by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
The million dollar question
With nearly two million Kickstarted dollars in hand, Jordan Wiseman’s Harebrained Schemes had their work cut out for them. Initially asking for $400,000, Shadowrun Returns is one of the most successful games ever to be crowdfunded and living up to the accordingly high expectations can’t have been easy. For the most part, Harebrained Schemes has delivered, but having played and finished the game over the last two days, I could not help but wonder if Shadowrun Returns is a $2 million game, or a $400,000 one.
The game starts as you answer a call from someone claiming to be the lawyer of an old friend of yours. You learn that he has been killed. He tells you this himself, Brewsters Millions style, using a video recorded prior to his death and offering you a reward for finding his killer. Being a true friend, or perhaps just for the sizable sum of money that you stand to gain, you set out to discover who is behind the murder. Along the way, you piss off the law, go up against several criminal organizations and unmask a religious cult to boot.
Shadowrun Returns instills an instant sense of nostalgia on its players. You are greeted by a top-down, isometric view and a graphical style that could have come straight from a late 90’s science fiction themed Role-Playing game. The only things that betray that you are playing something more modern are a much higher polygon count and the ability to slightly zoom in on your character. There is no way to rotate the camera and navigating to places on the North-Western side of walls takes some time to get used to. Similarly old-school, is how the story is told through text windows. There is a – lot – to read in Shadowrun Returns and reading is the only way get intimate with the story. There are no cut-scenes, no animated portraits of people talking - everything is done with static text and static images and without speech.
That lack of speech and video gives Shadowrun a somewhat lifeless feel, especially while exploring the maps. This feeling is further strengthened by a dusky game world that primarily uses browns and grays to portray a city that has fallen on hard times. Streaks of blue, purple and yellow brighten up various locations a bit, but you can’t help feeling a little depressed trotting around this futuristic, sci-fi Seattle.
The trotting around is more a figure of speech than a reflection of the game’s freedom. Shadowrun Returns is firmly on rails. You go through one room at a time and while some have multiple doors into other rooms, there is only one way forward. Even the outside areas feel boxed in and feature large areas where you feel you should be able to go, but can’t. Towards the end, the stairs in a large mansion are wide open, but you can’t actually go up. Should you wish to explore, you will be doing it more for your own sense of being thorough than for finding anything interesting. There is less loot to be found here than in your average Classic Adventure game, so you might as well take the direct route. Perhaps due to the dark setting and somewhat drab colours, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of variation in the maps either.
All this is in stark contrast with the merry chaos that ensues during Shadowrun’s turn-based combat sessions. Here, your senses get besieged by a cacophony of colours and sounds coming from a large variety of sources. On the mundane end of the spectrum, shotguns and pistols bang through the loudspeakers while their projectiles visibly impact on enemy bodies. All the while, shamans and mages are buffing friendlies or showering opponents with colourful looking spells that make the weirdest of noises as they arrive at their targets. There is so much going on that it is easy to forget you are playing a turn-based game.
Great turn-based combat, well written story.
Unexciting environments and little in the way of depth.