Man meets magic, and machine
I ran Shadowrun with some friends way back when it was first designed and printed, it was a great setting and a slightly bewildering system. We came in from D&D you see, so this concept of pools of D6's was as alien as me saying I love Uwe Boll movies. Shadowrun captivated us and we always wanted to see a computer game of it. So the console games came out and we were moderately happy, time passed, Shadowrun continued to expand in scope and new versions of the rules were released.
Then Harebrained Schemes did the impossible, they made a Shadowrun game that's as vital to Shadowrun as the books, and as faithful as it can possibly be. This in part thanks to the original designer Jordan Weisman helping shape the project and guide Harebrained efforts - it pays off too.
What we get is an engaging experience, tightly driven story, quality tactical combat and some of the best video game dialogue writing that's ever graced a PC screen. It might be short (if you don't have Dragonfall) and it might have a limited breadth, but what it does have is a template for a fantastic experience that fans of Shadowrun and tactical turn-based combat in general really need to get behind.
Dead Man's Switch is the first chunk of Shadowrun goodness that you're going to get to play, it's set in the neon-fantasy world that is bristling with slick Street Samurai, agile elven Deckers and canny magic-hurling smartly dressed Mages. The story (which we won't spoil) is a fantastic tale that has quite a few twists and turns, all told through lavish text and superbly written dialogue that drags you into the rain-soaked glittering streets of the future with such skill it's like an absorbing interactive novel where the hero really is defined by your own morality.
Shadowrun: Returns is one of those games that harkens back to the good old days of Western RPGs, these games set the standard for what we know and love today. Shadowrun: Returns delves into the rich and dialogue heavy (in a good way) futuristic world allowing you to create a customised archetype from one of the many Shadowrun archetype's that'll be instantly familiar to the fans of the tabletop game. Not only from a visual viewpoint either, the game offers Street Samurai and Physical Adepts for combat domination, Shamans and Mages are the summoners and spellcasters, Riggers and Deckers provide tech support, one bringing powerful drones and the other hacking their way into highly protected corporate security networks.
Choosing from the various races too, like elves and orks, you can use the game's customisable classless skill system to evolve your central character in any way you want. It's this freedom of choice in character creation/generation and evolution that really sets Shadowrun: Returns apart from the other games out there.
You'll jump into the game, fan or not, and interact with a colourful cast of Non Player Characters (NPCs) across all levels. These encounters are always interesting and well built, with lore drawn from across the Shadowrun Universe to build in little homages for anyone who might be able to spot them. From the dialogue system that delivers an interesting journey as you begin to unravel the story, to the dynamic and tactical battles that are a joy to play.
Shadowrun: Returns manages to get this tactical mix of movement, skills and gunplay/magic just right. It's got a nice challenge level that ramps up as the game goes on, but never really manages to hammer the player with encounters that are too hard or boring. With simple to use point-and-click controls covering combat and personal interaction with the world, the game never feels like a chore to play and that's good.
It's a traditional combat system, point based, just like XCOM and Jagged Alliance, you'll be spending those points to move into a good position, fire off a blast of gunfire or hurl a spell/summon a demon and so on. There are clever designs here too, with choices and opportunities to be exploited. Did you get any zebra meat from a previous part of the level, you did? Great you can use that to distract the hellhounds!
My only real gripe was the lack of a save anywhere option, which would have made this a game to pick up and play anytime. Thankfully though, Dragonfall fixes this and there are fixes to both games in the latest batch of patches. It hardly seems fair in this conglomerate review to pick on Returns for it, because it's been fixed since I've been playing the expansion as well.
Just something to bear in mind if you haven't come back to Returns in a while.
You can hire other Shadowrunners to help you, but they are pretty much just a cast of characters that you don't feel as attached to, compared to Dragonfall, which we'll talk about later on.
All in all between the talking/exploring and the shooting/spell-flinging/decking, it's a superb balance of non-combat and combat that takes into account a functioning XCOM-style cover system and depth of options in the battlefield.
I did get some broken triggers early on in terms of mission updates and progression, the patches sorted this though so it's not been taken into account at the time of the review.
Ah, 2D and 3D combined in a lovely hand-painted arty-style that echoes the neon-drenched magic fuelled world of Shadowrun 2054 in the far future, where elves can't be trusted, and dragons should never be included in a deal. In fact, you should never trust an elf, or never deal with a dragon, seriously! That aside, these graphics are a glorious throwback to an era of gaming that I grew up with, given a lovely new coat of paint and presented with only a few minor hiccups. Sometimes, regardless of how gorgeous the art and graphics are, those 2D backgrounds do obscure characters and make it rather hard to see what you're doing at certain moments. I really loved the illustrated character portraits though, those are something to treasure and have been produced to an exacting standard.
A few of the animations for this one seem a tad limited, character animations could do with a tiny bit more polish in general and perhaps more life. The same can be said for spell animations too, but this is minor when you look at the rest of the game. Perhaps the backgrounds might have been more animated to bring alive the world as well, again, minor things that don't really break the game.
Overall it's pretty good AI, with only a few issues when the enemy make odd tactical errors that leave themselves exposed when a better cover option would have been viable.
Now this is a great sound suite, with a lot of good ambient sounds combined with some high quality audio for battles.
The original console soundtrack musicians are back, they give performances that are reminiscent of the old style sound. It does get a little repetitive at times but as a fan of the original music, I didn't mind that as much.
No voice overs means that everything you get here in the game is text-driven, and it's fantastic text with humour, emotion and cunning writing permeating the whole thing. It's one of the high-points of the whole experience.
With the Shadowrun: Returns Editor you can look at the Seattle Campaign of Dead Man's Switch, purloin the whole thing for ideas or make your own cool thing from scratch. It's beyond the scope of this review to go into depth on the whole thing, but the option is there for you to make and share your own adventures in the Shadowrun Universe and that's superb!
Welcome to the Free City of Berlin, right away this is something of an amazing expansion that feels as if it's really a sequel. It's much deeper than many expansions for a lot of games, brings a lot of nice new content to the table and expands on the rich dialogue and atmosphere created by the original. In short, Dragonfall fixes a lot of issues with Returns that might have bothered gamers (not me) overall.
There's a shift to Berlin, rather than Seattle, this also shifts the tone of the game's story and it's just as solid as Returns too.
There's a deeper party development character wise, a lot deeper. These are characters that I came to know and to love, in the best possible way. I haven't been as invested in a bunch of characters like this since well, Witcher 2. And in that game you only interact with the NPCs rather than travel with them.
In Dragonfall, Harebrained Schemes has listed to the gripes of Returns and addressed many of the most pressing issues of gamers and press alike.
The trick is that Harebrained has made your character central to leading an established crew of Shadowrunners, people who you give a damn about from the start. You can talk to them between missions in the new hub of Berlin, in your hideout and so on. You can build a relationship with them, help guide them and generally gain a better insight and connection to this family of cool folks. There are mercs still, but honestly, you're better off sticking to the established crew just for the cool dialogue and story.
Berlin is also so much better than Seattle, it's lively, it's got side missions offered by a cast of quirky characters.
There's a change in the way the game's story evolves now too, the missions aren't linear, this is hub based gaming with a slick new new coat of paint compared to Returns. The majority of these missions can be tackled in any order you like, and many offer interesting choices that we won't spoil a single one of.
Basically this is a great addition, it's got the best new feature as well, which automatically updates Returns. Save Anywhere. This single thing meant that I could really give Dragonfall the attention it deserved and I'm still running the shadows even now.
Dragonfall and Returns, what a pair of great additions to the Shadowrun mythos and the patches have addressed issues that many people (including me) had with the games. Dragonfall's campaign is perhaps the better of the two, mainly because of the superb cast of established runners. If you didn't like Returns, you could try Dragonfall but the chances are whatever I (or anyone else says) about the game won't change your mind. If you're a fan of Returns, hungry for more and you want a hub based kick-ass Berlin adventure that has a lot of great writing then by all means come to Berlin and enjoy the services of a Street Samurai whilst you wait!