SHADOWRUN RETURNS / Harebrained Schemes / PC
Let me start off this review with a very important note/caveat/BroTip: don't play this on Steam. The game has documented problems with random deletion of your saved games, which can apparently happen a number of different ways and in some cases cloud sync won't even recover them. The game deleted all my save files 10 hours into the campaign and they were nowhere to be found online or offline. The devs have posted suggestions for recovering them in several forums, but none worked for me. I'm seeing forum posts about this dating back to release in 2013 (this is a 2018 review) so they clearly have known about this and have not bothered to patch it out in all this time. This also apparently happens with their later Shadowrun games based on this engine too, so basically any Harebrained Shadowrun game should only be played on GOG or from physical media / local drive only. That means you can't get the Steam-only "deluxe" version, but all that means is missing some wholly unnecessary DLC.
Now back to the review proper.
If you're entirely new to Shadowrun, it's originally a tabletop game released in the late '80s during the height of the cyberpunk craze. The basic world is Gibson-esque, but it adds a layer of magic over everything. Magic just sort of randomly erupted back into the world just after cyberpunkism set in, apparently, so now in addition to the jacking in to the matrix and the credsticks and etc. you also have elves and trolls running around flinging spells at one another.
You'd think this would be the absolute ideal setting for video games, but only a handful of efforts have been made over the years. After an initial wave of pretty decent console RPGs in the mid-90s, the property was left forgotten for over a decade. Shadowrun Returns is the first real attempt to port the tabletop experience over to a video game framework.
I do appreciate the tightrope the design team had to walk with this one. It's an entirely Kickstarter-backed project, so they had to bring it in front of The People and please their various whims to get it made. Since Shadowrun is a tabletop RPG at its roots, you have a core fanbase that wanted a fidelity to the original rules and universe that hadn't yet been captured in electronic gaming. But you also have a whole lot of fans (maybe the majority) who got into the franchise by way of the SNES and Genesis games in the '90s and have never even played the tabletop game. The prior video games took liberties with the source material that they probably want included and expanded on, but that the tabletop players don't care for. We'll ignore the oddball FPS game from the mid-2000s, since that wasn't very good, and the Japanese Sega CD game, which reportedly *was* very good but you'd have to be a high-level speaker of Japanese to have played.
Harebrained partially solves this problem by throwing up their hands and taking the Neverwinter Nights approach, centering the game in a robust campaign creator and saying "Here, you just make your own stories however you want." The one included campaign (Dead Man's Switch) hews to the core tabletop rules and conventions but also has plenty of nods to the video games, like a cameo by Jake Armitage and incorporation of some of the musical motifs from the beloved soundtrack of the SNES game.
The actual gameplay in Dead Man's Switch comes out more like Fire Emblem or Fallout Tactics. Instead of being turned loose on a sprawling Seattle to run free in RPG style (a la the Genesis and SNES games), you move through a linear series of isolated self-contained maps, giving it more the feel of an SRPG than an RPG. The turn-based combat is also a change from the action-oriented styles of the previous games. It's a very simple system that (along with the mushed graphics and perspective) makes the game feel like something out of the late '90s rather than a modern release, especially with the basic wall cover system reminiscent of the older X-Com and Jagged Alliance games. On the upside of this, it only takes up a couple of gigabytes of space and will run on a potato.
Given it's still the only official single-player campaign after five years now, Dead Man's Switch is OK but a little underwhelming. The writing is decent, but it feels like the writers didn't entirely "get" the Shadowrun universe (all the more odd given the deep involvement of the original creators). The way the campaign is set up, it feels like you're doing social work just as often as you're a hardened mercenary in a bleak cyberpunk future. I suspect this is the result of getting JRPG specialists and fanficcers involved as writers, but I'm too lazy to track down all the writing credits. Writing aside, the structure isn't really satisfying either, 'cause it's more like Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics. You're basically shuttled from isolated map to isolated map in linear style, never turned loose to just roam big ol' Seattle on your own as in the SNES and Genesis games.
And that leads in to what is really my biggest complaint with the game (other than the awful save-deleting bug); I really don't like this approach of forcing the fan community to make your game worth playing. I understand all the arguments for this structure - tabletop roots, it worked really well for Neverwinter Nights, low-budget Kickstarter, etc. - but it's important to understand that probably the largest share of the fanbase comes from the pre-existing video games. So it was important to have substantial single-player material to enjoy right out of the box without having to futz with a map editor or pick through sh4dowd0gf4rts fine roster of homemade campaigns to see if any are worth playing. Dead Man's Switch gives you maybe a dozen hours of OK SRPGing (if your saves don't disappear randomly), and then that's it. Download some community crap or slap a map together or you're done with the game entirely.
Shadowrun Returns ends up being good enough to be intriguing, but not quite enough to satisfy. A better single-player campaign would have put it over the top. Of course, there are the various fan modules and campaigns to track down, but I can't comment on those as I played it on Steam and the Steam version RANDOMLY EATS YOUR SAVED GAMES. Maybe check it out on GOG at a reasonable price if you're really into Shadowrun, as there's enough here for hardcore fans to chew on, but I don't think this will do much to convert people who aren't already familiar with the property.
* Gameplay Video