Kickstarter brought the tabletop classic back, but is this old school RPG just a pile of drek?
Publisher: Harebrained Schemes
Genres: RPG, Strategy, Strategy RPG
Developer: Harebrained Schemes
Back in the crazy days of the early KickStarter rush, a lot of projects were funded. Along with Double Fine Adventure and Tropes vs. Women in Games, Shadowrun Returns managed its own lofty crowd-sourcing goal. Care to see where that $1,836,447 went?
Between this, Torment: Tides of Numenera, and Wasteland 2, the crowd-funding revolution has been a boon to the old-school CRPG. Are you still skeptical of KickStarter? How do you feel about all of the emerging gameplay footage? What about the final products?
Source: Harebrained Schemes
Let me tell you the story of Sully the shadowrunner. Like most trolls, Sully was gifted in the art of physical violence. Imposing in both stature and temper, she stalked the mean streets of Seattle, hunting a killer known as the Emerald City Ripper. A Physical Adept of the highest caliber, she crushed skulls as easily as BTL chipheads spent nuyen. Then one day she happened upon a merchant hawking armor both flattering in form and tougher than the scar tissue that spindled across her skin like grotesque war paint. The cost was paltry–Sully’s credstick was worth more than the shopkeeper’s life–but that wasn’t the issue. The problem was that the new armor was instantly banished to an item stash that she had not yet unlocked. Unfortunately, she had pawned her old clothes before noticing the mistake.
That is how Sully the Troll, Seattle’s most feared shadowrunner, came to embark on a number of high-risk jobs wearing only her underwear.
|PROS||Editor, Setting, Writing, Soundtrack|
|CONS||Shallow systems, Interface, Visuals, Sound bugs, No manual saving|
|WTF?!||Oakland Raiders punter Chris Kluwe is a dapper troll.|
For those of you who are unaware, Shadowrun is a science fantasy tabletop role-playing game which was debuted in 1989 by Jordan Weisman and the FASA Corporation. The dark cyberpunk setting has retained a healthy popularity over the years, spawning 4 major video game adaptations. Last year, Weisman and Harebrained Schemes took to Kickstarter to fund a brand new single-player RPG set in the universe. They asked for $400,000 but quickly surpassed that threshold, topping out at $1,895,772. The result is Shadowrun Returns, which is as much a platform for game creation as it is a stand-alone title.
Just like its pen and paper counterpart, Shadowrun Returns allows for any number of campaigns to be made using its assets. The module that ships with the software is called “Dead Man’s Switch,” which we will treat as the official single-player content for all intents and purposes. Of course, Harebrained Schemes is developing additional downloadable content and the fan community will undoubtedly craft some compelling stories, but I can only review the material that is available.
Beginning a new story prompts the player to create a character. Unlike the deep tool-sets of many modern RPGs, Shadowrun Returns gives you a selection of portraits to choose from, broken down by gender and race. If one of the 100 or so options don’t grab you, then you’re out of luck. You can’t adjust hair style, eye color, tattoos, or anything else. Luckily, there’s a nice crop of varied protagonists to choose from, so you should be able to find at least one you can stand.
Class customization is similarly simple. You can pick from one of 6 archetypes or Frankenstein your own. The player character can specialize in guns, melee weapons, magic, rigging drones, and more, but nearly every build is viable. Allies of every stripe and flavor can be eventually be hired, so you should be able to shore up any weaknesses that emerge. The system is relatively shallow, but it is enough to carry the 6-8 hours of “Dead Man’s Switch.” It remains to be seen if balance becomes unsustainable over a lengthier storyline.
Like many a classic isometric RPG, gameplay mainly consists of alternating rounds of dialogue and combat. The peaceful sections of play time consist of finding all of the interactive points on the map and talking to all available NPCs to progress. High statistical scores can net you additional options, like using charisma to smooth talk your way past a guard or using your strength to intimidate a fence out of some money. However, much like the character creation system, gameplay is pretty shallow. You are railroaded from one plot point to the next, your dialogue choices have little effect on events, and the few side-quests are dropped directly into your lap. This is not an open-world game. This is not Mass Effect. It is a tabletop campaign run by a GM with a vary particular story in mind.
Luckily, the plot itself is interesting enough. The main arc puts you on the trail of a serial killer, but the narrative takes time to touch on many of the hallmarks of Shadowrun lore. You’ll dive into The Matrix, raid a seedy drug den, and slum around a bar staffed by an NFL player (seriously). The engaging atmosphere of the city is incentive enough, but when you throw in a few memorable characters and Sam Powell’s evocative score, the whole package ends up as quite the tribute to its source material.
Unfortunately, there’s a reason that SRR is launching on Steam for a mere $19.99. Harebrained Schemes is a small, limited studio and it shows. The game is rough on the eyes in a number of ways. The sound cuts out constantly. The tutorial is insufficient. The interface is unintuitive at the best of times, but can actively sabotage the unwary. As you can gather from my introductory paragraph, even a gamer as experienced as myself ran into a situation that saw my character running around in her underpants. Perhaps it is better to think of the entirety of “Dead Man’s Switch” as a learning process, with future DLC and user-generated content serving as the core value of the project.
Above all else though, the biggest flaw of Shadowrun Returns is its lack of a method to manually save your progress. The game auto-saves when entering a new area, but that’s it. I understand the reasoning behind this design decision: to force the player to live with the consequences of their actions. Enemies hit hard and ally death is permanent, so combat maintains a palpable sense of danger without the ability to restart from a position of strength. However, the inability to save before a shopping run or after a long stretch of exploration is incredibly inconvenient. At the very least, there should be an option to save and quit a session, in case an emergency calls the player away.
It may seem like I’m being harsh on SRR, but there is still plenty to enjoy. The core combat allows for plenty of carefully planned moments of triumph. Investing in skilled accomplices is always a safe bet, which makes the process of assembling a team and executing a run as satisfying as it could possibly be. There are even some neat twists on certain maps, like tiles which allow Shaman to summon spirits, or innocent Simsense users that the player is encouraged to deal with non-lethally. The pieces are all in place to cobble together some memorable campaigns.
This brings us to the Shadowrun Editor. The editor allows users to create their own campaign and share the content across Steamworks. As you can imagine, the editor is massively intimidating for newcomers, yet it remains understandable enough for those willing to invest the significant time needed to learn it. For review purposes, I built a rudimentary room, placed NPCs into the scene, tested event triggers, and toyed around with a number of the tools, but I cannot pretend to be qualified to judge it as a developmental tool-set. The editor is accessible enough to be appreciated by the layman, but it will be up to the dedicated modding scene to build the truly worthwhile content.
As an indie release, Shadowrun Returns justifies its price tag. “Dead Man’s Switch” is a flawed but atmospheric throwback gem. However, the longevity of the game is ultimately in the hands of the community. Hairbrained Schemes will certainly release more assets for their first Kickstarted project, but only the fans will be able to elevate it to a “Must Have” purchase. I wish them luck.
A copy of the game was provided by the developer for review purposes and played for about 10 hours. The title was played on PC, but it will also be available for Mac, Linux, iOS, and Android.
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