Shadowrun Returns Review
The crowd-funded tactical RPG Shadowrun Returns is a love letter to the hardcore fanbase of the original tabletop game.
Dead Man’s Switch, the adventure released with Shadowrun Returns, captures all of the color and language of the world of Shadowrun.The room dims a little and my heart races with excitement, which I have to hold in reserve, at the mention of Shadowrun. One doesn’t show too many emotions when walking the shadows. My love affair with the game goes back to my teenage years, around the time it was first released. When Shadowrun Returns was announced on Kickstarter, I was filled with the same reserved excitement. Excitement because of what was promised. Reservations because games bearing the Shadowrun name after the SNES version have been filled with disappointment. Dead Man’s Switch, the adventure released with Shadowrun Returns, captures all of the color and language of the world of Shadowrun.
Shadowrun was first introduced as a tabletop RPG in 1989. It imagined a near future, set in the year 2050 and beyond. Its appeal is the marriage of the worlds of science fiction and fantasy. Player characters armed with guns, cyberlimbs and magic would make negotiations with dragons and megacorporations. The main players are called shadowrunners. They are the ones who live and die in the streets, striking shady deals in the underworld just to make ends meet.
So, like in the tabletop, bringing a shadowrunner to life is where it all starts in Shadowrun Returns. Character creation can be quick if you select one of the pre-configured archetypes. However, for experienced players, a custom character can be created. This is when the butterflies started showing up in my stomach. The rules for giving birth to a shadowrunner stay true to the rules of the tabletop RPG. First, there’s race selection: Human, Elf, Dwarf, Orc, or Troll. Each race provide bonuses or demerits to six main attributes which dictate base skills, then drills down to specializations. For example: The ability level dictating prowess with a specific gun type, like an SMG, cannot be higher than the Ranged Combat skill, which, in turn, cannot exceed that of the Quickness attribute. Points do not need to be allocated to sub-machine guns in order to fire one, but specialization helps. Having knowledge of the tabletop’s character creation process helps. I opted go with a vanilla human and allocated my Karma towards high Quickness and Intelligence attributes, with intent to specialize in SMGs and Decking.
Dead Man’s Switch is a very well designed single-player Shadowrun campaign. The adventure feels as if it is being played on the table with dice and paper. All the aspects of the tabletop RPG are there: Mr. Johnson, fixers, human chop shops, seedy individuals, cyberware, magic, the Matrix, and much, much more. It starts off simply: find your friend’s killer and get paid. As the story unfolds, it delightfully pulls you deeper into the rabbit hole. The narrative weaves into the grit and character of its surroundings. One run leads to another, enabling you to meet other shadowrunners (NPCs) as the need to hire teams for runs arises. I was especially pleased by the presence of a few Prime Runners in the roster.
The faithfulness to the rule system is astounding. Shadowrun Returns rekindles my love affair with the franchise by using intuitive game dynamics and following the dice-rolling concepts the tabletop version utilizes. However, the turn-based combat system is set to a quasi-static turn order. Character stats determine the number of actions a runner can take during the combat phase and can take them in any order as the player chooses. The player always goes before the enemy does, which I think is unfair. I feel the original initiative system (based on attributes and magic/cyberware modifications) could and should have been implemented. Without it, the turn order is less dynamic and allows for fewer surprises in gameplay.
The ability to log into the Matrix is a good surprise. Not unexpectedly, it isn’t as robust as the Matrix environment on tabletop. However, the use of the Matrix flows seamlessly in this game. I daresay it accomplishes the implementation better than the tabletop rules do! Turns between Matrix and meatspace happen seamlessly. I found myself thinking: This is what a proper shadowrun with Matrix overwatch is like! In contrast, the use of the Astral plane is sadly lacking. While there are elements of this core tabletop gameplay component present, it wasn’t quite as in-depth as I would’ve liked it to be. Shamans and Mages should be able to project or perceive the Astral plane. Perhaps in a future update, this can be addressed. It would add a whole new dynamic to the gameplay.
The only other thing really missing is a multi-player option or the ability to share Shadowrunners between adventures. There is already an expansion announced for the fall of this year. Will I be able to bring my already-developed character to Berlin? If I acquire a community-generated adventure, can he go shadowrunning in there as well? Will my friends have the ability to hire the runners they’ve created?
Shadowrun Returns does tap into its community using the bundled game editor. In a past interview with Metal Arcade, Mitch Gitelman (Executive Producer) mentions how this is the exact editor that was used to create Dead Man’s Switch. I took a glance at it and was immediately overwhelmed. As mentioned in that interview, this tool is a beast. During my cursory stint through it, I found all the necessary aspects to recreate Dead Man’s Switch, and it should allow for the creation of deep and engaging Shadowrun adventures and campaign settings.
In another interview, Jordan Weisman, one of the original designers of the game, mentions how Shadowrun Returns is a love letter to the hardcore fanbase of the original tabletop game. I agree. It is a well-written and delivered letter, tugging on my heartstrings and bringing back memories of old adventures. I hope there is more to come beyond the next expansion. Thank you and welcome back to the sprawl, chummers.