Sunday, July 27, 2014

Impressions #9: Shadowrun Returns

In the time I have been writing about video games, I have gone back to play many games from the past. A great portion of those game were old RPGs like the first few Fallout games, Baldur's Gate, and Planescape: Torment. As a result, I have become familiar with the tropes, designs, mechanics of CRPGs. This is what inspired me to play a game on my Steam list that has been out for a while, but I had never played: Shadowrun Returns. For the record, I am not referring to the shooter called “Shadowrun”, released in 2007. Rather, I am talking about the Kickstarted CRPG developed Harebrained Schemes. Having just completed the Dead Man's Switch module that came with the game, and the Dragonfall module released later as DLC, my mind is still fresh with thoughts on it.

Given the modular, user-generated content focus of the game, it is great that one of Shadowrun Return's greatest draws is its setting. I would feel incredibly comfortable saying that the Shadowrun RPG setting is one of the most interesting ones out there. Though this is ignoring some of the finer minutia of the lore, the basic gist of Shadowrun's world is that our world ran as it normally did, until an event known as the Awakening happened. Afterwards, magic came to the world, along with many of the typical fantasy races such as elves, trolls, and so on. Furthermore, world governments have weakened in power, leaving private corporations to fill the vacuum. Mercenaries called Shadowrunners (which will typically include player characters) get hired by various people in different positions of authority to complete jobs and acquire their next paycheck. Without a doubt, the mix of science fiction and fantasy, combined with the highly political relationships among corporations, lead to a lot of potential for many diverse and interesting modules/campaigns.

And with such potential, it is crucial for Shadowrun Returns to have a robust character creator. Fortunately, the game has exactly that. Whenever the player starts a new module, they must create a new character for that module. If players wish, they can directly spend their initial karma, which is the equivalent of experience points in Shadowrun, on the various skills available to them. Alternatively, they can select one of six pre-made classes to help guide them. The first is the Street Samurai, which focuses on weapon skills. Next is the Mage, who is an expert in spellcasting. After that is the Decker, who can infiltrate the Matrix, a more advanced version of the internet, in order to acquire files and hack various devices in the world. The Shaman can summon totems. A Rigger can control combat drones. And lastly, a Physical Adept can use their chi energy to augment their physical abilities.
As players complete missions in a module, they gain more karma. That karma can be used to enhance attributes, improve old skills, or unlock new skills. It is crucial to develop a character's stats, because that determines the caps for their skill. For example, Ranged Combat relies on the Quickness stat. If my character has a 4 in Quickness, they can only have a maximum of 4 in Ranged Combat. The fact that both stats and skills are raised with the same resource encourages players to specialize. In general, there are not many “wrong” builds in Shadowrun Returns. Should the player specialize in only a handful of skills, they will generally find themselves able to handle most situations. Even outside of combat, a specialist would usually be able to find a dialog prompt that requires those talents.

On the other hand, what better use is there for your character and their abilities than to fight. Shadowrun Returns utilizes a system extremely similar to the one found in X-Com: Enemy Unknown. In fact, they are so alike that players of the latter will feel quite at home here. Turns have one phase each for the player, the enemy, and any neutral parties. On the player's turn, their character and any allies accompanying them each get 2 Action Points. AP can be spent completing action like firing a weapon, changing position, casting a spell, or going on Overwatch to intercept an enemy on their phase. Each enemy will also get 2 AP on their phase. Phases will alternate until either all player characters or all enemies have been defeated. At the end of combat, the player party's most recent wounds will be healed. Both modules contain many interesting and varied enemy formations. Combined with a very solid system, this allows for highly tactic combat. Finding strong positions, taking cover, and keeping pressure on the enemy are key to keeping the player and their entourage in good enough condition to fight on.

However, there is one element that RPGs thrive on above all others, their stories. Fortunately, both the Dead Man's Switch and Dragonfall modules are extremely strong in this category. To avoid spoilers, I will not speak directly about the plots to either of these games. However, I will say that the writing is top notch. Since the game uses an isometric 2D style, and does not have voice acting, the script has to be strong enough to make up for that. Rather than animate the characters, the dialog box is also filled in with descriptions like “She's hiding it well, but you can tell she's clearly out of her element.” It is very literary in the way scenes play out, letting players use their imaginations to great effect. Both stories also have a very steady build-up and pacing. Lasting only about 12 hours each, both narratives take a decent amount of time to clear without overstaying their welcome.
Dead Man's Switch ends on a bit of a low note with regards to its final dungeon, but it is otherwise very solid, if a bit on the easy side. On the other hand, Dragonfall does a very good job of stepping up the difficulty without being overly frustrating thanks to its smart level layouts and enemy design. It is also much more open than Dead Man's Switch's comparatively linear story. While both stories will eventually funnel players to the same end, Dragonfall feels much more organic and responsive to player action than Dead Man's Switch. There are obvious, yet subtle ways in which the world reacts to what the player does in the game. In any case, both modules have solid stories with intelligent and thoughtful design.

Shadowrun Returns is a truly impressive game in my opinion. I enjoy it so much that I would feel extremely comfortable calling it one of my favorite RPGs of all time, even more than Planescape: Torment. And Dragonfall is an excellent expansion to the game. Given the modular nature of the product, I am excited to see what kinds of creations players have made/will make. The setting and the mechanics are so solid that I rarely found myself in a position where I did not want to keep playing the game. Should you be someone interested in RPGs, I could not recommend Shadowrun Returns enough. You owe it to yourself to check it out if you have not already done so.

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