It’s extremely hard for me to remain objective where this title is concerned. It’s not that I’m a huge follower of the Shadowrun franchise or anything, but as an avid RPG fan – particularly mid-to-late 90s titles – this game just speaks to me on some magical level. Isometric viewpoint? Check. Turn-based combat? Check. Well-written and thoughtful dialogue with dark humour? Check again. This game really is a brilliant reminder of why we love this style of RPG and what exactly the genre used to look like before it became arguably simplified and streamlined.
That’s not to say Shadowrun Returns isn’t simplified – compared to some of the great role-players of yesteryear like Planescape, Fallout and Neverwinter, it’s certainly easier to get into. However, it’s not necessarily a bad thing – whereas series like The Elder Scrolls have been breaking down dungeon design and questing with each new iteration (thanks Bethesda, for turning Skyrim into hallways and arrow-following: the game), Shadowrun Returns simplifies things in a different way. A modern, intuitive control scheme and interface, with tonnes of improvements upon the games it so clearly praises helps ease players who’ve perhaps always wanted to get into old-school role-playing but never quite been able to a decent crack of the whip. On top of this, the quest dialogue is clear and the oft-dreaded quest marker, while certainly not useless, is still there to help out.
Character creation is also nowhere near as overwhelming as it once was – for some this will be a curse and for others, a blessing. You’re given a choice of several different races and for someone new to the Shadowrun series, it certainly shocked me to see cyberpunk Orcs, Elves and Dwarves as choices – certainly unexpected, but definitely charming as well. You then go on to a pick a starting archetype (and of course, this can be tweaked and customized as you unlock skill points and stat points as you level up) – finish it up with a character model and portrait and away you go.
The game’s packaged story does a great job of immediately pulling you in – the campaign may be a short one, but as mentioned, the writing is really quite good and the story does a great balancing act of tugging you along but also making you want to follow it willingly. The multiple narrative threads and inter-personal character stories cross and weave into a web thick with intrigue and suspense, very befitting of the game’s grimdark, cyberpunk setting. Without spoiling too much, the plot is really conducive to the environment and this whole experience has an atmosphere that not many games in the last few years have yet matched. Impressive, for a game with few set-pieces and even fewer spoken words.
I say ‘packaged story’ though, because Shadowrun Returns is fully in support of mods and custom campaigns. There’s a fully-featured editor and even mod menus and campaign selection built-in to the in-game menus from launch. Harebrained really wanted to put some power in the hands of the players and if making an isometric, turn-based RPG wasn’t enough, they threw custom campaigns in, to make sure all of the old-school fans are happy. It’s worked, at least for me – the prospect of seeing this game have constant new life breathed into it is very exciting and really cool, considering that modding scenes are all-too uncommon now, outside of Bethesda games and other select titles. It’s going to be interesting to see how the community builds on this one.
I haven’t even touched on the graphics or sound – but really, by this point, you should be sold. Shadowrun Returns is an extremely competent example of how old-school RPGs can be modernized and enjoyed by both old fans and newcomers alike. Harebrained Schemes should be given every credit for picking up such an under-looked franchise, dusting it off, brushing it up and making it shine. Consider this review both an objective look at the game’s design and execution, but also a little bit of my personal gushing over it.
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