A disillusioned drizzle falls upon the restless Seattle streets, feeding the grime that coats every surface. Unperturbed, a razor-toothed ork stalks the Barrens, involuntarily flexing his cybernetic arms as a local gang of thugs take notice. He grits his teeth and stares them down; they aren’t the contract, but there’s always nuyen in cleaning up the streets. The ork laughs as the thugs draw their bats. With a shotgun in one hand, a manabolt in the other, and a cyberdeck slung across his back, this shadowrunner is ready for anything.
An unusual blend of cyberpunk and fantasy, the Shadowrun series’ premise is of a dystopian near-future made even more unstable by the return of mythical and magical creatures to the world. As wars rage both out in the open and behind boardroom doors, elite operatives called shadowrunners emerge to solve the problems that armies and arguments can’t. Whether honourable gunslingers, cold-hearted assassins, cunning spellcasters or wily hackers, all runners care about two things: getting the job done, and getting paid.
From the moment you load the game, Shadowrun Returns sucks you into its dark, mature setting. Junkies waste away in unconscious bliss as they plug themselves in to the digitised memories of those more fortunate. Cults prey on the vulnerable as much as any gangster or serial killer, while corporate wage slaves toil day and night in their cubic prisons. Even the tormented spirits of dead children are dredged up to provide witness statements to investigators. This is a cold, bleak world where no one is happy and everything is fair game.
Complementing this Machiavellian atmosphere is an absolutely gorgeous art style, which somehow manages to be both poignantly drab and electrifyingly vibrant at the same time. City streets come to life with neon signs, racist graffiti and structural decay. The music fits perfectly with the setting, seamlessly switching between hauntingly tense refrains to throbbing battle music as the situation warrants.
While the plot is somewhat unimaginative (there should be a five-year ban on game writers using giant bugs just for the creep factor), the way it is told and the characters that populate it are magnificent. From a sadistic and corrupt detective, to a tough-as-nails bartender-turned runner, to a legendary decker masquerading as a janitor, this world is fit to bursting with deeply human people—even if they’re trolls—each just looking to make it through the day the only way they know how.
Tactical turn-based combat comprises the bulk of the game, and is for the most part very intuitive. Cover works well and special abilities—such as burst fire or marking a target to increase its to-hit ratio—bring enough strategy to elevate combat above a simple brawl. As money for first aid kits is scarce and healing magic only recovers the most recent attack’s damage, clever application of abilities is necessary to minimise damage and ensure long-term survival.
Unfortunately, skill customisation isn’t that deep and doesn’t give statistics on improvements. For example, increasing Strength improves your chance to hit in melee, but there isn’t any information on exactly how much it will improve with each level. As karma (i.e. skill points) is in fairly short supply, and requirements rise exponentially in each category, knowing exactly what is offered in return would help determine each skill’s worth. Moreover, many have prerequisite skills that must be purchased before they are unlocked; to put karma in Melee Weapons, for example, you have to already have the same amount of karma in Close Combat, which again, requires the same in Strength.
Classes exist mostly as recommended character builds, with no restrictions as to what categories they can learn, but also no class-specific benefits such as unique abilities. While a loading screen cautions against spreading karma too thin, venturing outside of the recommended classes can be rewarding. For example, blending a Street Samurai’s melee weapon skills with the unarmed-focused Adept’s chi magic grants some powerful magical melee skills that neither would otherwise have.
While immensely enjoyable, the campaign is quite short, only 10-15 hours in length. This would be fine except that the way the game is paced, the campaign feels only about a third over when the credits roll. Both major and minor storylines and character arcs are left open, perhaps for a sequel. Partway through the game your shadowrunners get upgraded with an extra Action Point to add more flexibility to battle, and given the lack of context, this feels like it would be the first of multiple such upgrades distributed over the course of the campaign. Yet it isn’t; the campaign ends before that can happen.
Fortunately, Shadowrun Returns comes packaged with a comprehensive campaign editor that facilitates easy creation of user-generated content. While even the most highly rated creations available don’t quite measure up to the base campaign in terms of writing, balance and bug testing, they at least offer something fresh to chew on while contemplating a second playthrough of the main game.
Shadowrun Returns may be the most aptly titled game in recent history, for a return is exactly what it is. A return to classic tactical combat. A return to form for a series that started to lose its way. A return to the way stories should be told, and the way games should make you feel. In one move, it has closed more of the gap to perfection than most series do in even a full decade of yearly sequels. What comes next will be very interesting indeed.