RPG of the Year Runner-Up: Shadowrun Returns

By Owen Faraday 11 Dec 2013 0
Return to the scene of the crime. Return to the scene of the crime.

Shadowrun Returns had some pretty significant expectation mountains to climb this year. It had to satisfy 36,000 Kickstarter backers, live up to the examples set by a classic pen-and-paper RPG and a fondly remembered 16-bit console game, and rub out the stain left behind by a 2007 Xbox-exclusive dud. No pressure then.

Against the odds, maybe, Shadowrun Returns lived up to those expectations. Developers Harebrained Schemes knew well that FASA's Shadowrun sci-fi/fantasy universe was their greatest asset, and they built this year's RPG of the Year Runner-up to take full advantage of it.

Forget it, Jake. It's Elftown. Forget it, Jake. It's Elftown.

Harebrained have made a beautiful, mysterious, careworn world that seems to continue past the boundaries of the game's playable areas -- their vision of future Seattle feels like a real a place that I wish I could visit. The end of the game filled me with a sense that I was leaving behind friends, the way a great novel novel does. Shadowrun takes place in a ghetto full of grifters and junkies, and yet I can't wait to go back to it. No small feat, that.

The devs get a serious leg up from the fact that Shadowrun is a fictional universe with twenty-five years of world-building packed into it, but that could just have easily worked against them. Shadowrun's magic-made-real future juxtaposes Gibsonian computer hackers and Tolkienesque elves and orcs -- without the right tone it could easily devolve into genre fiction Sesame Street.

But the tone is something Shadowrun Returns hits spot-on. The game is a mystery: a murder that you've been asked to solve (rather memorably from beyond the grave by the victim himself) that will lead you on an appropriately noir-ish serpentine path to the truth, with some rather sharp dialogue and genuinely funny moments. It's a gem of a tale and a great role to play. The turn-based combat is unspectacular but does the job well enough.

One of the measures Harebrained took to ensure they were making the most of the Shadowrun license was the inclusion of powerful modding tools that let players make their own stories and share them with others -- but these tools are restricted to the PC, and mobile players can't even download the completed modules. That's a defect I hope Harebrained correct. Their world is so compelling that I would love nothing better than to go back to it and see what other creative people can do with the setting.

To see all the games recognized in the Pocket Tactics Best of 2013 Awards, visit the awards index page.
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