More than video games, I love a good tabletop RPG game and in the past I used to play regularly (and still would if I had a chance), so I wasn’t unfamiliar with the name “Shadowrun”, though I never get to play the tabletop version, and when Shadowrun Returns emerged on the Kickstarter, I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t get the game until much later, when Shadowrun: Dragonfall was already out. A friend recommended it to me, so I purchased the bundle and found myself immersed in the dark and rich world of magic, technology, powerful corporations, and shadowrunners.
I have to admit I fell in love with the graphics. They bring back to mood of the late 90s and early 2000 games, but at the same time they are far more colorful and detail-rich than the old-school games. They might not be state-of-the-art hyper-realistic rendition, but to me they definitely were an eye-candy and contributed to the games’ atmosphere of the mix of magic and cyberpunk.
I had only a vague idea of what the setting was, but the game did a good job in both getting me through the character creation (some RPG experience will be useful there to understand the available options, but knowing the actual Shadowrun system is not necessary) and getting me immersed in the world. First I visited Seattle in The Deadman’s Switch scenario, and then Berlin in Dragonfall, and both times the game provided a lot of information about the general setting and local events.
Both games are text-rich, and what the graphics fail to show, the dialogue windows will fill in. All the emotions on the characters’ faces, the tone of their voice and little gestures are conveyed within the descriptions, so playing Shadowrun is a bit like reading an interactive book with pretty illustrations and leaves a lot to one’s imagination. It might not be appealing to all those people so used to full 3D, but it also leaves out the doll-like gestures of the animated models, facial expression that feel to be unrealistic and all the other side-effects of the “almost” perfect game graphics.
The texts are interesting to read, and the style is more than appealing (I’ve found some writerly gems in there!), but the most important thing is that they feel relevant. They provide the background, the situation description or other useful information, and never leave the player with the impression of redundancy or artificial swelling of the content. I never caught myself skimming through the “boring parts” or concluding what I’ve read was useless. And when the characters share their stories, they mostly do it in a natural way, without too many info dumps or over-dramatizing, which creates the feeling of being a part of the world rather than just being a visitor to it.
When it comes to the mechanics, the exploration is in real time, but upon the beginning of a battle it switches to the turn mode, allowing to take as much time as necessary to plan the actions. The battle is divided into two turns: yours and the enemy’s, and each character has a set amount of action points (more can be gained as they level up) which can be used for movement, attacking, casting spells or using items. There’s no initiative, so you can switch between them and strategize whenever it’s necessary (for example when your sniper failed to finish off an opponent and you need someone else to get rid of them). The environment around provides cover which affects the hit chance, and might be of value for mages and shamans (ley lines enhance magical abilities, some spots enable summoning spirits without totems, while barrels can be blown up to deal damage to those around), but other than that it has little tactical use.
The combat itself is simple and intuitive, and rarely requires hours of planning, though sometimes it’s wise to incorporate a bit of tactics. Especially when all the enemies always try to attack your main character first which is far from ideal when you’ve picked a more vulnerable class. As a result, the first part of any battle becomes an attempt to get the focus off your main character and redirect it at whoever is the most sturdy in the group.
What about the story? The Deadman’s Switch, the scenario from Shadowrun Returns prove to be quite linear, but its plots and connected subplots still prove engaging enough, connecting a favor for a dead friend with mysterious murder cases across Seattle and a powerful cult gaining influence within the city. But to be honest, the story is quite short, and should only be treated as an appetizer or a long tutorial before the main course comes: Dragonfall. The story set in Berlin is far more complex and takes several unexpected turns, while also providing several side-quests that make the game feel less linear. Plot twists bring a lot of emotions, and even though both seasoned gamers and seasoned writers will spot a few cliches, all in all they mostly don’t seem like cheap solutions.
The player’s companions and NPC in both games are interesting, and they have distinct personalities and goals. They don’t have much to say when compared to some other games, but they still contribute to the world and the stories, and—what’s important for the writers—they spark many ideas for interesting characters.
With all that, Shadowrun games are both inspiring and entertaining, while they don’t require as much time as some of the big RPG titles out there. About 30-45 hours would be enough for both of them, which is quite reasonable for all the time-crunched gaming writers. And I don’t have to say I’m definitely going to play Shadowrun: Hong Kong which was released this month, so you’ll read about the third installment of the series in the future.
Immersion: Very High
Relaxation factor: Medium
Procrastination risk: Medium
Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games.
Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English.
Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.