[Review] Shadowrun Returns (“The Dead Man’s Switch” campaign)

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You leave the sanitized death and formaldehyde of Organ Grinders behind, entering the anarchy and desperation of the streets. Jake stops a moment to breathe deeply, filling his lungs with motorcycle exhaust, radioactive dust, cordite and who knows what else. He exhales with an expression of wry contentment. The stench and grime tell him he’s home.

Steam: http://store.steampowered.com/app/234650

Official site: http://harebrained-schemes.com/shadowrun/

Thanks to the enormous amount of support shown by Kickstarter backers in 2012, Shadowrun is now back on PC a year later, aiming to revive a classic and offering traditional, turn-based battles with a uniquely twisted world for players to enjoy. The result is the first official campaign for Shadowrun Returns, called “The Dead Man’s Switch”, developed by Harebrained Schemes and headed by Jordan Weisman, creator of the original setting, way back in the 80s.

If you’re not familiar with Shadowrun, it’s basically a setting that depicts a dark, dystopian future. Except in this world, magic is very much alive. It is a cyberpunk landscape populated by all the fantastic races you might know from Dungeons and Dragons or Lord of the Rings, resulting in a world where it is completely normal to meet an elf hacker who jacks into the Matrix in his free time; a shotgun-wielding ork shaman, in tune with the spiritual world and sporting a mean trenchcoat; or a dragon masquerading as a human, holding knowledge and secrets older than mankind itself.

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This is the world Shadowrun Returns invites you to with its first official campaign, revolving around tracking down a mysterious serial killer known only as the Emerald City Ripper, his gruesome handiwork striking fear into the hearts of Seattle residents. Right off the bat, Shadowrun Returns throws a premise into your face that I find very hard to resist – a good old murder mystery. As far as atmosphere and mood is concerned, the game deserves an A, sucking you in with its intricate mysteries and outright depressing locales right from the beginning, whether it’s an ominously creepy mental hospital, or a rundown apartment housing people addicted to so-called “Better than Life” chips. It’s all very exciting stuff, and if you’re even a little bit interested in cyberpunk lore, you’ll find things to like here.  While the plot of Dead Man’s Switch isn’t what I’d call the height of originality, it is a suspense-filled ride that throws a few surprises at the player here and there. Overall, a very solid first campaign.

The excellent writing and the constant use of Shadowrun slang terms all contribute to a feeling of immersion reminiscent of the old days of Fallout 1-2, Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment. As far as the unique setting is concerned, the game is more or less newbie-friendly with its inclusion of a brief glossary and explanation of the major character classes. I’m not overly familiar with the Shadowrun universe myself, and I had little to no difficulty getting myself acquainted with all its peculiarities. Much like the writing and atmosphere, the OST is equally good, its tunes dark and moody, resulting in a soundtrack that I can only call the lovechild of the original Deus Ex and another old PC game called Dreamweb.

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The battle system is highly reminiscent of the original Fallout expanded with a cover system. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from an RPG aiming to resurrect the late 90s. It is easy to master and not overly complicated, giving players a fairly satisfying turn-based experience and a decent amount of customization. Magic, summoning, technology and gunplay all come together in an attribute-based system, letting you craft your shadowrunner in the way you wish to, while not ignoring non-combat skills, either. Me, I played through the campaign with a silver-tongued elf shaman, handy with an assault rifle and trained in the art of spirit summoning with just the right amount of charisma to convince people to see things my way. The customization system has potential, and I can definitely see people re-playing this just to try a different build.

Like many games, however, especially ones created in such a short time, Shadowrun Returns is not without flaws – some more critical than others. One would be its standard, “Normal” difficulty. On this mode, battles for the most part will not pose much of a challenge to anyone even remotely familiar with turn-based RPGs. Any semi-competent RPG player will be able to blast right through this mode without much difficulty – things only start getting a bit more challenging during the final two missions, and even then, a carefully picked team and utilization of all your party member’s unique skills will let you conquer most adversaries that the game throws at you. And by the time you get to these final missions, you’re already in the finish line. This is all a far cry from the life and death battles one fought in games such as The Temple of Elemental Evil or the Icewind Dale series. Thankfully, there are two more difficulties to choose from, Hard and Very Hard, so I imagine this problem is not that much of an issue on those modes. Still, I felt it was necessary to mention this for those expecting a reasonably challenging adventure from the default difficulty.

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Which brings us to another heavily-debated subject, the length of the campaign. Most people tend to finish in roughly 12-15 hours, which is, let’s be honest, somewhat of an embarrassing number for a western RPG. For Shadowrun Returns, however, I find it entirely reasonable – it was a project made in only a single year, on a relatively tight budget, as far as video game budgets are concerned. All in all, the nerd rage directed at the game, I believe, is not quite justified here. Besides, the first Fallout wasn’t especially long, either.

Eliciting similarly mixed reactions is the sheer linearity of the game, not allowing much (or any) space for exploration or branching conversation. For the most part, you’ll be going only where the game wants you to go, and talk only to the select few relevant NPCs that further the plot. Fans of exploring even the smallest hamlets and talking to all the various residents while collecting info and sidequests (a la Baldur’s Gate) will be disappointed by this, or the fact that your dialogue choices ultimately don’t appear to influence much at all. l feel it needs to be stressed that Dead Man’s Switch is only the first of many more adventures to come, as the game’s toolkit will allow fans to create their own adventures and add an infinite amount of new content to the game, much like in the case of the Elder Scrolls series – that the first campaign, created only to showcase what the engine is capable of, didn’t turn out to be the alpha and omega of roleplaying games is not the end of the world. Still, when we need to judge the campaign on its own merits, it cannot be ignored that certain aspects of it leave much to be desired.

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Additionally, I would very much want to see more balance between roleplaying elements (dialogues, choices and consequences, etc.) and combat. As it is right now, Dead Man’s Switch is basically one combat-heavy mission after another, without any real option to communicate beyond the bare basics, talk your way out of things or even stealth through a dungeon. There’s quite a bit more shooting than world-building and talking, which I found somewhat disappointing. While I had a reasonably high Charisma skill by the end of the campaign, my cultured and persuasive elf hero didn’t quite get the chance to really use said skills in a truly meaningful way. There are indeed several Charisma/Etiquette checks in the game, but I never felt like they really mattered – it was either to get slightly more money for a successful mission, or to accomplish something that could’ve been just as easily done another way, without having to rely on Charisma. So in this regard, the lack of such key elements make this aspect of the campaign a bit of a letdown for those that want to get something more rewarding out of their speech-related skills. It also needs to be pointed out -although it really is a minor issue- that the otherwise solid writing does have its ups and down: it sounds very professional most of the time, but in certain specific places, for whatever reason, it comes off as bland and unconvincing.

Ultimately, though, Shadowrun Returns is still a fun game. It really is. The visuals might be a bit rough around the edges, it might be overly linear and lacking certain qualities we would expect from western RPGs, but in the end I very much enjoyed it. It is a humble, yet satisfying first step in the right direction. With the upcoming Berlin campaign already in the works, as well as the dozens upon dozens of fan-made adventures that might also see the light of day, I’m predicting a bright future for this game – the potential to become something very special in the years to come.

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