Shadowrun Returns - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
Shadowrun Returns almost made a liar out of me.
I reinstalled it specifically to write this piece, and I said to myself, “This wasn’t much fun the last time I played, and probably won’t be this time.” And I’ll admit, I never finished Shadowrun and probably never gave it a fair shot. A top down, isometric RPG from an old school IP, funded on Kickstarter? They were a dime a dozen in 2013, and the only unique thing Shadowrun had going for it was a pretty strong setting. A grim cyberpunk world reminiscent of a William Gibson novel, crossed with high fantasy tropes after magic is reawakened across the world.
Fifteen Minutes In
I get tossed into the slums of Seattle, chasing down the murderer of a friend of my character (you can chase the bounty, if your character ain’t the friendly type) and rapidly get tangled up in a bizarre conspiracy involving cults, serial killers, and a particularly ugly elf. Sam, your murdered friend, has left a video message asking you to track down his killer, and it quickly becomes clear that he’s been another victim of a sophisticated serial killer operating all over Seattle. I get the chance to swear like a sailor in PG-13 sci-fi slang, throw down in some simple combat tutorials, and get introduced to the world. Nothing special, but nothing bad either. Combat feels a little slow-paced, even for a turn-based game, but what’s a little slow combat between chummers?
One Hour In
I help a rogue bartender assault a futuristic drug-den, try to intimidate an Orkish cop, and get shot in the back a bunch of times. In the world of Shadowrun, things are weird as can be. Cyberpunk staples like megacorps, high-tech low-lifes, and the sort of fictional slang that just wouldn’t fly in any other genre get blended up with all sorts of Tolkienesque fantasy.
Elves, orcs, trolls and magic are all the norm in Shadowrun, and the game takes a dorky delight in mixing up science fiction and fantasy tropes. “Wow, I like this.” I told myself. “It’s just kinda weird.” And weird it is. Shadowrun can’t even quite decide what it wants to be. One second it’s a neo-noir detective story, the next it’s an action packed cyberpunk shootout (but also a very slow one), and then all of a sudden it’s a murder mystery.
Three Hours In
The problem with Shadowrun is that dorky delight only goes so far, and that’s where I began lying to myself. Genre-blending is a balancing act, and all too often it feels like Shadowrun can’t quite walk the tightrope. You can, in theory, play as a druidic mage with a street degree in hacking, but all too often I felt a little railroaded in my character choices. I was either a cyberpunk, or a wizard, and cyberpunk was the only practical way to go. Combat is slow, even for a turn-based game, and doesn’t really have any special shine or tricks to it. The dialogue and roleplay work well and feel fun — it’s once again got the goofy, over-the-top aggression, slang or technobabble that gives cyberpunk its charm — but it’s not always enough to justify trudging through another fight. The whole time, I was trying to justify to myself why I was still playing. “It’s goofy,” I thought, “But it’s still fun! Right?” And don’t get me wrong, I was having fun, but not often enough.
Slogging through combat became a chore because it was so easy but also so drawn out. Almost every fight I’ve been in has had three or four enemies initially, followed by another two or three once I defeat all but one of the first batch. RNG feels tilted in your favour. Even the puzzles, if you can call them that, are absurdly easy to guess or brute force (an early puzzle involving cracking a computer password just let me try four different dialogue options, and through trial and error I got in).
The worst part of Shadowrun is how much feels wasted, a tragedy of its origins as a Kickstarter game. A wonderfully weird setting, ripe with metaphors for daily life (who doesn’t feel like we live in a cyberpunk world now?), goes for the low hanging fruit over and over again. Simple stories, told a thousand times before. Gameplay that became nothing special. Characters written as flat stereotypes of their fantasy race (ugly elvish serial killers aside) are sometimes hinted at being more than they are, but that’s all we ever get. Hints of something more. Unfortunately, all those hints just aren't enough to keep me playing. I took a few screenshots, ran the uninstaller, and decided that was that. Shadowrun Returns wouldn't make me lie and say I enjoyed it.
Shadowrun has a ton of charm in its cyberpunk and sci-fi essences, but it drops the ball on the fantasy in a lot of ways, awkwardly shoehorning it in. It never feels like it has the courage — or maybe the developers didn’t have the budget — to do anything truly original, unique or special. On the other hand, it’s got a pair of expansion packs, Dragonfall and Hong Kong, that are also worth noting for their improved ratings, but Returns just isn’t up to scratch. If you’ve got a soft spot for cyberpunk or turn-based isometrics, then give Shadowrun a shot. You might find it worth the trouble.
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