So as one of the first games to be part of the Great Resurgence Of CRPGs of 2012, Shadowrun Returns has naturally been on my list of games to play. At the time I kickstarted Wasteland 2, but somehow missed out on this one.
I finished the first campaign called “Dead Man’s Switch” over a couple of relaxed evenings. I find it hard to give a vague, all encompassing verdict though. There are highs, but there are also gripes that simply dampened my enjoyment a lot.
Shadowrun is a great setting
A mission critical hallmark of any great CRPG is always the setting. In Vampire Bloodlines, you explore a world hidden away from sight. There is inherent mystery to the parallel reality that vampires live in. In Planescape: Torment, you get to wander around in a place that serves as an intersection between dimensions. In Arcanum, we have a archetypal fantasy setting of elves, orcs and dwarves which underwent an 19th century style industrial revolution. Whatever the actual plot the game is following, the world itself is always though provoking and interesting by itself.
Shadowrun Returns’ futuristic Seattle fits right in that list of games. After an undefined event, high fantasy has started to intrude into our modern world. People are starting to be born with mutations, practically making them trolls, orcs and so forth. They are meta-humans and one interesting aspect of the world is concerned with the societal implications of such a development. Then there is magic and spirits turning up alongside futuristic technology. All in all. Shadowrun has everything. You could conceivably just as well tell a dark film noir detective story as well as a comedic quest to claim the treasure from a dragon’s lair.
It’s cyberpunk with a twist, in a similar way The Wolf Among Us or Arcanum refresh their genre tropes.
The writing is high quality
Video game writing is not the best. Games that have writing that’s better than just being functional are still quite rare. To be fair, it’s a different discipline than conventional written media. I always found that apart from point and click and text adventures, it’s the CRPG genre that is the closest to the experience of reading a book.
So with a game with an economical presentation like SRR, it was very important that the writing is evocative, entertaining AND informative. Thankfully, that’s exactly what we get here. The banter and personality of characters shines through consistently, painting the picture for your imagination to work with. There is a good volume of things to read that is optional, which I quite enjoyed.
Plot wise, “Dead Man’s Switch” is a well executed, if not exactly innovative. It serves perfectly well as a demonstration of what the engine can do while leaving hints at what could be done better in future or user generated campaigns. It’s a linearly told murder investigation, and themes range from family and loss to corporate intrigue to social injustice.
Combat encounters are light weight built on top of a solid foundation
I played on the normal difficulty and it was easy all the way. I only had to start calculating my moves in the last 2 missions or so. It’s problematic because combat is turn based and thus quite slow paced. When fights are trivial but easily overcome, it becomes a drag. I’d recommend everybody to play on a difficulty higher than normal. It’s also a shame because looking at the skill tree and the various abilities the classes have, I can see the foundations that would facilitate really fun, strategic combat encounters. It’s all very XCOM-y, with the scent of classic Fallout.
Visually, it’s very pleasing
So you might have seen screenshots of the game and thought “DAT BACKGROUND ART THO”, and you’d be right. SRR knows to build an ambiance with the soft, painterly 2D art used for the environments. You’ve got grimy looking cyberpunk back alleys contrasted with huge glowing neon signs next to shamanistic totems. It’s got a very hodge podgey quality, without looking irritating. The only issue I have with the visual aspect is that it all looks arranged like it was built in a level editor. Which it clearly was, but it’s quite blocky. Reminds me of Neverwinter Night’s unnatural looking environments. The mitigating factor is that most of the game’s campaign is set in the city or indoors, where you’d expect straight angles. I wonder what the designers would do if they had to include a forest setting for example.
Another minor thing I really liked are the character portraits. Great portrait art is a staple of CRPGs inherited from their pen & paper roots. It’s important because it stirs the imagination. SRR’s characters have colorful personality and that’s largely thanks to the competent writing, but also because of the cool character art. It’s too bad that the actual 3D models don’t really shine. They’re “just” functional. A minor gripe is when the portrait hardly matches up with the actual model in-game. Could this be a sign of difficulties in coordination between the different artists?
Like a shoddy console port, SRR is not primarily built for PC
Okay, this is my real issue with SRR, and the reason why I can’t accept SRR into the pantheon of CRPG legends to join the likes of Baldur’s Gate or Fallout. Shadowrun Returns is (or at least feels) designed to run on tablets first and PC second. It’s not that the game runs bad, because it’s very economical presentation wise. It’s the UI. Every time you initiate dialog with an NPC, the camera zooms in while the dialog UI slides into view from the screen’s edge. It’s mobile app interface design, where everything needs to be animated and tactile. It’s fine on phones and tables, but on PC I don’t need that. It’s unnecessary. Just plop the UI elements without any delay. Opening the character sheet, viewing your equipment or the journal, all these actions are slowed down by of these animations by an amount just enough to become seriously grating. Alongside that, I found that UI buttons often wouldn’t respond on the first click. Only after clicking twice or thrice do you get to watch a slow ass sliding animation so that you can look up what pistol you’ve equipped, for example.
In a game like Baldur’s Gate, the UI was fiddly, but it’s snappy and fun to use. I suppose the annoyance is lessened because there isn’t any inventory to manage during missions, as you only have to choose a load-out before embarking upon a mission. But that’s almost a double slap. Not only is the UI annoying and grating to use, it feels like some of the more micro managing aspects of CRPGs were cut because of the unusable UI. My fear is that this is just how the engine is made, and it won’t be changed or improved in Dragonfall or the upcoming Hong Kong campaign.
It sounds like nitpicking, especially because I overall have a positive experience with this game, but it’s so frustrating because SRR feels like it could be one of the greats of the genre, if it weren’t for the missing complexity. It feels pared down and handicapped because the developers needed the AppStore money. Sorry, but CRPGs need to feel at home on PC. I can’t get over this design decision.
Not to end on a downer here, but SRR ultimately falls frustratingly short. Harebrained Schemes have shown incredible ability not just in writing an entertaining RPG campaign, but also in building an engine and level editor. I haven’t tried any user generated content. I’ve also yet to play Dragonfall. I hope (but have little expectation) that new campaigns will improve on the major issues with the UI. I still recommend the game though, because it’s the revival of a great pen & paper license in video game form. It’s a good story and it has fun gameplay. But do go in with lowered expectations.