Developer: Harebrained Schemes

Release Date: July 25, 2013

The Seamstresses Union will have exactly what you need: A Fixer. Finding this necessary middleman and deal-broker is key to most plans involving shadowrunners. A good Fixer is worth the nuyen. It's their job to have the contacts and know who's good at what. They'll put together the team you need: magical supports, skilled street samurai for muscle, or a novahot decker for Matrix work.

Running the shadows is a life and death gamble. It pays to hire the best shadowrunners you can.

Welcome to the unique world of Shadowrun. Originally developed as a science fiction and fantasy mashup for tabletop roleplaying, Shadowrun takes place several decades into the future after a sudden cataclysm known as the Awakening causes elves and dwarves to be born from long dormant genes, orks and trolls are created from a horrific process called goblinization from those with the unfortunate genetic disposition, dragons awaken and roam the skies, and magic returns to the world. But Earth's technology didn't suddenly stop advancing, and these fantasy races have created cybernetic limbs and enhancements as well as evolving the internet into virtual reality program called the Matrix. Mega-corporations now rule the world in place of governments, and a special breed of mercenary called shadowrunners are employed to carry out the tasks that's best left in the shadows. It is a bleak, heavily noir-influenced cyberpunk world filled with smartguns, elementals, metahumans, virtual reality drugs, and all manner of beast and creature.

It is the world of Shadowrun Returns.

Originally part of the first wave of highly successful Kickstarter video game campaigns, Shadowrun creator Jordan Weisman hedged his project that fans of the tabletop game and the 16-bit Shadowrun games on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis would give enough support to see a return to this interesting universe with a traditional turn based computer role playing game. The gamble (and timing) paid off, and Shadowrun Returns serves as a wonderful experience for fans and a tantalizing look at this intriguing world for newcomers.

Shadowrun's main packaged campaign is Dead Man's Switch, an intriguing tale of a dead friend that tasks you to find his killer. The murder mystery story plays well into the Noir dialogue and incredibly evocative writing, but I was disappointed when it wrapped up about halfway through the campaign to be replaced by a hasty Save the World scenario involving an inter-dimensional invasion. HareBrained Schemes passed over any voicework to save costs and create more fully realized dialogue trees, and despite many of the dialogue options leading to the same outcome, I found myself agonizing over which of the well-written responses I wanted to give. A few story choices stand out as well, including being hired by one corporation to essentially kidnap an employee for another mega-corp, and said employee is none to happy about the transfer. You can knock him out and collect your pay, or accept his reduced offer and feel slightly better about yourself. To a shadowrunner, it's all business.

Your customized shadowrunner can take on six different classes: street samurai, mage, shaman, rigger, decker, and physical adept. Street Samurais are your fighters, typically being the most proficient with long range weapons but also capable of melee combat. Mages and Shamans use entirely different spellcasting trees and attributes to change the battlefield into a colorful display of lighting balls and fire walls, and also come equipped with supportive spells like healing and buffing armor and aim. Shamans also get the unique ability to summon elementals onto the field using consumable fetish items, though there's an increasing chance every turn that the creature could turn on you before quickly disappearing. Riggers are all about their drones, sacrificing their own action points to power up these useful little allies that come in supportive and offensive flavors, while physical adepts are essentially monks that specialize in unarmed combat and their own line of spells that buff their ability to quickly close in and deal with foes face to face. Deckers use the unique ability to jack into the Matrix, entering them into a Tron-like world of lights and data where you fight programs using software of your own (basically just different spells). However, Matrix usage is limited to each map, meaning your shadowrunner's main ability may be completely useless as it's up to the whim of the map builder to create nodes for you to use. During the main campaign the Matrix is utilized at several key moments, but in each scenario it was necessary to advance instead of a cool side option.

In addition to selecting a class you can also just create your own as the system is entirely skill based, and if you feel comfortable enough with stat distribution and the Shadowrun RPG you can create your own custom class as you see fit. Want a mage that can jack into the Matrix? Put points into intelligence, spellcasting, willpower, and decking. You can go with as much of a jack of all trades as you want, but with any party based game its best to select certain roles for each of your runners to fill. After the first few missions you get to hire your own team of shadowrunners from a selection of pre-generated characters with pretty much every build you could desire, from technoshamans to weaponmasters, and I felt encourage to try out different party combinations in each new run. I did yearn for the opportunity to fully create my own elite team of shadowrunners, but the hiring process remains an integral part of the gameplay experience, and the increasing costs of hire helps balance the money you earn from completing missions.

A tactical turn based RPG lives and dies by its combat implementation, and thankfully Shadowrun Returns lives very very well. Anyone familiar with XCOM: Enemy Unknown will feel close to home with every party member (sorry, runner) getting two action points with which to move, fire, reload, cast spells, and other numerous options at your disposal. Your field of movement is highlighted around you, displaying how far you can go with a single action point, and cover ranges from none to light, partial, and full. XCOM veterans should note that cover doesn't mean near as much in Shadowrun, and except for a few fights near the end of the game combat was mostly a breeze once you knew what you were doing. Unfortunately Shadowrun is very lacking in tutorials and assumes you are already familiar with the genre and the Shadowrun universe. A bare bones glossary and guide section is available that gives a very rudimentary run down on combat, UI, and class abilities, but much is left up to the player to figure out.

The skill tree is not the most attractive looking stat sheet and resembles the horizontal square charts of the Mass Effect series. Putting points into a skill costs progressively more "Karma Points" (skill points which you earn in lieu of experience) while improving damage and chance to hit, depending on the skill. They also serve as capping the skills below it, so you have to pump points into the Quickness attirubte before you can increase your Ranged Combat Skill, and only then you can raise your individual gun skills. In this case, Ranged Combat increases your chance to hit with guns, while individual gun skills such as pistols or shotguns increases damage and unlocks specific skills. Skills range from forgetful (shoot twice for 2 AP) to situational (chance to hit nearby foes...and allies) to quite useful (raise your chance to hit). Skills and spells can cost upwards of 3AP to get off and about halfway through the campaign you earn a third action point. Other spells like the incredibly useful haste (+1 AP) can boost a characters action points even further, giving you tons of options during each encounter.

Spells, guns, cyberware and armor all must be purchased from a vendor, there's no loot collecting in the game whatsoever. It's jarring at first but given the limited variation in loot I hardly noticed it, and even with the progressively more expensive shadowrunner cost to hire still had enough money to buy what I needed (cyberware being a fairly expensive luxury). All necessary vendors are located in the same area that serves as your home base of operations throughout most of the storyline. While you can buy and give consumable items like medkits and grenades to your fellow shadowrunners, there's no other customizing allowed; you can't even view their skill tree except on the hire screen, and in between missions they go right back to the pool. Everyone gains more karma points as you do, so while there's no fear of some people falling behind, you have zero control over their skill trees or main inventory.

Much of the game's faults lie with the limited budget that remained a niggling annoyance throughout my experience. The biggest is the inability to manually save the game, an understandable deal-breaker for those with busy lives and a shock that it was omitted in a modern game. The game autosaves during each loading screen, which are fairly frequent, but you'll spend most of the game locked in combat with no ability to save and quit should the need arise. The other big issue that annoyed me was the lack of an End Combat button such as in Fallout 1 and 2. Many times you'd enter a map and start off in turn based combat mode, and have to complete the entire map and go through the screen transition point, one by one, and never leave turn based mode. Even when there were clearly no more enemies on the screen, the game keeps you locked into moving each of your runners by their limited action point pool, and an End Combat button would've solved this problem instantly. It appears to have been a design decision, presumably to make you realize that the map could still be unsafe, but I would've much rather preferred the Fallout method of just starting combat whenever enemies appeared.

My other big complaint in Shadowrun Returns was the almost complete lack of side quests, resulting in an extremely linear adventure that cripples its replayability. A few choices exist here and there but most are superficial, and the few non-combat related, exploratory puzzles mostly involve deciphering the clues to computer passwords. One scene that did stand out was infiltrating a cult through costume changes, computer hacking, and clever dialogue options, but most areas are pure combat. Thankfully the tactical combat is a ton of fun and depending on your party makeup you have lots of options each turn. Spells and abilities are based off a cooldown so firing off all your skills every round is commonplace, and makes for some intriguing matchups.

Dead Man's Switch is only one campaign in Shadowrun Returns, however, as it shipped with a full editor allowing users to use any and all assets present in the Seattle campaign to create their own adventures. Presumably this creates an unlimited amount of entertainment within the engine, and time will tell if this becomes a wonderfully supportive community with lots of new adventures to choose from. HareBrained Schemes has already announced the next official adventure, taking place in Berlin, as a full expansion pack to the game, and if the fans supported the Kickstarter campaign well enough to fund the dream, surely many are invested enough in the world and game mechanics to create some memorable missions.

In my perfect world Shadowrun Returns would be a capable, low-budget tactical RPG within an awesome role playing universe among a year full of tactical RPG releases. But this isn't my world and tactical RPGs are not commonplace; each one is a rare treasure that I adore that much more for having existed. Hopefully Shadowrun Returns will be vaulted as one of the trendsetters to a glorious age of CPRGs,and also stand on its own as a great representation of the Shadowrun world, fun 15 hour main campaign, and (hopefully) dozens of hours with high quality user created content. See you in the shadows, chummer.