If you’re like me, then you’re hoping that Kickstarter has helped usher in a PC role playing game renaissance. Since the golden age of the late ‘90s, the genre that spawned classics like Fallout, Baldurs Gate, and Planescape: Torment has mostly fallen off the face of the earth, as the developers of those games abandoned them to make console games. Finally, in the past couple of years, fans of old school PC role playing games have a reason to get excited, with projects like Wasteland 2, Project Eternity, and Torment: Tides of Numenera on the horizon. Shadowrun Returns, although not a revival of a PC franchise, is also part of this wave. It brings good, old-fashioned, turn-based combat and party-based gameplay back to the genre, reminiscent of the UFO series or The Temple of Elemental Evil. Shadowrun Returns offers a tantalizing but ultimately, unsatisfying glimpse into what both Shadowrun and Kickstarter have to offer. The game succeeds artistically, but it is critically underdeveloped as a game and it is over way too soon to provide the epic experience that you may have been hoping for.
Make no mistake though; this game does have its high points. Particularly, Shadowrun Returns features some fantastic writing and artwork. The noir-ish, cyberpunk fantasy dialog and area descriptions are absolutely brilliant, with almost no exceptions. Imagine the best parts of Johnny Mnemonic, Planescape: Torment and Max Payne combined into one product. The artwork in the game is excellent too. NPCs have some beautiful portraits, and the colorful environments are all high fidelity and loaded with a surprising variety of objects. The attention to detail is impressive. For instance, one character’s portrait shows the left side of her face all bloody and torn up after you rescue her from a torture chamber. Later, after she has had surgery, her portrait has been changed to show her healed but scarred face. Despite its shoestring budget, Shadowrun Returns arguably looks as good as any AAA title of today with a top-down perspective. There is no voice acting, but that’s fine – I think that most of the people playing this game are happy that the game’s limited funds weren’t spent on voice acting. Shadowrun fans will probably pleased with the game’s high quality techno soundtrack too, which contains a couple of subtle remixes of the old SNES music.
Shadowrun Returns is a game that consistently chooses quality over quantity, almost to a fault. Although the dialog is well done, there are very few NPCs that you can actually interact with. Populated areas generally consist of a few characters that you can talk to, mingled in with a bunch of NPCs that stand around doing and saying nothing. So, while the writing in the game is very high quality, the game lacks a sense of immersion. To make matters worse, the game is tightly linear, short (10 hours or less), and almost totally devoid of side quests. No two areas look quite the same, but there aren’t that many areas. These areas have virtually nothing to interact with besides critical story objects and NPCs, and that is why Shadowrun Returns is badly lacking the sense of exploration that all good RPGs need. At times, it feels more like an adventure game or an interactive novel than a role playing game. The creative talent that went into making this game is evident, but it is still an unsatisfying experience that barely has enough meat to justify its $20 price tag.
The game’s short length also robs you of the opportunity to use all of your role-playing traits. The biggest casualty is the hacking. In the original Shadowrun for the SNES, you could hack dozens of computers, pilfering money and reading e-mails. Throughout Shadowrun Returns, you only get to hack a few computers, which have been conspicuously placed in the levels to give you an alternative path through the level or complete an objective. You might say that this cyberpunk is sorely lacking in cyber. The Deus Ex series, with its ATM and computer hacking, actually captures this essence better than Shadowrun Returns. The game’s short length also means that it fails to develop depth. This problem appears especially in combat. Although combat is perfectly competent and a refreshing change (because it is turn-based), the game is over before it can throw many interesting scenarios at you.
The biggest problem with Shadowrun Returns though is that it is so lacking in some basic PC features that it is almost mind-boggling how it could have been released without them. It wouldn’t be quite accurate to describe it as “unfinished”, because that word implies that the game has buggy or incomplete features that weren’t properly tested. Instead, they simply aren’t there. Features like the ability to save your game. The game has an absolutely terrible auto-save system that only saves your progress at map transitions. That somebody would release a PC-exclusive game in 2013 with no ability to save your game is positively astounding. This was a regular feature in computer games twenty years ago. If the save game was honestly omitted because the developer ran out of funds, then that has to be one of the worst incidents of game development malpractice that I have ever seen. It is like spending all of your money on custom rims for your car and not leaving yourself enough money to fill it with gas.
To interact with things, you must find various functions through unlabeled icons. To be fair, this ends up being pretty easy, because the game is so barebones and simple. There is also no minimap. In fact, there is no map at all. Not that you would need one, since areas are so small devoid of content outside of critical story material that you never have any problems navigating. You eventually hire companions who travel with you, but there is no inventory trading interface that you can use on the go. Instead, the only way to modify your inventory or that of your companions is when you begin a mission or visit a merchant.
Shadowrun Returns make it quite clear on the opening menu screen that the purpose of the game was not just to provide you with content, but to provide toolsets to the community to make its own content. In that regard, the game fashions itself as a sort of Neverwinter Nights. The problem here is that the campaign that comes with the game feels like a user-made mod in how linear and bare it is. If it is ever going to support a great community-made campaign, then the modders are also going to have to add a map and a save game at some point too. Furthermore, the truly great user-made campaigns that have come out for various games over the past decade took years to make. Even if a community ever develops for this game, it will be a long time before it bears fruit. There is no telling whether this game will ever reach the potential that it teases you with in this adventure.
Shadowrun Returns is enjoyable while it lasts, thanks in large part to its great writing and enthralling murder mystery. On the other hand, it is hard to not be disappointed by the overall package. The next question to ask is: “How representative is this game of what we are going to see out of Kickstarter RPGs?” Is this what $2 Million of funding gets you — a toolset with a halfway decent, short adventure that acts somewhat as a tech demo? Perhaps simple economics dictates that the grass-roots funded, old-school RPG experience is a pipe dream. I am still very eager to see how Wasteland 2 and Obsidian’s Project Eternity turn out, but I am a little bit more apprehensive than I was before.