Opening Turn: Shadowrun Returns

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Shadowrun Returns is one of Kickstarter’s earliest major success stories. Its funding happened during the time immediately after Double Fine seemingly opened the floodgates of people willing to throw down money for the kind of games that they wanted to play, and as a result, ‘cutting out the  middleman’ became the cool thing to do. Shortly after that, though, was when people realized that the intersection of people who want to self-publish and the people with good project management skills is very, very small. Luckily, the folks behind Shadowrun actually know how to deliver a finished product (after a few twists and turns along the way).

So, in the same timeframe that Double Fine has run out of crowdsourced money and had to turn to Steam Greenlight in order to even have a shot at getting their project finished, Harebrained Schemes has completed and released their entire game, therefore sort of becoming the de facto flagship of judging whether or not a kickstarted game can succeed, or can even be any good. So what do I think? Well, naturally, you know I’m going to tell you.

I’ve heard of Shadowrun before. What is it?: Shadowrun, in its earliest form, holds the distinction of being the second cyberpunk-styled tabletop RPG in existence. Not wanting their game to be a copycat, its creators incorporated aspects of Mesoamerican tribalism and traditional fantasy, resulting in a near-future world where magic and technology exist in equal measures. Since its creation, Shadowrun has had a long, twisting publication history, and had several video games of varying quality made of it.

Uhh.. you’d think you would be able to tell whether it was a human or a troll who mugged you. Hint: if it was a troll, you wouldn’t be able to be present at the hearing. Because you’d be dead.

Yeah, I remember the SNES game. It was amazing!: Yes, yes it was.

Alternately, yeah, I remember the Xbox 360 game! It was terrible!: Yes, yes it was.

So what gives?: The story is that FASA corporation, who held the original IP, disbanded quite a few years ago, with the tabletop game and video game IPs being sold to different companies. Through some legal mumbo-jumbo, it happened that the original creators, using their kickstarter money, had to license the rights to their own game back from a subsidiary of Microsoft Game Studios. However, the result is that they were able to create a game in the style that they wanted to.

And what style is that?: Isometric, turn-based RPG. Basically, it means you’ve got a top-down view of the action, picking and choosing your moves and arranging your characters in a manner very similar to the first two Fallout games, or, more recently, the brillant XCOM reboot.

A sample cityscape scene.

How well does it play?: Depending on what you’re expecting, either very well or passably well. It’s not a fast-paced game, by any means, and the tabletop RPG influence is very, very strong. Far more importance is put on stats and dialogue choices than on combat. That’s not to say the combat isn’t there; in fact, there’s plenty of it. It’s just that one can tell that the social aspects of the game were in the forefront of the creators’ minds as it was being developed, and that combat was at least a slightly lower priority. For reasons I’ll state below, this is actually not as bad of a thing as you’d think it would be at first.

Well, if it’s an RPG, the writing is the important part. How is that?: It is wonderful. It is most definitely Shadowrun, a fact that is apparent very early on through a conversation with an Elven bartender in a slum dive who goes by the name of ‘Cherry Bomb’. They really nailed the feel of being in the world, and not just being someone observing the world from afar. Sure, some of the conversation options aren’t as diverse as, say, Mass Effect, but really, a lot of the time in the real world your choices really just amount to ‘say the same thing in a different way’. And that’s what it comes down to, really. The plot, the characters, everything about the game could easily exist in our world today. The techno-magical trappings are just window dressing. This is a down-to-earth story about people who could very easily be real.

About how long of a game is it?: Not very. 12 hours, tops, for the main campaign. But here’s the thing. You’re not paying for the main campaign. The main campaign is not the selling point for the game.

Then what is?: The creation tools that come with it. The game comes with a full campaign editor. To use the tabletop analogy again, the main campaign is like a sourcebook, a suggestion for how to construct a plot. And, even more than that, it is an open dare from the creators. It’s like they present you with this short, well-written slice of what the game has to offer, and then says “You can do better than this. Do it.” The creation tools are a complete gamemaster’s sourcebook as well as set-pieces, miniatures, everything you need to construct a plot and scenes from the ground up. It even has Steam Workshop integration, giving both players and content creators an easy way to share and download resources. The official main campaign is, I think, just a brief look at what the game will eventually be once people have time to get their hands dirty with it. Also, this is why it’s not a terrible thing that the combat mechanics are not overly complex. They obviously didn’t want people to be bogged down with that, and instead wanted everyone to be able to create the kind of story that they want to.

Okay, so, what are the absolute positives about the game?: The game has heart. The game is Shadowrun, pure and simple. The creators know exactly who their target audience is, and completely cater to those people, be they fans of the original tabletop game, fans of the SNES and Genesis games of the mid-90’s, or people who absolutely love to have fully-featured modding tools and an eager audience. There are many callbacks to the SNES game in particular, including the early appearance of a fan-favorite character which I will not spoil for you. The music, also, is very well-done, and is a definite throwback to the SNES and Genesis games while still bringing a modern flair to it.

Oh fuck it. Jake Armitage is in this game. JAKE FUCKING ARMITAGE.

And the negatives?: It breaks one of my cardinal sins: there is no manual save system and the autosaves can be quite far apart. Now, I know what they were doing and why: in making the game feel like a tabletop game, they split everything into ‘scenes’, and autosave at the breakpoints. The reasoning is likely that if you are in the middle of a tabletop campaign, you wouldn’t pack up and go home mid-scene. But for all its similarities, this isn’t tabletop. This is a video game, and a person should at least be able to save and quit whenever they want. Mouse detection is hit or miss sometimes, which is why turning on the option to execute commands on double-click instead of single-click is an absolute must. Also, the game would benefit greatly from the inclusion of multiplayer. I would argue that without multiplayer, the campaign creation tools really cannot ever live up to their promise. Single-player campaigns are fun, and lead to the tightest narrative structure; however, if there were even local multiplayer, a person could use this game as a tool to run an entire Shadowrun campain with a group of friends. Now, Harebrained Schemes has stated, at various points in the development process, that they have heavily considered adding the multiplayer feature post-launch, so it is an actual possibility. However, having no idea what the logistics of developing that would be, I don’t know how likely of a possibility it would be.

Anything else?: $20 for a well-written game that has the potential for endless community support is really a pretty good deal. I’ve played much less game for $20, and if you are a fan of Shadowrun, or old-school isometric RPGs at all, or cyberpunk, you should absolutely get this game. I know that I will definitely be seeing what I can do with the campaign editor after I finish the main game, and so should you.

[Full disclosure: I backed this project on Kickstarter.]

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