with the math expected in Starfinder, but I digress), but aside from knowing that elves and trolls and magic and the like exist in Shadowrun, I went in with a pretty clean slate.

This made the start a bit daunting, since the first thing the player is asked to do is creating a character, and the game doesn't really put any effort into helping someone who doesn't know Shadowrun understand how that works. Thus, I did end up restarting after figuring out that my initial idea of a cybernetic-enhanced summoner/spellcaster was terrible (the SNES game apparently cheated in making its protagonist capable of doing everything). The UI is also not exactly the most intuitive, so it took me a lot of stumbling to figure out how to actually use the drones that my new character was focusing on (they're treated as an alternate weapon that you have to scroll to and activate).

Aside from those early hiccups, though, I honestly don't have a lot to complain about with this game. Once I got some understanding of how the UI works, the game was a very smooth experience that hides most of the mechanical complexity. It's not perfect (line-of-sight isn't always clear, for instance), but it was at least good enough for this veteran isometric RPG-player to get the hang of it fairly easily.

The plot kicks off in a unique way; you get a message from one of your old allies via a dead man switch that he's dead but he's got a stash of money that you can collect once you bring his killer to justice. Sure, it sounds shady, but you're about to go broke and don't have any other prospects lined up, so it's off to Seattle to solve a murder. The killings (because of course it's a serial killer) take some inspiration from Jack the Ripper, what with the victims having internal organs removed and the media calling the perpetrator the Emerald City Ripper, though unlike that case, you do get to solve this one eventually. Things aren't quite so simple, though, as you're drawn into a greater conspiracy behind all that, and things end up coming to an appropriately apocalyptic-but-reasonable-for-the-protagonist-to-handle climax.

19th-century London cops just needed the Matrix. Whiz.

Granted, the writing has some clear flaws (there's a certain chain of sidequests that drew my attention more than the actual Ripper plot did, and the reasoning for getting into the greater conspiracy is pretty shaky, to name a couple weak spots), but I enjoyed it overall. The greater conspiracy had some strong parallels to matters of racism, religious indoctrination, and bodily autonomy that I found interesting, and that was all handled well enough to feel like a natural part of the game rather than being forced in. All in all, it was a fun story to experience.

In terms of gameplay, Shadowrun Returns is very streamlined. Outside of combat and dialogue, there are barely any uses for your skills (or maybe it'd be more accurate to say there were barely any uses for my skills, since at least based on how it's handled in combat, the game doesn't show interaction prompts that your active character can't do), so there isn't any hacking into dozens of terminals for lore emails like in Deus Ex. There tend to be a lot of people around who you can't actually talk with, which I'm fine with personally (plus it gives more of the usual TTRPG feeling of being told there's a crowd around but only actually speaking with one or two people in it), but I can imagine it'd hurt immersion for some players. Altogether, this gives a fast pace to the game and helps avoid the usual RPG habit of letting the player fall into so many extraneous rabbit holes that they lose feel of the plot.

Dialogue is mostly the typical tree-based approach. There are some stat/skill-gated options, but honestly, I would've expected much more. The etiquette subsystem (where you can pick something like "academic" or "corporate" for every two points in Charisma to unlock extra dialogue options) was extremely underutilized, especially compared to something like how frequently attitude-locked dialogue options came up in Pillars of Eternity, released just two years later. That all said, the dialogue options did tend to allow some expression of character, and it was cool to see how often your choices would impact the rewards you got from various quests. The game isn't worthy of exceptional praise on this point, but it was a step ahead of serviceable.

Combat was likewise pretty streamlined, taking a turn-based approach with everyone on a given side being able to take their turns in any order. The choices were pretty limited (attack with active weapon, use a skill/spell, or use an item), but together with a rudimentary line-of-sight/cover system and having special attacks at higher weapon skill levels, it struck a good balance of providing depth while avoiding analysis-paralysis. I would've liked some actual indicators of line-of-sight and/or some way of getting a breakdown of how the accuracy for a given attack is being calculated, but in general, it worked well.

The moral choices in this game aren't incredibly deep, but they get the job done

Well, aside from the final dungeon. Without giving any spoilers, I can say that there are certain enemies in there that need to be killed in a specific way which not all of your characters can do. This mostly adds tedium instead of actual challenge, and I wish it had been handled more smoothly. It's hardly a huge knock on the game, but having a sore point like that right at the end isn't great.

On a related note, as mentioned previously, my main character used drones as their weapons of choice, which is kind of ridiculously powerful (exchange 1 action point to get an independent character with 2-4 action points that does damage comparable to standard weapons, may have their own set of replenishing medkits/grenades to use, and can sometimes move through spaces that regular characters can't) and also rather annoying to control (since you have the actual, action point-deprived character to control as well). For areas where a large area has to be traversed while in combat mode, that can get pretty annoying, especially for areas where each individual character has to reach the exit point.

The difficulty of the game was lacking, despite having played it on Very Hard. I'd say this is mostly fine, though, since your NPC companions don't have optimized builds by any stretch of the imagination, and even the major characters like Jake Armitage or Harlequin aren't overpowered, so a little slack is appreciated. To be fair, I wouldn't have minded more of a challenge, but it put up enough resistance that I felt good about thinking through tactics instead of button-mashing ahead, so spending this many words on the topic is almost certainly nitpicking.

I suppose this is a good time to mention that your main character's NPC companions are mostly lifeless cut-outs with stats attached, aside from a few who're special for their quests. This makes sense, since they are mostly random runners who're hired to go along for a job, but I would've preferred a smaller set of NPCs with real personality (a shame that the game teases this early on with Jake, Paco, and Coyote but doesn't follow through).

The sound design was great. There was no voice acting, but the ambient music was consistent about enhancing the mood without being distracting, and the sound effects were fitting, if maybe on the weak side for some of the heavier weapons. I could easily see myself using the soundtrack straight as it is for a TTRPG cyberpunk game, if I was running a session with background music.

Harlequin dropping too much real talk for most people

The graphics were serviceable; nothing fantastic, but not much to complain about, either. My only real criticism is the dialogue portraits tended to have mouths that extended far beyond the lipsticked areas, but maybe that's a stylistic choice in Shadowrun. Aside from that, though, everything looked pretty much like I'd want it to, and the character avatars would even show cybernetic limb replacements.

Aside from two points where you can skip an optional quest, the game is entirely linear. Sure, there will be differences in how certain things play out, but you never have the option to go through areas in any order other than what the game forces you to do. Maybe it's because of playing this after dealing with Jade Empire's false choices in that regard, but I was fine with that approach. It felt like there was enough variety in how different characters play that I'd be willing to replay it with a different main character, even if the game was built more as a one-shot than as a Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines-type TTRPG-simulator.

I think that sums up most of what I have to say about this, other than that I had a very good time with it despite the many points where I think it could've been better. I'm looking forward to jumping into the sequels when I can, since I've heard those are supposed to be even better. Highly recommended for anyone who wants a short-but-satisfying cyberpunk RPG with linear progression; although I thought it had too many flaws to feel good about giving it an A-, Shadowrun Returns is pretty much the best B+ I can think of.

Rating: B+

Playing Time: approx. 25 hours


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