Shadowrun Returns review: classic RPG reborn

The Kickstarter for Shadowrun Returns blasted through its goals on the back of an audience that loved the pen & paper franchise, and had fond memories of the SNES and Sega Genesis adaptations from the early 1990s. Developer Harebrained Schemes faced a daunting task of keeping those fans happy by delivering a game that stayed true to the lore and the rules of the P&P game, while rekindling what made the old games great. The result is a triumphant return to the classic days of old-school computer RPGs.

It's been some time since I played in the Shadowrun world, but it didn't take long to get re-acquainted with the rules because of the simple way character creation is handled. It is easy to jump in and begin a session: make a few basic decisions about how you want to play the game and you are immediately dumped into a gritty, seedy cyberpunk Seattle to investigate the death of a former Shadowrunner pal.


This game brings back memories of Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment--some of the best RPGs of the late 1990s--with a text-heavy story and a combat style similar to XCOM: Enemy Unknown. There is plenty of dialogue, so if you want a lot of action before the late game, you will probably be disappointed. However, Shadowrun Returns gives the player a feeling of interaction with a game master, which is a must for any game trying to simulate a pen & paper experience. It helps that many of the developers worked on the original Shadowrun for then-developer FASA, including creator Jordan Weisman, so the game is definitely true to its roots.

The game offers multiple avenues to get to the ending based on play style. While action RPGs use the in-your-face run-and-gun vs. a stealthy approach, this requires more thoughtful planning. Being an asshole in dialog options can cut off certain avenues for solving a scenario, while always being the good guy will get the job done, but perhaps not earn as much spending money as if a harder stance was taken. It hits that sweet spot that forces you to really think about an action before you take it instead of taking a tunnel-vision mentality with every situation.

One of the more memorable areas in the game was a run-down warehouse where my partner and I were hunting for her relative. The place was filthy, and housed a group of thugs pedaling Better Than Life chips (BTLs), Shadowrun's drug du jour that allows people to experience other people's memories through programs sent directly to the brain. It highlighted one of the core aspects of the Shadowrun universe--just how integrated technology was in this cyberpunk world. The resulting scenario could play out with different outcomes, but either way, I ended up with a new potential group member for future missions.

I could bribe or sweet talk cops for information. In one situation, it was as simple as bringing an officer a donut. One particular scenario required me to infiltrate a cult headquarters. I stole a key card by distracting a receptionist, then was able to print my own card through a few well-placed lies. I could have also disguised myself as a cultist or hacked some security, but the choices felt entirely logical instead of forced.

Combat is a turn-based tactical exercise revolving around action points. If you played XCOM, you will have a feel for it right away. If not, movement is intuitive, offering visual cues for cover and how many action points are being used. You are also forced to pay close attention to ammo for timing reloads, making sure you also have the right weapon equipped. There were a few times where I entered a new scenario and the game switched me to a melee weapon instead of the rifle I had used previously. It is fairly precise, and an accidental click during movement or firing can waste a point and put you out of position without the ability to undo it.

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This brings up perhaps the biggest frustration with the game, and one that Harebrained Schemes acknowledged going in--there is no quick save system. If you screw up, you need to go back to the last auto save and start over, which can mean replaying numerous discussions and skirmishes before getting to the part you actually want to replay. Even knowing quick saves were not going to be there, it seems that auto saves could have been implemented a bit more often. Of course, some players may enjoy this as a sort of Ironman mode, so just be advised that all your actions can't be undone without some time penalty.

The story crafted for Shadowrun Returns--although somewhat on rails even with dialog options--is fairly well thought out. A friend has been murdered and throughout the course of the game, I'll meet his sister, discover how a Dr. Frankenstein-type ties in, and travel through a huge megacorp and a cultists lair to finish solving the mystery.

The ending still leaves so much more for the developer to explore down the road. A separate story set in Berlin was originally supposed to have been included, but has been held back for DLC that will be free for the original Kickstarter backers. But the addition of a level editor for wannabe GMs to create their own missions and scenarios adds an even greater layer of replay value to a core game that is already well done. It's just a shame there is no plan for multiplayer, as playing a quality RPG like this with friends would be the pièce de résistance to practically reliving the pen & paper experience.

Given that the game was funded by fans eager for a Shadowrun game, backers should find this game incredibly rewarding. But any person eager for the heyday of the pen & paper days of RPGs should find this a nice blast from the past. [7]

This Shadowrun Returns review was based on PC code provided by the developer. The specs of the review machine were a quad-core i7 2600 3.4 GHz processor, 16 GB of RAM and a nVidia GTX 660 video card.