Thursday Review: Shadowrun Returns

Shadowrun Returns is one of the games that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, and I’ve got some mixed feelings about it. On one hand, it’s given me a dreadful amount of thrills, and on the other I’ve wanted to slam my head into the desk several times out of frustration. Part of this may come from my personal attachment to the franchise, which makes me a little more critical than I would otherwise be, but some of it is just the fact that at times the developers just seemed to forget what they were doing-they proved themselves capable of doing some pretty cool things, and then every once in a while a typo, glitch, or gameplay balance issue slipped in.

One of the first things I noticed was how linear Shadowrun Returns is, This isn’t necessarily a bad thing-it’s a lot like Deus Ex, where there’s a couple areas you see a lot with familiar faces and then you go into a scenario that’s mostly combat, with a couple rewards for looking around and a couple side-missions, some of which are more or less just optional objectives on the main mission. Now, admittedly, this helps the feel a lot, but there’s a lot of stuff going on; the main campaign (and, for now, the only campaign) gives away credits and karma like they’re candy, which results in amazing growths in power, especially if your combat skills are good enough to leave a runner slot open to save money.

However, the combat gameplay itself is solid. It’s less directly inspired by the tabletop mechanics than I had assumed it would be, but it works well and retains enough of the stuff to let tabletop veterans know what they’re doing in terms of buying skills and such, but it’s really a truly new mechanic-it works well, but I get kinda dubious when they said that they had to put this one in because Shadowrun’s tabletop mechanics were too difficult to implement.

That said, there’s a major flaw in the combat mechanics, which is that melee attacks, especially from certain foes, drop a foe’s Action Points when they succeed. This means that it’s really easy to wind up with a character who gets one or even no Action Points just because they got walloped bad the turn before-the final boss foes that I hate so much have the added downside of adding an additional AP debuff when they hit, resulting in characters being stunned-sometimes the only characters who can meaningfully damage them.

I actually really enjoyed the time out of combat almost as much as I enjoyed the combat itself; exploration felt like a joy, though most of the game’s use of “skills” came down to meeting a specific threshold (for instance, instead of doing a matrix run you usually just use a Decking skill check, which speeds up the game a good deal and cuts some unnecessary stuff, but also means that you never really needed that Fairlight Excalibur). Etiquettes work much the same way; with an elf maxed out you can hit six of the seven-inevitably sacrificing the one that you need at one point or another, but such is life.

Some of the combats, however, got really tedious. I’m at what I expect to be the end of the game, where there’s a couple annoying fights that keep wiping out my party even after I turned the difficulty down, because I decided to bring a backup decker into the mission and it turns out I didn’t need him; so he’s essentially dead weight. Even with my combat demigod player character and the more than competent storyline NPC (whose Shadowrun fame is one of the reasons why I suspect that I’m nearing the end of the road) I still wind up with just the two characters standing, and even then only those two can actually meaningfully harm the bad guys (because a special weapon is needed; I’m not sure if there’s any skill that increases its effectiveness, but I miss inordinately often and need 2~3 hits in a turn to win). Riggers are helpful in most combats, but if they go down their drones do too, and unless they sacrifice AP to use them the drones are just target practice.

In fact, the storyline’s a little disappointing to me. Not because, as a Shadowrun player I don’t get to see old friends and familiar faces, but almost because there are too many. I recognize a good portion of the characters, and the really sad thing is that I just feel like the story’s degraded almost to a fanfic level; my character is somehow the important one who escaped noticed during the incident with [spoiler redacted] while working alongside [spoiler redacted] and [spoiler redacted], and even the [spoiler] of [redacted] in epic battles. It really kills some of the agency (and makes my failure incredibly non-canonical), but it also drains the setting-the game starts out cyberpunk enough, but at the rates it tosses karma and nuyen characters quickly transition from “Street Samurai” to “Shiny Samurai”, which really causes some issues. It goes from cyberpunk to something like an 80’s action movie, which is a shame. Mind you, I still enjoyed it, but I would have liked to have seen something that I didn’t already know, and have an adventure in which I could choose my companions and my outcome.

Harshness aside, Shadowrun Returns is a pretty good game. I’m excited to see the community content, and you’ll probably see me release some of my own. There’s only a few issues with it, but there is a word of caution in there that if you don’t like a certain prankster you won’t like the game, and the game is so heavily laden with references that you’ll start off feeling like a kid in a candy shop and potentially end feeling like you didn’t actually shape your adventure in the slightest.

Now, to beat that (final?) battle.

Update: It was, indeed, the final battle, as I thought; the rest of the review doesn’t really need changing, since there wasn’t anything in the short scene afterward that really changed things.

2 thoughts on “Thursday Review: Shadowrun Returns”

  1. Thought I’d chime in. I agree with you on many points. I got the feeling that they were tossing karma at you for 2 reasons:
    1) The campaign is sorta a demo to show you what’s available, from bottom to top
    2) I was disappointed in the opening when I didn’t get to actually make my character from scratch, it felt more like I was picking a starter pokemon and building it up (no cyberware, no weapon, armor, or gear… or spells for that matter)
    Although I do hear you can import a character to another campaign if they allow it, and it’s probably highly possible they can make a character generation scene that allows you to start out higher, yet balanced, but at the end of the day I’m not sure it lived up to my hopes.

    1. Oh, you’re exactly right. Unfortunately, the stuff they do with the campaign is not really what the main campaign of a game should do; it rubbed me the wrong way because it felt like an exposition of “this is what our engine does” rather than a “here’s a deep and engaging game world”.

      The character from scratch thing was a little weird. I’m not sure about the whole “no cyberware” thing; I built a custom class with the Decking skill and wound up with a datajack, so you do get that, although I haven’t tried street samurai for that effect.

      As for importing the character, you can pretty easily; it’s not necessarily a good idea, though, since there’s not a whole boatload of content to go through; importing a character who’s through the six-hour campaign (disclaimer: I cheated, so I probably got through quicker than normal) will mean importing a character with end-game gear. Still, if you control karma, you can have some pretty good character progress as a campaign designer, which only really works if the character hasn’t capped out on whatever skill they’re using.

      I wouldn’t say SR:R is a disappointment. The campaign was, and the truth of the matter is that they really needed to draw in a ton of people to get the user-generated-content buzz going. There’ll probably be good things coming, but not nearly as much as if people actually thought “This is awesome, let me do it” as opposed to “Nope, not another [spoiler redacted].”.

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