There’s a wonderful sense of agency when playing a tabletop RPG video game like Shadowrun Returns by Harebrained Schemes. In the true sense of an RPG, taking control of a role and developing the character however you like is a wonderful experience, however, this game has some very big shoes to fill. From grandpappy Planescape: Torment to it’s big older brothers Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2, there is a grand legacy of isometric RPGs in which Shadowrun Returns is going to have to fulfill more than the average game if wants to be considered worthy. In order to make a good isometric RPG, a game has to do a few things. Combat and interface are important, but there is nothing more important than a good story. There is no argument or alternative to this, if the story doesn’t flow and it drags, then the game is over right there. No amount of fun mechanics will save you from a bad story. Good combat might push the player through some rough spots, but Shadowrun Returns never has to resort to that. The basic story which is available at purchase is engaging, fun, and fully immerses the player into the Shadowrun universe.
Now, those of you who are not fully versed in the esoteric nature of Dungeons and Dragons spin-off RPGs might not be familiar with Shadowrun. Never fear, because the game introduces you to the world easily and allows you to take your time before things get really weird.
The story, created by Jordan Weisman (the man who made the Shadowrun universe and is responsible for this game’s existence), is excellent and in some places quite funny while maintaining the relatively bleak tone of the setting. The story is told through conversation tree dialogue, which in Shadowrun Returns is relatively unforgiving. Some dialogue options lead to combat without much warning to them, so a player must be very cautious about mouthing off. This brings me to the only real criticism I have about this game: there is no save button. I wanted to see all the branching paths of the story, but all that was available to me was an autosave feature which clocked in at the beginning of each area. This was somewhat annoying and brought me out of the experience a bit. It certainly was not a deal breaker though.
I won’t go too much into detail about the story for a few reasons, the first being spoilers, and the second is that there are far more player created campaigns. That’s right, Shadowrun Returns is a part of the Steam Workshop and is fully moddable. I have played some of the user-generated content and have been very impressed with what people have come up with in the short period of time that the game has been out. I can only anticipate even greater stories within this universe.
At its core Shadowrun Returns is a simple isometric RPG: the combat is heavily strategy-based and the out of combat encounters run smoothly with the Shadowrun rule-set. Leveling up is fun and intuitive, and I am thankful to say it is difficult to make a broken character. Artistically the game is gorgeous, featuring a combination of 3D and 2D environments to create a powerfully striking look which is dead-on for the Shadowrun setting. The graphics are complimented perfectly with an aptly scored soundtrack which sets the tone for the game nicely.
Combat is heavily turn-based, and while there are some minor tutorials, expect to fiddle with the buttons a bit before you begin to feel like an expert. There are several classes and races to choose from, each lending their own unique skills and benefits. These skills can be used in combat by use of Action Points, or AP. Each of your crew has their own unique set of abilities, although there are only one or two characters which you can get without payment. To pad out your personal abilities, you can buy mercenaries for a mission, making them a part of your inventory. Each encounter that occurs will require some strategic thinking as you try to find cover and take down your enemies before they get the better of you. The game can be difficult at times, but not in an unreasonable way. The combat runs very smoothly and each attack has a good feel to it.
As with most RPG video-games, it is always beneficial to play the Rogue character, called Deckers in this universe. Most out of combat challenges will center around either threatening with your muscles or using your wits to solve a problem, and it is much easier to get by through guile and street-smarts. As well, Decking allows access to some areas unavailable to other classes.
Shadowrun Returns is an excellent video-game adaption to a relatively difficult setting. If there was voice-acting, I would say that the game could rival or even surpass its AAA competitors. The game is available on Steam for $19.99 and is well worth a look, especially with the nearly endless entertainment to be gained from user-generated content. The editor is easy to navigate as well, so it doesn’t take much to create your very own cyberpunk fantasy. Jack in, make the dive, and explore the cyberpunk dreamland of Shadowrun Returns.
[review pros=”Entertaining turn-based combat. Engaging isometric 3D/2D design. Fully moddable with a player community. Powerful story elements in starting campaign” cons=”No save button. Very little tutorial.” score=92]