Shadowrun is one of the classic pen and paper RPG settings, a wonderful mash-up of classic cyberpunk tropes with the idea that the Mayan Calendar was right, and when the ‘end of the world’ ticked over, it was not the end of everything, but merely one age – and the new age was a massive shifting of the poles of reality, bringing magic and supernatural beings back into the world. Dragons wake up and buy stocks in arms companies. Elves, dwarves and more start being born, and either getting on with their lives or starting entire new cultural groups. Magic starts working, especially the natural magic of shamans, which sees native cultures suddenly remembering the old ways and setting up as powerful independent entities. Governments fall, megacorps rise, and the time of hackers, street samurai and rogue mages is upon us.
It’s a rich, very detailed setting, and while many developers have tried to bring the game to life on PC and even console, it’s never really taken hold. It’s a game that seems made for sitting around a table and eating greasy home delivery food, and rolling literal fistfuls of dice.
Which is just one of the things that makes Shadowrun Returns such a success – it takes the world of Shadowrun’s home setting, a post-magic, post-corporate Seattle, and breathes amazing life into it.
Shadowrun has always been about worldbuilding, from the future patois of the street-denizens living a life in the shadows of corporate greed, to the vast impact of a world suddenly deluged with magic and ten-foot tall trolls. For all its fantasy, it’s a very gritty, though still neon-lit and chrome-edged, setting.
Shadowrun Returns makes this work by focusing on a classically retro isometric viewpoint. The vantage lets you take in all the wonderful detail built into each level, from the garish streetsigns and chipped decay, to the individual runners and NPCs themselves.
This is a game that looks marvellous despite its limited graphics grunt; in fact, Shadowrun Returns turns that into a strength.
The game’s militantly old school, too, in a lot of ways. The fixed perspective, the turn-based, square-driven combat, and even the focus on hiring parties of runners on bigger missions all hark back to simpler, richer times of PC RPGs. You take on the role of a runner investigating the death of an old team mate, and the character creation is a wonderfully rich experience. You choose your race from among elves, humans, dwarves, orcs and trolls, and then pick a class. You can play as a combat-focused Street Samurai, a drone-controlling Rigger, the hacking specialist Netrunner, a Mage, or a spirit-summoning Shaman.
From there, you can customise even further by picking and choosing skills, or skip the class-process entirely and build a character with a mix of talents. It’s not quite as freeform as the game it’s based on – some character builds of past Shadowrun campaigns are simply impossible – but it’s pretty detailed.
The game world switches between letting you roam where you will, engaging in conversations with NPCs and generally exploring, and some intense turn-based combat. With a full party of three other runners, usually hired by you before a mission, you can do some fun stuff. Want to summon a couple of spirits to bump up numbers and soak bullets? You can, but at the cost of losing half your turn. You can summon magical barriers of air, toss grenades, even charge into combat waving a sword – it’s pretty open, and while Shadowrun Returns tends to err on the simple side of mechanics, it can still be pretty challenging. Each weapon comes with appropriate skill groups, which unlock new abilities as you progress, meaning there are always interesting tactical choices to make.
The included campaign, Dead Man’s Switch, is rich enough in terms of plot and conversation, but if there’s one area where the game feels a little light it’s in gear. In the main rulebook alone, for instance, there are dozens of firearms, and much more random equipment and cybernetic bits and bobs. Shadowrun Returns features a highly cut down list of gear and spells, and you don’t even get the chance to loot bodies or scrounge – much – from the environment. Instead, you just get to shop between missions. No cutting up bodies for parts, sadly. Grim as it sounds, it’s a feature of many of the pen-and-paper sessions of my memory.
The game’s limited saves are also a source of frustration, leading to late-mission party wipes that force the player to start over each mission entirely.
However, this is offset by another of the game’s features – its openness. The game comes with toolkits ready for modders and fans to create their own content, and share it via the Steam Workshop. Already we’re seeing random mission generators and other player-built content, and one of the most classic Shadowrun Expansions of all time – the Street Samurai Catalogue – has been ported into the game just as we’re writing, greatly expanding the gear and weapons on offer. We’ve no doubt that more expansions and scenarios from the original game, and many more original offerings from invested fans and players around the world, will follow.
The included campaign doesn’t have much in the way of replay value, but with more content steadily coming from the community, Shadowrun Returns should have a rich future ahead of it.