'Shadowrun: Hong Kong - Extended Edition' Is Better Left in the Shadows
Shadows of Hong Kong seems more like a perfunctory Kickstarter obligation than a legitimate epilogue to the exceptional Shadowrun: Hong Kong.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong - Extended EditionPublisher: Harebrained Schemes
Developer: Harebrained Schemes
Number of players: 1
ESRB Rating : Mature
Release Date: 2016-02-05
You know what bugged me most about Shadowrun: Hong Kong's extended edition epilogue, "Shadows of Hong Kong"? Characters kept referring to my female ork as “he”. On a metanarrative level, there was something deeply off-putting about that. I mean, my player character had saved Hong Kong from an unimaginable evil and became an ambulatory war-machine of implants and cyber-weaponry in the process, and nobody can refer to her by using the proper pronoun that is associated with her gender?
Orks don’t get no respect.
Facetiousness aside, misgendering is only one problem that contributes to "Shadows of Hong Kong"'s whole heap of them. Every single section of this expansion seems riddled with little oversights and exhausted potential. One can forgive that sort of thing when it can be buried in the overwhelming mass of a good game, but a short expansion -- no matter how good the writers and the core game -- riddled with rough edges verges on unacceptable.
Gaichû’s ghoul powers don’t work in the prologue mission if you bring him along. The police in the impound lot seem to have entire dialogue trees, but they still exhaust their conversation options almost immediately. Moreover, those same NPCs continue to behave as if they’re in the original hub, even after being moved to the second. The whole “Southeast Asian pirate armada” thing is a Chekhov’s gun of immense proportions that goes nowhere.
Most enemies seem to be loaded with the magnetic arm cyber-implant, meaning that grenade-based party members -- such as Is0bel -- are rendered pretty much useless. Beyond grenadiers, certain character classes are going to have a hard time with the unbalanced combat. Close-quarters fighters have to deal with enemies, who (with a single successful attack) can paralyze them for an entire turn and leave them vulnerable to a hail of automatic fire. Shamans have very few summon spots in the environment and will quickly run through all of their talismans when dealing with the endless stream of enemies. And so on.
I also found that the gameplay itself didn’t exhibit the right kind of challenge. Granted, the main game concluded with the characters being capable enough to fight a cosmic evil for the heart of a city, which meant that the developers had to find a way to push the challenge horizontally rather than ratchet it up vertically. I also understand that the developers were creating an expansion that was less than half the size of the main game. Still, the primary challenge set out for the player is -- cops. A whole bunch of cops. The big bad is set up to be Krait, the police mouthpiece of the corporate powers-that-be in Hong Kong.
It’s all disappointing. Krait, for one, is just so irrelevant as a villain that no matter how much the developers try to pump her up as some kind of devious mastermind, it just comes off as a decision with authorial fingerprints left all over it. To me, Krait was just sort of an afterthought in the main game; a mere corporate mouthpiece without any real role in the misfortune of the player character. In other words, I don't care about her, and I highly suspect that most other players don't, either.
When I talked about cops being the challenge, I wasn’t joking. One had best be prepared for fighting enough HK cops and private security forces to transform battles from “I’m outnumbered -- and, yet, what a fun challenge,” to “Holy God, this game is honestly throwing another wave of armored bullet-sponges at me.” All of this is justified in the narrative, but it isn’t hard to see that instead of crafting unique enemies and challenges, the developers fell back on the interminably boring theory that quantity has a quality all its own.
One particular mission stands out as an example of this: the “Detention” mission. It's actually a fairly interesting little mission. It seems well-planned, the NPCs involved are appealing, and there are even a few twists that I wasn't expecting revealed in it. Then you get to the climactic fight scene and the pleasant feelings evaporate like a midsummer puddle.
When I played it, I intentionally chose a path that made the battle more difficult, but I wasn’t expecting the sheer, interminable grind that would result (to be fair, the mission is set up in a way that even choosing one of the “easier” options would have still been a slog). After defeating the first wave of enemies, a second one shows up, then a third, and then a fourth...
In the Harebrained Schemes Shadowrun series, one expects to face superior numbers, but the game is a process of creating a strategy to deal with that challenge. Controlling defensible positions, picking off big hitters, and targeting weaknesses using the party’s skills are all part of the fun of the series. A well-strategized mission will leave the player’s party banged up, but relying on only one or two healing spells or items to survive. However, the “Detention” mission becomes a battle of attrition that flies in the face of the game’s systems.
My team was taking enough little damage that I simply couldn’t deal with the “death by a thousand scratches” in a timely manner. I burned through medkits and resurrection items, trying to alternate healing spells and running after stragglers before ten new enemies with sniper rifles and shotguns showed up on the scene. “Detention” may have been the worst offender, but after the first hour, the game seems to consist of a series of different justifications to have the same copy and pasted Hong Kong police show up by the boatload. It was vaguely laughable that the big scary unique enemies in the final mission were nothing more than “an homage” to Ghost in the Shell. To me, at least, it really hammered home that this “additional content” was a slapdash way of fulfilling their million-dollar funding goal from Kickstarter.
One almost wishes that the developers had taken the material in "Shadows of Hong Kong" and either rolled it into the main campaign or spun it off into a full-fledged sequel. As it stands, it reminds me of Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening in that both expansions were sketches for full games shoved into an uncomfortably small box.
I found the ending of "Shadows of Hong Kong" to be oddly sour for what was meant to be an “affectionate send-off” to the current crop of Harebrained-Schemes-developed Shadowrun games. Without spoiling anything, the ending is as close to a “rocks fall, everyone dies” scenario as can be presented in the series. The player is railroaded into a no-win situation, and the (potentially) positive ending of the main game is swept away in favor of a sadistic choice that betrays one side or another. This is especially jarring when one of the major concepts running through the main game is that the thoughtful and determined individual can refuse to accept a no-win dichotomy and find a third option. The “golden ending” of "Shadowrun: Hong Kong", for example, depends on boldly exploiting certain magical constants of the universe originally aimed at one’s player character.
It’s distasteful. That’s the best word for it -- distasteful -- to see the story of the main game left emotionally hobbled by its epilogue. The Shadowrun setting is a fantastical take on the cyberpunk genre, but it’s still cyberpunk nonetheless. And while individuals in a cyberpunk world are unable to effectively fight the inscrutable power of a techno-bureaucracy, they are capable of cultivating in Hugh MacDiarmad’s words, “some elements of worth” that “with difficulty persist here and there on Earth”.
In the golden ending of the main game, you don’t get sunshine and roses, but you’ve reconciled with your adopted brother, you’ve made a new family with your team, and while you’re still an associate of a gang, you have the option to provide a gentler touch to that gang than some other ne'er-do-well might. You’re acting as the protector of the people of your new home in Heoi. It’s a satisfying ending for a cyberpunk story.
The developers at Harebrained Schemes have the freedom, of course, to do what they want with their games, but what they chose to do in the last five minutes of this epilogue was so repugnant by comparison to what they had crafted in the main game that if this were the coda of a good campaign in the tabletop version of Shadowrun, the players would probably mutiny and demand that somebody else run the sessions from now on.
This expansion or additional content or what-have-you isn’t really fun. I’m tempted to suggest that you should only buy the "Shadows of Hong Kong" campaign if you’re a real fan of the Harebrained Schemes Shadowrun series and you’re jonesing for more content. However, speaking as a real fan of the aforementioned series, I found this content to do a major disservice to what was a stellar game, and I found myself mentally uncoupling what I had played from the story of the superior product.
It's hard to argue against something given away for free, but if you'll forgive me for mixing metaphors: sometimes a gift horse is actually just a white elephant.