Shadowrun Returns: Turn-Based Combat Lives
If you thought for a moment that the days of the turn-based strategy RPG are long past, think again: Shadowrun Returns will take you back to the future.
The best way to get the attention of an old-school tabletop RPG grognard - besides mentioning that you have a tattoo of Gary Gygax on your ass - is to ask them about Shadowrun. Launched in 1989 by FASA, the same company that rocketed the Battletech series into orbit only to let it crash and burn, Shadowrun was (and still is) a cyberpunk/urban fantasy RPG that takes its cues from Neuromancer as much as it does the Harry Dresden series - and it is good.
So good, in fact, that there was an SNES and a Sega Genesis Shadowrun game in the early to mid 1990s, leaving many gamers of that generation with fond memories (there was also an absolute abortion of a first-person shooter put out in 2007, but the less said about that particularly gruesome instance of lore-rape the better). Thankfully, the long drought is over thanks to a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to bring back the series in a way that doesn't turn the stomach of longtime fans, and the result is Shadowrun Returns.
Shadowrun Returns: Nostalgia Bomb
If you've ever played a turn-based RPG like Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale, then you'll be delighted to know that the genre has held up quite well in this new iteration. Turn-based combat certainly isn't for everyone, but for those of us who have delicately painted miniatures collecting dust in our attics, basements and garages, playing Shadowrun Returns is like coming home. The game system is easy to grasp: your main character (and any NPCs in the party at the time) all have a set number of Action Points (AP) to use every turn. Movement, attacking, using items and casting spells all take a set number of AP, and they refresh at the beginning of every turn. Combat is highly tactical, featuring cover, concealment and line-of-sight - things that are like a second language to any strategy RPG nut - and fighting your way through hordes of shotgun-wielding elves and trolls with cybernetic limbs and dressed in expensive corporate suits is a deeply rewarding experience.
But Shadowrun Returns is much more than just a solid tactical strategy game. No, it's a full-fledged RPG featuring an immersive plot that feels like film noir by way of Blade Runner with memorable characters, authentic dialogue, and - lo and behold - actual variations in gameplay. Don't have the cash to bribe the cop standing in the way of your goals? Well, if your Charisma is high enough that you know the etiquette of security personnel you can bluff your way past - or go around the corner and buy him a hot coffee and a donut instead. Don't want to storm the corporate headquarters of your enemy by going in guns blazing? Don a janitor's uniform, steal a keycard, and simply waltz in. It's these divergent contextual gameplay mechanics that truly capture the feeling of being rewarded for exploration and critical thinking that the old-school turn-based RPGs had in abundance, all wrapped up in a beautiful graphical engine that hearkens back to the isometric 2D of Baldur's Gate while embracing the 20 years of graphics technology that has come down the pike since then.
The Icing on the Cake
And just when you think it can't get better, it does: Shadowrun Returns comes with a complete level editor, allowing players all over the world to create their own adventures and share them for free, a move highly reminiscent of BioWare's fantastic Neverwinter Nights, published over a decade ago in 2002. This is what makes Shadowrun Returns more than just a throwback to a long-forgotten era or an exercise in preying upon the nostalgia of aging PC gamers. Instead, the expectation is that a robust homebrew community will rise up around the game, providing new user-created content hopefully for years to come.
That isn't to say that Shadowrun Returns is perfect. There are problems with the game. The save game feature is absolutely terrible, as there's no option to save your game in the middle of a mission. Instead, you need to rely on the autosave system, which is only triggered every time you load up a new location. This can make playing the game highly frustrating if you wipe out just before the end of a mission, leaving you no choice but to play it through entirely from the beginning - this can sometimes erase hours of play. Moreover, the learning curve is slightly uneven: your combat tutorial is a trial-by-fire that could easily overwhelm those new to turn-based strategy, but then the difficulty drops off until well into the last third of the game, where it suddenly ramps back up again. Still, these are small imperfections in an otherwise fun and engaging game that not only breathes new life into a moribund genre but also proves that it's never too late for a comeback.