Harebrained Schemes presents Shadowrun Returns’ debut campaign – a detective story named Dead Man’s Switch – with disarming, perhaps even undue modesty. Select New Game and Dead Man’s Switch sits quietly atop an empty column, which, if everything goes to plan, will be filled with dozens of other stories set in Jordan Weisman’s technomagical world, courtesy of the game’s built-in level editor. A role-playing game in the true, pen-and-paper sense, this universe was built for players to weave their own tales into its fiction, and now they have digital tools to do so. It’s taken twenty years for Shadowrun’s return, but if its fanbase proves dedicated enough it need never go away again.
That modesty, at least at first, extends to the small-scale story with which Harebrained has chosen to reintroduce the Shadowrun world. Dead Man’s Switch is a entertainingly schlocky bit of cyberpunkian neo-noir that sees you chasing a Jack The Ripper-alike serial killer around a rain-lashed future Seattle at the posthumous request of your friend, the murderer’s most recent victim. Along the way Dead Man’s Switch reintroduces the Shadowrun universe – where magic returned to the world, people started transforming into mythical creature and huge megacorporations eclipsed nation states – via writing that never strains under the weight of all its expeditionary duties.
In keeping with the retro feel (and the Kickstarter-limited budget) you won’t hear a single line of voiced dialogue in Shadowrun Returns, which actually helps the nuances of the script stand out. There’s charm and wit in your exchanges with these characters, who’ve been built from nothing more than textboxes, simple character models and unmoving portraits, and playing through Shadowrun’s first half feels like tearing through a pulpy thriller. Unfortunately, the final act raises the stakes all the way up to the world-saving ceiling via some unlikely plot twists, but until then Dead Man’s Switch tells a contained story within a much larger world, the ideal primer for all the user-generated yarns to follow.
That feeling of racing through an airport paperback is compounded by Shadowrun Returns’ linear structure. Harebrained Schemes has rebuilt the Shadowrun universe in such gorgeous, meticulous detail that it’s a shame you never get to diverge from the path that laid out for you. The opening hour or so teases players by letting them explore a few blocks of futuristic Seattle, but later on you essentially alternate between the mission hub and the missions themselves. It’s constricting to play an RPG with so little going on outside the 12-hour story, though the dearth of sidequests and diversions keeps up the narrative momentum and ensures that you can’t grind your way out of difficult spending decisions when the time comes for upgrades.
What you’ll actually spend that money on hinges on your class: the skill system is freeform, but the design nudges you in the direction of six Archetypes. Shaman summon elemental critters to fight for them; Riggers prefer to rely on drones. Adepts and Mages deal in magical attacks from up close and afar, while Street Samurai prefer guns and swords. Deckers, meanwhile, hack into the Matrix to fight a parallel battle in cyberspace without the aid of the rest of the team. With such a broad range of skills available (and only four slots available in your squad), you need to discover your own tactics and effective class combinations – genuine freedom of choice that partially makes up for the linear campaign.
Combat itself parallels the battles we fought in XCOM: Enemy Unknown last year, right down to the filled or partially filled shield icon designating the validity of cover. On Normal difficulty, we found that for all the tactical variety the skill system offered, the most expedient approach to any encounter was blasting the enemy with gunfire. But on Hard the interplay between your support units and damage dealers becomes more critical, and the game forces you to carefully consider your tactics, equipment purchases and skill point allocations. The main problem with combat, however, is a lack of clarity in the UI: it’s easy to misclick when trying to manoeuvre behind cover, for instance, while you can’t tell at a glance your currently selected unit’s full possible range of movements per turn. Shadowrun Returns also struggles to reconcile scripting with player agency – at times allowing actions like discovering an enemy to trigger scripted sequences that prematurely end your character’s turn.
But it’s the checkpoint system that most threatens to undo player goodwill. The game autosaves at the start of each level (be it a shadowrunning mission or visit to your safehouse), and should you die or quit the game you’ll find yourself returned to the beginning of that chapter. Between missions, this is merely inconvenient – it forces you to do all your handing in of quests, NPC dialogues and upgrading in a single go. During missions, however, it’s pointlessly, arbitrarily punishing, a throwback to the times when failure meant repeating 10 to 20 minutes of play that hadn’t challenged you in the slightest before dying again. An autosave at the outset of every enemy encounter (each battle is usually buffered by five to ten minutes of exploration on each side) would have done much to sweeten the pill.
Shadowrun Returns offers an odd mixture of polish and rough edges, and that extends to the presentation. What’s there looks beautiful: in an era when faux-retro, self-consciously pixellated stylings are in vogue, it’s thrilling to see the crisply hi-res, sodium-lit Seattle you could only imagine playing the SNES game. But what isn’t there, well, simply isn’t there: there’s dearth of unique animations and plenty of jarring scene transitions, and later environments feel rather stark. Shadowun Returns’ modding community might overcome some of Dead Man’s Switch’s limitations, but it’ll be working within the rest as it untangles the nuances of an editor that offers the full resource suite available to development staff at the cost of intimidating intricacy. But that’s what Shadowrun Return provides, of course: it’s not just a single tale of murder and techno-conspiracy. It’s a ruleset and a tileset, and a promise of more to come.
Shadowrun Returns is out now on PC, iOS and Android. PC version tested.