Shadowrun Returns is a really interesting product because it lets us examine whether or not Kickstarter works well as a platform for releasing niche titles. When teams of indie developers first jumped onto the crowd funding bandwagon, there was a lot of excitement around it. But with time, we have all seen that Kickstrarter is unpredictable when it comes to funding original work. However, there has been a lot of evidence that healthy dose of nostalgia and brand loyalty it can be successfully leveraged to draw investors make certain kind of niche games. Among those are nostalgic reboots, long awaited sequels and adaptations. Games that many people would love to play, love to play for, but major development studios would never invest in. Shadowrun Returns is a picture perfect example of this:
- An isometric single-player RPG
- With turn based combat
- Connected to a failed franchise
- Based on a beloved pen and paper RPG
- With a very unconventional setting (Cyberpunk Fantasy hybrid)
This list would probably set any self respecting video game publisher running for the hills. Anything that is not FPS, doesn’t have extensive multiplayer and is connected to a title that crashed and burned only a few years ago is a tremendous financial risk. Isometric RPG’s with turn based combat simply do not appeal to game-bros who re-purchase the Call of Modern Duty re-skins every year and these are the folks major publishing studios look to for return on their investment.
There however exists a sizable and vocal community of gamers who do enjoy isometric, turn based RPG games. Kickstarter and similar crowd funding projects give these gamers a voice and ability to pipe their money directly into the pockets of developers willing to make such games. And so, Shadowrun Returns has been funded, developed, published and made available on Steam. Currently it figures as one of the top selling titles in the RPG section, ranking right below Borderlands and Witchcer 2.
So, how does it stack up to our expectations? Is it all we wanted it to be? Let’s talk about that.
Tone, Theme and Setting
Early in the Kickstarter funding cycle MrBtongue published this video in which he discussed what he considered to be the essence of the Cyberpunk setting, and how it pertains to Shadowrun specifically:
The video is rather long, but the gist of it is that the game ought to be:
For the most part, I think Harebrained Schemes nailed the setting. I say “for the most part” because I have to admit that I never actually played pen and paper Shadowrun. My gaming group preferred a “pure” cyberpunk experience without Orcs and Wizards so Cyberpunk 2020 was more our speed. That said, the core of the game (the cyber and the punk) feel right. You have the poverty stricken lawless slums, the corrupt and useless private police force, the ever-present megacorps that own everything (including their employees), gangs, drug cartels, fixers, smugglers and all that fun stuff. In places the game feels more Cyberpunk that Deus Ex, because you get to experience the setting from the street level. You start as a low-life and a criminal. Cops and Corps functions as threats and obstacles. One of your first missions in the game is to investigate the murder of an old friend, and you almost immediately realize that if you want the case solved, and justice to be done, cooperating with the police is the last thing you want to do. So the anti-authoritarian, punk feel is there.
Is the setting grounded in current events and unafraid to touch somewhat political subjects? I think it makes pretty good attempts to do just that. It touches on class disparity between the haves and have nots. You can talk to number of NPC’s about the prejudice and discrimination against the meta-humans (ie. Orcs, Trolls and etc..). Some of the later missions in the game involve a high profile religious organization which was probably loosely based on the Church of Scientology (it sports a roster of celebrity members and a huge, very well funded PR department that meticulously manages it’s media image). So yeah, I think all the elements are there.
The game is gritty, but not without sense of humor. The writers are aware of the inherent wackiness of the setting and play it up to a great effect. Dialog is delivered via text (there is no voice acting at all) and the character portraits and the sprites are static which seems to be a limitation of the engine. The game gets around it by using old school descriptive text boxes which tell you what the characters are emoting or how they are behaving. This is something that was common in RPG’s of old, but has been lost in the modern, fully voiced and mo-capped games. In many ways this in-game narration is supperior to anything that can be done in modern games, because it can be used not only for conveying emotion, but also for setting the tone, or giving descriptive details about the character you are talking to.
The main story is pretty decent, even if painfully linear. It starts small, and slowly ramps up to a pretty wacky, but awesome finale. I have no clue how it aligns with actual Shadowrun lore, but for what it’s worth I bought it. It worked well enough for me. It combined all the wacky elements of Shadowrun setting intersecting corporate conspiracies with powerful, unknown, poorly understood magical threat.
It’s probably worth mentioning that I opted to play a female elf character. While my chosen race did sometimes come up in conversations with NPC’s (one of the themes of the game being prejudice against meta-humans) the gender never did (not counting proper use of gendered pronouns and the like), which was actually as it should be. Sometimes when games let you pick the gender of your character, the writers go out of their way to make NPC’s react differently to female PC’s, sometimes almost to a comical, distracting degree. This didn’t happen here, which is pretty cool.
The Crunch Factor
How “crunchy” is Shadowrun Returns? Let me explain what I mean here. When I mention the crunch factor I mean the combinatorial complexity of interactions between the stats and loot, and their impact on game play. In other words: does the game have a lot of number crunching and math at the core?
Crunchiness is a bit of a double edged sword. The crunchier you make the game, the more choice you give to the player in terms of specializing, and customizing their character. If a game is crunchy enough, you may find wiki’s that list different types of “builds” and long forum discussions that discuss merits of different specialization paths. It really opens up your game. But it comes at a cost of a learning curve. Crunchy games have complex mechanics that you have to teach to the player in an accessible way early on in the game. The higher the complexity of your game, the more difficult it is to balance it. Chances are that inexperienced players will end up with “broken” characters that are not viable at higher levels, and that experienced players will create monstrous munchkin builds that break the game (I always do that in Morrowind btw – creating insane magically augmented monsters is actually part of the game I love).
Too much crunch, and your game ends up looking like a spreadsheet. Too little, and you end up with something like Mass Effect 3 which is basically a really good cover based shooter, and not actually an RPG.
When sit down to play a turn based, isometric RPG you would expect a decent amount of crunch. And at the first glance Shadowrun Returns seems to deliver. There are six attributes, and each of them has between two an six skills associated with it, and some of the skills have specializations. This seems like it would add up to a lot of combinations, but it really does not. Each attribute (and it’s subordinate skills) can be associated with one specific class: Strength is for close combat specialists, Quickness is for gunslingers, Inteligence is for Riggers and Deckers, Willpower is for mages and Charisma is for Shamans. There is no restrictions on how to assign your points as you level up so you can spread them out if you wish. But at the same time it is perfectly safe to specialize and dump almost all your points into your main stat.
For example, early on I decided I will play an elf gunslinger, specializing in pistols. I was therefore pumping all the points into Quickness, Ranged Combat, Pistols and put extra points into Charisma because I thought it will help with dialogs. I figured I might run into some limitations, or miss out on some elements of the game because I ignored all the other stats. It turns out it doesn’t really matter. Most of the stats are used mostly for combat mechanics. Occasionally an additional dialogue options open up if one of your stats is high enough. Most of these are based of Charisma, though I did see a few intimidation options based on Strength and maybe one or two Int checks. Most of these have pretty low threshold (highest value required to unlock any of these options was 6, most averaging around 4). So if you level up your Charisma to 6 you can go ahead and min-max your main skill/attribute without any side effects.
It is definitely intuitive, and it is actually pretty hard to “break” a character. Experience points are dished out liberally between missions so you can choose to be decent at 2-3 things or excellent at one and you will do pretty well in the end game either way. But in a way it is disappointing, especially considering the loot situation.
Shadowrun Returns has no loot drops. I suspect it is a limitation of the game engine, but when you kill dudes, they don’t drop anything. For me, looting corpses for random drops is a huge part of the RPG experience. Without random drops, the only way to actually upgrade your weapons is via the in-game vendors. If you opt to play a street samurai like me, your gear options will be very limited. There are three tiers of weapons and two tiers of cyberware available in the game. This means that you check the vendor after each mission to see if a new guns (or drones) are available, buy the best one and you are set for the next few hours of game play.
Actually there is a little caveat, when buying pistols. There are actually two pistol types: revolvers and automatics. The former have highest damage yield but their description says they “offer limited strategic options” to the user. I figured this was reference to their small magazine capacity, but since one of the early Pistol skills makes reloading a free action, I did not see it as such a big drawback. I was wrong. If you equip a revolver you can’t use any of the advanced special moves (that become available as you put points into Pistols skill) such as “disarm”, “chain shot” or “double tap”. It probably took me like 15 missions, and accidental gun swap to figure this out. I wish the weapon description was clearer about this drawback.
The armor situation is even worse. You might probably wonder why my character is wearing the bunny-faced outfit in the screenshot above. The answer is: because it was the top tier Quickness armor. There was only about dozen different armors in the game, and most gave attribute/skill based bonuses. This ugly bunny outfit was the one that fit my build, and so I ended up wearing it for most of the game. The nice thing about armors is that they change the way your character looks in the game. But if you spent some time designing a custom character at the start of the game, this will probably really annoy you.
Mages, Shamans and Deckers get a bit better shopping experience because they get a variety of spells to choose from. So after you buy them the best gun and best armor, you can experiment with defensive or offensive builds spell builds.
Back in the day when I played Cyberpunk 2020 we always munchkined out making the most ridiculous Solo builds we could get away with, bending the rules to the breaking point to design these six ton, unkillable cybernetic monsters bristling wing armor and advanced weaponry. I was kinda hoping I was going to be able to do something similar in this game, but no luck. The best I could do was to get two cyber-legs and cyber eyes at which point I tapped out my essence and was unable to add anything else. Not that there was much more I wanted… A bit like with weapons, the wasn’t much variety and everything was more or less class-specific. Legs and eyes help ranged characters, arms and chest upgrades help close combat specialists while Deckers and Riggers just need a data-jack.
All in all, I would have preferred a crunchier game, with a bit more complex mechanics and more varied loot options. If this was a triple A title, I’d bash it into oblivion for this. But for an indie title built on a crowd-sourced budget, with a game-engine built from scratch it deserves to be cut some slack. Especially since it is not like I can go and play a dozen other turn based, isometric RPG’s out there.
You also have to keep in mind that the main campaign is partly a big demo for the content editor that ships with the game. I believe that the design team considers said editor and the engine itself to be their core product, with the actual game play and content being secondary. This is clearly visible from the main loading screen which has built in functionality for installing user-generated scenarios. The player made missions actually have a first-class citizen status within the game client, which is really neat.
I have to complain about the save system. You already know how I feel about checkpoints. I think most of us here agree that save anywhere mechanic is far superior. Unfortunately Shadowrun Returns only saves in between missions. For one, it is inconsiderate towards players. The game dictates when and where you can stop, without any regard on time constraints or your schedule. Not only that but it also breaks up the flow of the game.
When you want to stop playing, you have two options: right before combat, or right after returning to base. In both cases this is usually when you want to keep playing. When you just entered a new hostile location you want to explore it. But often you will stop there knowing full well that if you don’t you might need to spend an hour or more before next checkpoint. Similarly, right after a successful mission you want to go hit the shops, and buy upgrades. But you can’t, because to save the game you will need to go have long conversations that move the plot forward and require you to make decisions. And then you will still have to choose your team, and kit it out for battle before your progress is saved.
It is probably the worst save system I have seen in an RPG so far. Curiously enough, I never really lost much progress because of it. It was just really inconvenient.
The other weird thing about the game is that you never form a formal party. The NPC’s will sometimes join you for a mission or two, but you never get to recruit a genuine RPG company. Instead, before each “shadow run” you have an option to hire mercenaries. These mercs level up with you, and always have level appropriate skills, equipment and spells. There is also plenty of choice: you get both pure, and mixed class characters to pick from. The fact that you have to pay them for each mission, and that their fees grow as their skills improve gives the game a convenient money sink. Because there is never enough cool loot to purchase, most of your earnings are always spent on hiring and equipping mercenaries.
It’s an interesting feature, but I kinda missed having actual companions. Other than Coyote who later becomes an optional free-to-hire merc, the hired guns in the game are kinda boring and bland. Other than a short descriptive blurb and unique character portrait they have virtually no personality, no lines and no relationship to your character. I have actually developed more emotional attachment to my X-COM operatives than to the Shadowrun mercenaries. So I think this is a flaw that should get addressed in the future expansion.
The game ought to have a number of optional companions that can be recruited to follow you around, and mercenaries should be used mainly to fill out your roster if you need specific class/skill for the run. That and mercs should have occasional banter that could showcase their personality.
Is Shadowrun Returns a success? Yes, I very much think so. I think it’s sales numbers, its position in Steam store, and the amount of user generated content in Steam Workshop is a testament to the fact that people are really enjoying this game. I did too. I am really glad it was funded, and I think it proves that the Kickstarted model can work for resurrecting dead franchises or adapting beloved settings into unpopular game modes. Could it have been better? Yes. The save system is abhorrent, and there is a deficit of good loot in the game. The mercenaries were a good idea that went awry when it became a core game mechanic, because there are characters in the game that would make wonderful companions, but who got sidelined to make space for faceless hired mooks.
Overall however, the game play is enjoyable, the story is interesting and the setting works. The game was done with love and it shows. It plays like an old-school isometric RPG, and that can be both a good thing or a bad thing depending how you feel about the genre. Personally I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I will likely invest in the upcoming Dragonfall expansion. Especially since the creators are promising it will address some of my main complaints by adding a Save Anywhere functionality, feature permanent companions and add a lot of new weapons and cyberware to all the weapon tiers.