In 1989, game designer and author Jordan Weisman let his imagination run wild and created the ultimate fantasy universe for the geeks of his time: Shadowrun brought together magical creatures, cyberpunks, urban mercenaries and evil corporations in a futuristic dystopian world that made for a compelling tabletop role-playing game like no other. After several spin-off novels, video games and collectibles, Weisman got to work on bringing the franchise to a new breed of gamers through a successful Kickstarter project, and the result is certainly worth a look — Shadowrun Returns is a turn-based tactical RPG for PC/Mac/iOS/Android that draws players into its expansive world for an immersive experience, with class-leading gameplay and a compelling story.
It’s worth noting that this is a $10 game that takes about 12 hours to complete — not the kind of time and money we’re generally used to spending on a single-player mobile title. Is SR truly worth it — especially for those who aren’t fans of Shadowrun, or those who aren’t familiar with RPGs and tabletop games? That’s me in a nutshell, so come along for the ride let’s find out if we should drop some coin or save them for IAPs.
The story so far
It’s 2054 and the world is being run into the ground by megacorporations; metahuman races walk the earth once more, and technological advancements have helped make the planet more dangerous than safe. You play a Shadowrunner — a mercenary who stays under the radar and carries out nefarious assignments for anyone who can afford them — who’s been out of work and out of the loop, and find out that a teammate from your last mission, Sam Watts, has been murdered in Seattle. Through a pre-recorded message, Sam announces that he wants you to find his killer and collect a fee of 100,000 Nuyen, held in escrow, for doing so.
It turns out that Sam may have been the latest victim of a serial killer called the Emerald City Ripper. As you look for answers, you befriend and enlist help from a range of characters, who also pull you into their own downward spirals of trepidation and danger. Soon, your hunt for a single murderer turns into a city-wide romp that involves rescue missions, seances, gang battles, cyberspace investigations and much more than you bargained for. What began as a simple assignment turns into a nightmare with a plot that twists and turns menacingly towards a grand climax that indeed demands the complexity and scale of the Shadowrun universe.
Get started by selecting which race your character will hail from: humans, elves, dwarves, orks, or trolls. Next, pick an archetype like Street Samurai (weapon-based combat), Mage (cast spells for attacks and healing), Decker (hack into the Matrix) , Shaman (invoke spirits for backup), Rigger (steer and control robot drones) or Physical Adept (melee combat). RPG fans will appreciate SR’s flexible classless skill system that lets you grow your character however you like, mixing and matching multiple types of skills as you level up.
SR features a gorgeous handpainted art style for its environments that really brings Weisman’s dystopian vision to life in this isometric perspective RPG. The 3D characters aren’t as well rendered, but are varied and interesting enough to grab your attention. Through the numerous levels, you’ll encounter richly detailed scenarios ranging from a crime scene on a city street, to a skirmish in a drug den, to a hack-and-run in the Matrix, the game’s computer network-driven alternative reality. Unfortunately, you won’t get to explore them for long, before you have to spring into action and take down baddies.
You’ll encounter scores of characters in SR that you’ll need to speak with, and that means a lot of reading. Thankfully, the dialogues and scene descriptions are mostly well written, and it’s not as slow as one might imagine. This does mean there isn’t any voice acting to enjoy, but the soundtrack keeps things moving along, intensifying during battles and growing foreboding during investigations.
The game’s UI not only looks great, but also makes it easy to view stats, read mission notes and upgrade your character — extremely important for a game with such depth and with so much textual content, and even more so for a title that will certainly be approached by newcomers to the genre owing to the buzz around it.
Once you’ve selected your character, you can begin exploring Seattle to hunt down Sam’s killer. Moving around is as easy as tapping on where you want to go; in battle mode, movements and actions are restricted by the number of Action Points you have. Each AP allows you to move anywhere within a restricted area (highlighted on the ground), attack, cast a spell, reload a weapon or use an item, such a medikit. When you’re accompanied by teammates, they’ll follow you when you move, and will have their own APs for you to use in battle mode.
If you’re not used to RPGs, it’s important to get used to the AP-based battle system early on, when your foes are fewer and weaker. You’ll want to learn to be effective in combat and understand the capabilities of your weapons and spells — dying in battle will send you back to the last autosave point, which could mean many aggravating minutes of replay to get another shot at your enemies. Winning battles and completing tasks earns you Karma, which you can use to upgrade your character attributes, including damage dealt per attack and how much you can evade enemy attacks/spells.
While SR offers a variety of missions, it’s a fairly linear game that offers little to no wiggle room in terms of how you advance through the game. You’ll need to speak with virtually every character that can talk, in order to find out more about your mission, make friends, buy items or start battles. Having said that, the game moves along at a steady pace, so you won’t really miss the freedom of an open world.
Should you buy it?
A thousand times yes. SR is a spectacular game with a gripping storyline, engaging gameplay and a wonderful game world that’s a joy to get lost in. Each new level and character introduce another piece of this grand puzzle that you’ve been hired to solve, and the narrative is taut enough to keep you engrossed for the entire duration of the game. The combat component grows on you and becomes more fun as your tactics become (necessarily so) more complex.
SR isn’t exactly perfect — the lack of voice acting and the rarity of autosave points might annoy some players — but it sure gets damn close. While its asking price of $10 seems steep, you get plenty of content that’s superbly crafted, around a story worth lending an ear to. I’d even recommend this to gamers who have never tried an RPG before: Shadowrun Returns is most definitely worth your blood, sweat and tears.