After a six-year hiatus, fans can finally rejoice as Shadowrun has returned. In addition to this, it’s finally arrived on the Mac, for the first time in its long, 20 year history. New developers to the series, Harebrained Schemes, have much to live up to after the mediocre Shadowrun for Xbox 360, way back in 2007. Things are looking good, however, as they’re promising a faithful and compelling refresh of the beloved series. The result is Shadowrun Returns, the sixth video game in the long-running series.
Beginning with a board game in 1989, the game’s unique mix of fantasy and cyberpunk was such a success that it spawned an entertainment franchise, with spin-off card games, novels, music, and of course, video games. The first game, Shadowrun for the SNES, was released in 1993 and immediately garnered a loyal following. In the succeeding decades, more games followed to varying degrees of success, as the series bounced between developers and genres – from interactive fiction to first-person shooters. Needless to say, there’s a lot of hype to live up to with such a popular and enduring IP, and the wait has been a long one. So does it deliver?
Enter Shadowrun Returns for Mac
In the world of Shadowrun, a global event in 2011 sees the return of mythical beings to Earth, including Elves, Goblins, Trolls, and Orks. They’re collectively known as ‘meta-humans’, and magic and other fantasy elements also reappear. In addition to this, the game is set in a dystopian, cyberpunk future of 2054.
Advanced technology, ‘Cyberware’, and other biological upgrades are the norm, and tyrannical ‘Megacorporations’ control the lives of its citizens.
The game is structured in episodes, but only one comes with the initial purchase, as additional DLC will be arriving sometime in the future. This first story, ‘Dead Man’s Switch’, sees you investigating the murder of an old friend, Sam Watts.
After receiving a posthumous video call, he tells you that a handsome reward will be wired to your account if you discover who killed him. Things get more interesting when it’s revealed that he’s the most recent victim of the ’Ripper’ – a Jack-the-Ripper copycat who has a penchant for removing organs as trophies. I won’t reveal more, as unraveling the rest of this mystery is half the fun.
The Shadowrun series allows you to play several combinations of ‘meta-humans’ and classes. Human, Elf, Dwarf, Ork, and Troll can be paired with Street Samurai, Mage (magic with guns), Decker (hacker), Shaman (magic), Rigger (lockpicker), or Physical Adept (strength). Hacker-Trolls and Rigger-Dwarves are feasible character options, for those of you longing for such a combo. On my first run through, I played as a Samurai-Elf. In typical RPG fashion, you then have five ‘karma’ points to spend upgrading your character as you see fit. Naturally, you then gain more karma throughout the game when you complete certain missions and objectives. At first, spending these points can be a somewhat daunting task, as the list of skills and attributes is long and overwhelming.
Actual gameplay could best be described as a ‘point-and-click’ RPG. It functions much the same way as an old PC adventure game, only with a lot more ‘hand-holding’. Objects and areas of interest are easily highlighted around the room for your interaction, so finding clues is as simple as clicking an icon. There are numerous puzzles to be solved throughout the game, but they’re not difficult to complete with a little patience and social skill.
In saying this, throughout the game you’ll encounter numerous characters to question or interrogate. Typical of the genre, the class and skill set you choose will affect your conversations and how you interact with others. If you have appropriate abilities, certain responses will be available to you, allowing some added persuasion, intimidation, or even flirtation.
However, the outcome of one particular conversation over another seems relatively inconsequential. Provocative conversationalists wanting to generate anything other than a simple acknowledgment of your bad attitude may be disappointed. Each conversation generally leads to the same conclusions, regardless of your approach, which leads me to the game’s overall structure.
While at first appearing otherwise, the game follows a very structured, linear storyline. You’ll travel from one objective to the next, with little free roaming other than the occasional side mission. At one point in the game, a side mission is conveniently placed directly on the route to another primary objective. It’s quite obvious that the side mission is involved with your main one, and that completing it will somehow help you further on. But rather than making you earn this ‘unexpected’ reward, it simply falls into your lap, and your decision to complete it is mainly driven by whether or not you can be bothered to, so it’s not overly challenging.
Game combat is also not complex. You’re given two moves per turn, so they usually involve optimizing your position before attacking and defending. It’s basically a point and click affair – move your character behind a crate, shoot an enemy, repeat. The combat I experienced wasn’t more than this, so I didn’t find it particularly engaging. However, I’m happy to forgive the game’s combat misgivings in light of its fantastic detective/mystery elements, as it’s very much a story-driven game, with only sporadic bits of action dispersed throughout.
The game utilizes a ‘futuristic’, cyberpunk aesthetic with its menus and interface, that feels like it’s pulled straight from the nineties. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact, I enjoyed it, and thought it was quaintly suitable to the world of the game.
In general, it presents well graphically, with perhaps a little roughness around the edges. The featured art and 2D backgrounds are digitally painted, and they’re nicely done. The character designs are also good, as you’d hope them to be with such a plethora of strange characters. However, some of the game menus were generally not well designed and difficult to navigate, but all in all, this was a minor issue.
There’s not a great variety in regards to the game’s audio. There’s a looping music track that plays constantly throughout the game that tires quickly, especially as it’s the primary source of audio. In saying this, the game sorely lacks character voice-overs, and to me, it felt noticeable. Overly descriptive (and often poorly written) passages of text are used to communicate what could have been expressed with a simple infliction of speech. At the same time, voice-overs would have also brought many of the game’s colorful characters to life. While I understand that this is a relatively small game with a reflecting budget, I feel that additions such as these would have gone a long way in creating a richer world and gaming experience.
This is part of what I love about RPG’s. They create engrossing experiences and adventures that can span for hundreds of hours, yet, they don’t require a high-end machine to do so. Just like the original Pillars of Eternity, Shadowrun doesn’t place a high demand performance-wise, on your Mac. I played it fullscreen on my 8GB, mid-2009 MacBook Pro and had no issues at all.
- Engaging story and detective mystery
- Weak combat system
- Uninspired audio
- Too easy
Upon seeing the lopsided verdict above, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I didn’t like this game, but in fact, I quite enjoyed it. But however hard I tried, I couldn’t think of anything other than the story and detective elements that I could rate as ‘Good’. The game is by no means perfect, many elements lack polish and could have been developed further. However, despite these shortcomings, I found myself hooked. After playing the first few hours the game stuck with me, and I was surprised to find myself wanting to return to the world to solve the mystery.
Perhaps future episodes will address some of the issues I mentioned, and it should be reminded that this is only the first installment of the returning series. Going forward, it will be interesting to see what the Shadowrun community can create for the game. Either way, Shadowrun Returns is a solid and faithful entry to the Shadowrun series, and hopefully, soon we’ll see more of the same, engaging stories for this unique, genre-mashing RPG.
Note from Ric: This review comes from Stef Oh.