It is hard to imagine a better setting for a Shadowrun game than Hong Kong. The crowded, neon-lit, and wealthy financial center is a perfect place to live if you are a mercenary for hire with questionable ethics looking to make a few extra dollars. In a futuristic Hong Kong, hackers and soldiers for hire conduct corporate espionage, assassination, kidnapping, and steal valuable prototypes. In Shadowrun: Hong Kong, the third game in Harebrained Schemes’s Shadowrun revival, you find yourself doing just that. In this game you play as a Shadowrunner returning home to Hong Kong after some time overseas, at the behest of your mentor and foster father. After summoning you with a cryptic message, this man disappears and you are met with assassins instead. You barely escape with your life and you retreat to the underworld, where you try and piece together why your mentor requested your presence, what happened to him, and how it all ties into a series of bizarre nightmares that everyone in the game suddenly shares. In the meantime, you do lots of hacking, shooting, chatting, spirit summoning, and whatever else it is that Shadowrunners need to do to survive.
After a somewhat disappointing launch in 2013, the series showed substantial improvement in 2014’s Shadowrun: Dragonfall. Shadowrun: Hong Kong continues this trend, carrying over all of the improvements made in the Dragonfall Director’s Cut while providing a new story with new NPCs in a new city. In theory, it should be the best game of the series so far, but a few stumbles with its mission designs and story drag it down. It is still a good buy for fans of cyberpunk fiction or turn-based RPGs, but not the leap forward that fans of this series have been hoping for.
Shadowrun has come a long way over the past couple of years (although as you will read below, it could still make some more improvements). Two years ago, it was so barebones that it felt like a user-made mod. Since then, all kinds of new features have been added, like a save anywhere function, a large hub area where you can shop and take side missions, and a cadre of NPCs with interesting personalities and backgrounds, which you discover via huge, lengthy dialog trees. Shadowrun: Hong Kong takes the formula a little further, making it feel more like a bona fide PC RPG than ever before. The interface has now been upgraded with a hot key bar at the bottom, similar to what most PC RPGs have nowadays. You can also finally manage your party’s inventories so that you can spread out the consumables like the Medkits and the grenades. It is the easiest to use, most intuitive interface offered by this series to date.
In addition to the minor mechanical improvements in the game, the Matrix has been totally revamped. In the previous games, the Matrix was a somewhat unimaginative mirror of the real world. You would simply walk into an area, trigger enemies, destroy them, and walk out. In this game, a stealth element has been added. Enemies patrol areas with cones of vision, and if one of them spots you, the system alert level increases. If the alert level reaches a certain number, it sets off an alarm and triggers the system’s strongest defenses. A hacking minigame within The Matrix allows you to get past locked doors. The stealth doesn’t work very well and the hacking minigame isn’t much more imaginative than typical hacking minigames, but these systems work well as a unit. Decking feels unique in this game, as opposed to the previous games, where it just felt like a stripped down and reskinned version of the game’s real world. The Dragonfall Director’s Cut introduced these improvements to the series, but Hong Kong is the first time that they have showed up on the game’s release. If you played Dragonfall on release but you haven’t touched it since, then you should find these changes to be welcome additions.
Turn-based combat has made such a roaring comeback the past few years that it suddenly doesn’t stand out anymore, but it is still worth mentioning. Shadowrun still is a turn-based RPG when combat starts, where you take turns firing off spells, shooting guns, using consumables, and moving to get closer to enemies or find cover. There is also a rudimentary cover system that discourages you from engaging in battle out in the open and punishes you for getting ambushed. Combat isn’t terribly deep or complicated, but it gets the job done.
“Good enough to get the job done” describes almost all of Shadowrun: Hong Kong’s mechanics. This is true whether you are talking about the functional but uninteresting equipment or the role playing system, which has some interesting features but generally encourages you to develop your character in just two or three key areas. This game is not one that thrives purely on its gameplay. The strength of this series has always been its creative aspects – its writing, its art, and its music. The first two are still highly intact in this game. The writing is as strong as ever, with clever use of language in almost every dialog tree or description. There are a lot of great dialog choices for your character to choose from, and almost every important conversation has at least one or two choices that are inaccessible to you unless you have a certain skill level. Charisma is key for many of those, but some of them tie to other character traits like your Intelligence, your Body, or your Willpower. This game is one where you will want to build up your Charisma, no matter what your character specializes in, just so that you can access as much of the game’s dialog trees as possible. Some of those trees are long – very, very long – perhaps too long if that is not what you are looking for out of a video game. If you are looking to hold lots of lengthy conversations, however, then Shadowrun: Hong Kong will not disappoint you. If you wish, you can listen patiently as your running mates tell you their life stories, which usually reward you with a major side quest (each one of your friends ultimately has one of those).
The art in the game is also top notch. The colorful, brightly lit environments and the character portraits once again steal the show. A couple of merchants who were in Dragonfall make a cameo here, but other than that, all of the characters and their portraits are brand new. Sharply detailed and full of personality, the character portraits tell you a lot about everyone you meet before they even speak to you. Just about everyone has an obvious facial expression, whether it’s a smile, a sneer, or a frown. There are dozens of them in the game, many of which are for unimportant NPCs with just a few lines of dialog.
Although it makes some welcome improvements over the previous two titles, Shadowrun: Hong Kong is still easily recognizable. It retains most of what made the previous games what they were, in some ways to a fault. The hub area is very similar to that in Dragonfall, to the point where it feels formulaic. There is a building where you check your e-mail, chat with your squad mates, and stash your gear. There is a magic shop, a gun and grenade shop, a drug dealer, a decking tools dealer, and a street doc who sells cybernetic implants and health kits. There are also a handful of NPCs standing around, doing whatever it is they do as they wait for you to walk up and approach them. Despite the high quality of the writing in the games, the NPCs still feel too much like dialog delivery robots. Each area has lots of visual decorations, but rarely much to interact with beyond one or two objects (like a door or a computer) that are critical to the mission or story. Exploration is a non-factor in the game. None of the worlds in these games have felt very large or alive, but rather like a series of large rooms that only exist because you are there to explore them. Shadowrun: Hong Kong does not make any improvements in this regard.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong, mechanically at least, is better than Dragonfall was at the time of its release, but it also comes up short in a couple of areas. One of those areas is the techno/synth soundtrack, which is all new for this game, but not as good as that of the previous games. It has a little bit of an Eastern flair to it this time, but it also sounds a little more generic than the previous versions. I thought that the soundtrack in Shadowrun Returns was an excellent one, but I found the soundtrack in this game to be a lot less memorable. The story, while adequate, also does not excel as strongly as that of the previous games. The mystery that it presents isn’t as compelling, and it unfolds at a slower pace, with very little story development taking place between the game’s opening and the time when you trigger the end sequence. The majority of the time in the game is spent in side missions, which have some interesting mini-stories themselves, but don’t advance the game’s primary plot.
Your running mates in Shadowrun: Hong Kong are a mixed bag, and their special side missions vary widely in quality. A couple of your mates are very interesting, like a brilliant rigger who calmly and openly admits that he is a sociopath with no empathy. Another is a special character that only joins you if you disobey an order to kill him during an early side mission. He is a melee-focused Samurai type who provides a cool side mission and some of the best dialog in the game. Your decker, on the other hand, is boring and mopey, and her dialog centers mostly around how much everything sucks. Her side mission in a little bit of a dud too.
Mission design, on the whole, is an issue with Shadowrun: Hong Kong. It is a step backwards from Dragonfall in how interesting they are, and especially in how challenging they are. Dragonfall had one outstanding, tough mission two thirds of the way through the game, followed by an exciting final mission. Hong Kong has almost none that are exciting and memorable, in part because most of them are ridiculously easy. Enemies are few in number and not very strong when you do encounter them. Most missions have a big battle at the end against a gang or some security forces. In most cases, you can get through them without breaking a sweat or using a single medkit. When your decker triggers an alarm in the Matrix, she can usually handle it with relative ease, negating the need to stay stealthy.
It is because of its middling story and inconsistent mission quality that Shadowrun: Hong Kong lacks the atmosphere if its predecessors, especially Dragonfall. Whereas that game was practically begging you to play it through to completion, Hong Kong is lacking an addictive hook. It is still a quality turn-based RPG with lots of great dialog. It helps that Shadowrun’s magical cyberpunk setting can make just about anything interesting. As familiarity creeps in though, it is hard to shake the feeling that this series has peaked and may need to take a couple of years off to reinvent itself. Games like Pillars of Eternity have raised the bar for RPGs, and the Shadowrun series needs to make some big steps forward if it wants to stay relevant. If you are a huge fan of this series, then you will no doubt get some enjoyment out of this title. You should keep your expectations in check, however, because it probably isn’t the type of compelling, lasting experience that will top your favorites list when all is said and done.