Editor's Note: The original version of this article indicated that Harebrained Schemes was formed to make this game. While it's unclear if this is the case (and their Kickstarter page seems to indicate this), they had two mobile projects prior to Shadowrun Returns, so this statement was removed in light of the prior projects.
Shadowrun Returns is a western-style roleplaying game developed by Harebrained Schemes and published by Harebrained Holdings, a holding company of no doubt very close relation. (And full disclosure: that kind of stuff obliviously meant to be legal protections at best, is a bit of a warning flag for me, so that might colour some of this review. FYI and so forth). It's a game that paid obvious attention to taking special care in how it handles its setting and the venerable lore of Shadowrun, but it spent a little too much time on that and a little less on the actual game part of the video game for my liking.
Shadowrun Returns is almost peerless in terms of being true to its setting
Many videogame adaptations of board and card games suffer from poor - at best - adaptations of the source material. If you're a gamer and you enjoy a particular book, or movie, or tabletop game, then its usually hard to remain a fan of that particular source after it has seen a game adaptation or three. Tie-in video games have a long and storied history of being generally pretty bad - with a few standouts,
Obviously, this reputation amongst tie-in games is something that Harebrained Schemes had on mind, no doubt seeking to please its large Kickstarter backer base. It has paid a lot of special attention to the art and soundtrack of the game, the particular theme, and using a lot of the shorthand and jargon which is memetic with the world of Shadowrun. It looks and feels very much like that familiar world, and while you may read this thinking that of course this would be the case: it was funded by the fans after all, it is quite common for such fan remakes to miss the mark, not understanding the thing which makes the world interesting.
Here's the problem: it looks and feels like Shadowrun,
but it looks and feels like a boring, everyday Shadowrun
I cast my mind back to a review recently published by Yahtzee regarding Firefall, "I am reminded of a piece of writing advice I once got: is this the most interesting part of the character's life? And if not, why are you not showing us that?" The story that comes with Shadowrun Returns: Deadman's Switch eats a poison pill of interesting, expecting us to cast our mind back to a much more interesting period in the protagonists life where they are running regular shadowruns with a team of people including the person whose death we end up investigating in the main plot. It seems like the falling action to a high point in the story that occurs at the very start. It feels very much to me like the story starts strong and then slowly petters out, culminating in a conclusion that, like the rest of the story, has interesting references to the classical Shadowrun video game of old on the SNES, but little actual apparent relevance to the plot at hand.
That plot itself feels like a series of references basically held together with pritt-stick and bits of string. The parts of the story which are interesting - such as a graveyard shootout - are basically lifted from the previous game wholesale in the kind of territory that would be copyright infringement if this weren't a licensed work done by many of the same developers. It's the Bioware thing: similar plot points gone over in a very formulaic fashion with the same character achetypes - and in this case, many of the same characters period. This isn't without it's fun factor, and I would have to admit that as fan of both the old SNES and Genesis Shadowrun games there some fangirl moments of glee to those appearances, I also have to concede that if I consider it from the angle of a non-fan, someone not familiar with the franchise, it would seem disjointed, without narrative focus, and poorly-structured of a plot.
For a CRPG though, Shadowrun Returns has an abysmally-small amount of character customisation options when it comes to appearance. It follows the Baldur's Gate/Shadows of Amn thing where the actual character model changes little but you have a selection of character colour selections and different portraits, but the colour and model options are limited to3-4 different options for each of hair, head, and torso etc, and the number of portraits available for each race are aggressively small, I'm pretty sure the original BG2 had more options available than that. It's hardly a game-breaker unlike the loaded dice mentioned above, but for something that made so much noise about being a return to western CRPG form, it falls abysmally short of a game released in 2000 in that regard, which is not really all that great a thing at all, especially when models as low-poly as the Shadowrun Returns character models would have been easy to have more options for.
The art direction is nonetheless pretty excellent
I probably sound like I'm coming down pretty hard on the game but really it's literally that mixed bag I mention - the theme and artistic direction of the game really does carry it pretty well for the most part - so much so that a game I otherwise would have thrown in the bin the moment I suspected there were loaded dice wass a game that I played to completion (one of the biggest pet peeves for me in games is artificial difficulty)
The soundtrack while like the last of Shadowrun Returns is riding the coattails of the SNES game is well-composed, and unlike the story actually has some moments of true individual flair unique to Shadowrun Returns, and its probably going to be the most enduring part of the game for me since I quite enjoyed it. The art assets while not as varied as I might like are also well-done and well-implemented as well, for the most part - though there's a couple levels that just straight up end in the negative zone which seems like a cop-out, though it's kind of hilarious that I actually managed to wander around in said black void in one instance.
.. yeah, there's that line again. I'm going to keep banging on about it until the cows come home. It's pretty accurate to my impression of Shadowrun Returns. "Mixed bag"
Shadowrun Returns isn't a bad game,
it's just not a classic either.
Let me just expound upon one thing though, before I close out: I had fun with Shadowrun Returns, at least when I wasn't in combat. It wasn't a bad experience, but it wasn't a lot of fun either, just a sort of okay, average sort of experience. Kind of like a nice little jam sandwich, not unenjoyable, but crying out for that little bit of peanut butter, that something else which would elevate things from "okay" to "pretty good". For many people, I suspect the art direction is just that, but compared to say, Transistor, it pales in comparison, really.