I was first introduced to the world of Shadowrun in the mid 90s, playing the excellent Super Nintendo game. I became obsessed with the setting, a cool mix of fantasy and sci-fi, and even went out and bought the sourcebook to the original pen and paper RPG. Shadowrun helped introduce me to the cyberpunk sub-genre and from there I discovered classics like Neuromancer and Snow Crash.
The Shadowrun setting is pretty unique and this is one of the main reasons I was so drawn into the world. In 2012 a cataclysmic event called the Awakening saw the emergence of the old races on Earth: elves, dwarves, orks, and other supernatural creatures. With the new appearance of these metahumans came magic and the resulting world is a mix of high fantasy and dark cyberpunk. Set in 2050, the world is now run by massive corporations called megacorps. As the opening crawl in the Super Nintendo game say: “The megaplexes are monsters casting long shadows. When you become a shadowrunner, that’s where you live…”
Beyond the magic and metahumans, the cyberpunk setting in Shadowrun will be familiar to anyone who’s seen films like The Matrix or Blade Runner. Filled with dark, rainy cities and stories of technology and power run amok, cyberpunk is a cool mix of film noir, detective fiction, and a gleaming chrome future. I was particularly drawn to the idea of elves and dwarves suiting up in black trenchcoats and blowing someone away with a shotgun or tearing them apart with a cybernetic arm. The Super Nintendo Shadowrun did an excellent job in depicting this chaotic world and I was eager to see how the new game stacked up.
Shadowrun Returns is a spiritual successor to the original Super Nintendo game but replaces the real-time isometric action with turn-based squad combat. This combat reminds me a lot of X-Com: Enemy Unknown, where managing cover and ability cooldowns is the key to survival. I first tried Shadowrun Returns on an Android tablet but I found my Nexus 7 was too small to play it comfortably. I recently picked up the PC version on a Steam sale and I’ve been having a lot of fun getting back into the world of Shadowrun.
In the original Super Nintendo game you couldn’t create your own character but Shadowrun Returns offers decent character creation. I went with a bearded dwarf, for obvious reasons, and decided to make him a street samurai, a warrior class that specialises in guns and melee weapons. The character classes are pretty varied and offer a slightly different way to play depending on your choice. I also chose the Shadowrunner etiquette; etiquettes are essentially character backstories that influence some of your dialogue options and change how you deal with certain situations. Even from the beginning, I was impressed with the role-playing opportunities and choices provided by the game.
The main campaign, “Dead Man’s Switch,” is part murder mystery and part revenge drama. I’m about halfway through and I’ve been surprised by the story several times already. The writing is crisp and interesting and it’s helped to draw me into the story and strengthen my character investment. The dialogue options offer a good selection of responses and I’ve been able to play the character as I envision him. I also like the addition of the etiquette backstories as this helps to add another believable layer to the role-playing possibilities.
As you play through the main mission and side-quests, you receive Karma which you can use to level up your skills and gain new abilities. Your skill levels can determine quest paths as well, as occasionally you’ll see a lock you can pick if your intelligence is high enough or a heavy object you can move if you’ve got enough strength. I’ve yet to feel constrained by the dialogue choices or these skill-based puzzle challenges. They show there’s more than one way to play through the missions and that’s always a good thing in my opinion.
Though dialogue and role-playing makes up a significant portion of the game, the turn-based squad combat is what drives the action. I enjoyed the combat, though I felt it lacked the depth and complexity of that seen in X-Com: Enemy Unknown. For instance, I specced into melee combat but hardly used my axe, as my shotgun was much more effective. I liked the opportunity to hire different shadowrunners for each job but I would’ve like to have the option for a permanent team as well.
Also slightly disappointing were the decking sections. In Shadowrun, deckers are computer hackers wired with a datajack into their brain; using their cyberdecks, they hack into the Matrix and access a virtual world of cyberspace, fighting off defensive AI and intrusion countermeasures to access megaplex computers for personal and financial gain. The Super Nintendo game had a custom decking sub-game but Shadowrun Returns opts for the same squad-based combat, just re-skinned and with different abilities. It would’ve been nice to see a different engine for these sequences.
Shadowrun Returns does an excellent job of drawing you into the world, even without any voiceover dialogue or cut sequences. Everything’s done through dialogue trees or in-game interaction. Even the occasional item-based puzzles are a welcome addition that help foster immersion, as basic as they are. So far, the main campaign has been a terrific interpretation of the Shadowrun world. But Shadowrun Returns doesn’t end there, as new DLC has just been released and there’s a huge wealth of community-built missions available for download through the Steam Workshop.
I’ve been having a lot of fun with this game. It takes me back to my younger days, fighting vampires with Jake Armitage on the Super Nintendo, and reminds me that a game doesn’t have to have flashy 3D graphics or reflex-testing quick-time events to make for a immersive experience. Sometimes all you need is some good writing and a little imagination to get lost in the shadows.Colin Le Sueur