Shadowrun Returns Preview (kinda)*

By Owen Faraday 25 Jul 2013 0
Why all qualifiers in the headline? Shadowrun Returns is planned for iOS & Android tablets at some point in the near future, but press copies were only distributed for PC. So this preview isn't based on a mobile edition of the game. More on that below.

Don't get me started about rain. Hey pal, you should try London.

I can see why Shadowrun Returns might seem a bit silly to the uninitiated. The elevator pitch for this game is "Blade Runner set in a future where magic, elves, orcs and trolls are real" -- it's the sort of thing you might expect to find on a fanfiction Tumblr right below a story about Harry Potter and Pinkie Pie's wedding in Vegas.

But Shadowrun Returns isn't silly. In fact, its fiction works, and works a sight better than a lot of other games I've played this year with much more mundane, down-to-earth settings. It may even be one of the most memorable RPGs I've played in years.

Your character is a titular shadowrunner, a cross between Sam Spade, Thomas Crown, and RoboCop. You slink your way around Seattle taking on freelance contracts that range from murder to corporate espionage, all while following a primary storyline where you track down the murderer of a friend. It's full of fan service for aficionados of the pen-and-paper RPG or the 16-bit console game (Jake Armitage shows up in the first five minutes), but it's perfectly accessible to those with no experience of the franchise.

Totem' up. Shadowrun's dystopian future-meets-Native American folklore universe is hugely compelling.

In most RPGs these days, the loot is the star of the show and the plot serves as a guidewire to help you navigate from one loot-Hoovering opportunity to the next. In Shadowrun, I was cognizant of the loot and my character leveling up, but I really was being propelled forward by the plot. Hare-Brained have created a somewhat complex, multi-threaded story for Shadowrun, and I wanted to know what happened next at every turn. It's not exactly The Wire: Magic Seattle, but it's a genuinely gripping detective story.

It's not just the snappy dialogue and interesting (if slightly predictable) characters. The setting, the music, the art are all top notch. Especially the art, in fact. Shadowrun is bubbling over with beautifully conceived designs that retain traces of being hand-drawn. This game's Seattle is engrossing and cinematic, but the art winks at you with a suggestion that this all might be an elaborate RPG tabletop you've set up in your friends' basement.

The mechanics that underpin Shadowrun's gameplay are not quite working on the same level. When the talking stops and the shooting starts, Shadowrun becomes a decidedly unremarkable tactical RPG. The influence of last year's XCOM is detectable in the simple action point system and discrete cover. The combat isn't bad by any stretch, but it's not quite the breath of fresh air that the game's fiction is.

A digital frontier. The cyberworld of The Matrix looks very different, but plays pretty much the same, for better or worse.

The game's biggest failing is its interface. Not the UI's design (which is occasionally overcomplicated but otherwise fine -- and should work well on tablets once the game arrives on them), but its responsiveness. Shadowrun's click targets seem to be smaller than advertised and occasionally mis-aligned with the on-screen prompts. You will send your characters to the wrong tile in combat with unfortunate frequency, and the act of searching a room with just one hotspot in it can be comically difficult. Remember: I'm playing on PC. If Shadowrun's interface struggles with the precision sniper rifle input of mouse & keyboard, I wonder how frustrating the blunderbuss of fingers on a touchscreen will be.

HBS haven't given me any clues as to why the game has been delayed on iOS and Android, but having spent as much time as I have with Shadowrun Returns I think I might be able to deduce some of the reasons.

First off, there's all of that wonderful art. I'm not exaggerating when I say that this game is packed with art: even the areas beyond the insurmountable walls designed to keep you bound to the mission area are full of beautifully rendered buildings. The memory footprint of all of those tiles and sprites can't be insignificant, and finding a way to fit all of that onto a tablet is no small task.

As I mentioned above, the game's interface just isn't ready for primetime yet, or whatever part of the metaphorical TV schedule tablets can be found in. There's also a slightly maddening checkpoint save system at work in the game that has the potential to cause some iPads to exit windows at high velocity.

Shinejob. Yeah, my character looks a little like Riddick. What of it?

Finally, a big element of Shadowrun's lasting appeal seems unlikely to make the jump to tablets. Once you've finished Hare-brained's official campaign on the PC version of the game, you'll be able to download campaigns created by fans using Shadowrun's powerful content creation tools. HBS currently have no plans to make the tools or the user-created content available to tablet players, which is a real shame. Slitherine managed to allow iPad access to PC user-created content in Battle Academy, so there's a precendent -- but it doesn't seem as though Shadowrun will be following it.

The Seattle of Shadowrun Returns is a lawless dystopia rife with danger and corruption -- and I'm jonesing to get back to it. I hope that's something I can say about the tablet edition when it finally makes its way here.
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