From the Tabletop to the Screen, ‘Shadowrun Returns’

I had honestly forgotten my level of familiarity with Shadowrun. As a teenager, I ran several games of the fantasy-cyberpunk hybrid RPG with my friends. I was never quite in love with it, as I found the rules clunky in places. As a fan of William Gibson’s work, I still found the universe of Shadowrun fascinating, though, and as a result, I still read a bunch of the game’s source books just for the sake of interest.

I also read a bunch of the novels, none of which were all that terrific, but again, I was still intrigued by the world and the genre. I just kept taking a peek at a game world that seemed so promising.

Now I know that Shadowrun has transitioned to the video game console before (indeed, I played the SNES game when it came out — possibly twice, despite what I recall as a wickedly punishing grind), but I haven’t played a game that has so reminded me of tabletop role-playing games as Shadowrun Returns in, well, maybe ever.

The lead designer of Shadowrun Returns, Jordan Weisman, is the creator of the original pen-and-paper RPG, and frankly (despite my somewhat less than fond memories of the Shadowrun RPG’s rule set), his hand in this is very welcome. He pretty much nails the mood and tone perfectly.

There is no voice acting in Shadowrun Returns. It’s all written dialogue, and the stuff just bleeds cyberpunky neonoir. It’s fun and punchy, hamfisted and pitch perfect. I just loved meeting a bartender named Cherry Bomb at a brothel called The Seamstress Union, for instance.

I also like that lots of the elements that I had forgotten about the Shadowrun world, the existence of the Universal Brotherhood and the mysterious runner named Harlequin, as well as other characters from the various Shadowrun properties, like Jake Armitage, appear in the game (indeed, these are what stirred up memories of the tabletop and this universe that I used to visit in the first place).

The game itself is a pretty straightforward affair, an isometric landscape peopled with characters that look like they came from Bladerunner by way of The Lord of the Rings. Combat is turn based, and the interface is surprisingly intuitive almost immediately. I was a little daunted by the spell, item, decking, and physical combat interfaces all being crammed together at the bottom of the screen initially, then I was pleasantly surprised by how sensibly they all work together. Thus, the game features a fair amount of tactical combat on what are essentially grid-style game maps.

However, as I said, the game really feels a lot like tabletop role-playing, and that is facilitated by both this style of combat and how it is mixed in with a fair amount of interaction with NPCs and the need to figure out how to infiltrate a facility using your wits (and maybe a disguise or a hacked ID card), not merely through guns or fireballs.

The game comes with what would essentially be a rather long tabletop campaign called “The Dead Man’s Switch”, which involves tracking down the killer of a former colleague of yours. Basically, though, the game feels like a series of RPG sessions strung together, as a good RPG campaign should. Investigating a murder scene or infiltrating the headquarters of the Universal Brotherhood are all moments that are developed as short term missions that involve some plot development, character interaction, exploration of a setting or two, and then are often topped off by some combat. Again, this defines for me the typical RPG session that contributes to the larger arc of a traditional RPG campaign.

The plot, of course, begins as a fairly typical murder mystery before becoming something much, much more, and the pace suits the progression of your character from minor street-level runner to complete badass rather nicely. The missions in the latter end of the game are probably more combat focused and the level of difficulty ratchets up fairly high. However, I think that while some of the difficulty might frustrate some players, having to replay the last mission several times, for me at least, was actually enjoyable, as I felt like I was learning how to deal with a difficult situation through some reasonable trial and error before finally succeeding, which felt rewarding.

All that being said, the game shines most in the surprising variety of mission types there are to run, especially when you are not necessarily in combat, as one mission might require a lot of subterfuge and computer hacking, while another may simply have you trying to get some information from a coroner largely through some smartly chosen dialogue options. The game’s charm is how it embraces all aspects of the universe, not just combat. It instead revels in exploring characters and situations themselves.

Shadowrun Returns also comes with a content editor, so would-be GMs have the opportunity to put together missions and campaigns of their own, and owners of the base game can access these user generated levels fairly easily. I’m not sure that I’m exactly excited about sifting through a bunch of amateur campaigns, but the game doubles as a platform for new “modules” in the form of DLC from Harebrained Studios themselves.

Honestly, if future campaigns are as cleverly written and varied as “The Dead Man’s Switch”, I can really see myself diving into more of their creations in the future from time to time. Role-playing games have always been about providing players with a basic universe to develop new stories within the framework of, and Shadowrun Returns feels exactly like that. Harebrained Studios has the world down pat. I’m ready to experience some additional stories.

RATING 7 / 10