Welcome back, Shadowrun

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Welcome back, Shadowrun
This week, Kat Bailey and Rowan Kaiser have switched roles -- with Kat taking lead in this week's column focusing on the wonderful world of Western role-playing games.
These are interesting times. Thanks to Kickstarter, projects that I never thought would see the light of day are getting a chance to prove themselves on their own terms. Who ever thought that Tim Schafer would get a chance to make another adventure game? Or that Shadowrun would get another shot after the mediocre cross-platform 2007 FPS?

That's why I'm writing here today, rather than my usual space at the JRPG column. Long ago, I played the pen-and-paper RPG Shadowrun with a group of friends, though not always successfully. Since then, both the setting and the system have stuck with me in any number of ways. So as you can imagine, the thought of a new computer role-playing game (CRPG) based on the series is exciting.

First, the setting. If you've ever played Deus Ex: Human Revolution – or watched Blade Runner, for that matter – you'll know what you're in for with Shadowrun. The big twist is that magic is suddenly a part of everyday life on this version of earth; an earth where cybernetically-enhanced dwarfs, elves, and trolls freely roam. A little silly maybe, but I've always been struck by the power Shadowrun has to unite those who enjoy both fantasy and science fiction – which is sometimes tougher to do than you might think.

As for the system, the first thing I learned about Shadowrun is that it's a terrible idea to get into a fight. For all their nifty weapons, the combat penalties that rapidly accrue from injury can make individual characters quite squishy. I learned this for myself in my first ever run, when I tried to snipe a troll and ended up being murdered for my trouble. As I discovered later, the much smarter move would have been to actually hack the troll's brain – this is a thing that can be done in Shadowrun – and have him walk to the edge of the city where we could finish him in a back alley somewhere.

I ended up liking Shadowrun for pretty much the same reason that I like Demon's Souls and Dark Souls; the knowledge of having to be careful lest I suffer serious consequences. The rest of the group, however, had cut their teeth on the combat-heavy Dungeons & Dragons, which meant that our runs often ended in sadness. The one that stands out the most in mind, apart from the incident with the troll, is the time that I climbed into a getaway vehicle and realized that I hadn't devoted any points to driving. So I just sat there helplessly, waiting for enemy reinforcements to arrive. I finally had to burn an edge point to escape – Shadowrun's equivalent of the "oh crap" button.

Funnily enough, the only good Shadowrun video games to this point are both for 16-bit consoles. Obviously, both the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis were more than capable of supporting in-depth RPGs, as Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, and many others proved time and again. But the subject matter and the rather complex mechanics of Shadowrun nevertheless made it an odd fit for console experience of that era. To wit, Nintendo censored some of the language that would seem to go hand-in-hand with Shadowrun's cyberpunk trappings, like the references to hospitals as "chop shops" and the game's sexual innuendo.

That said, both versions manage to be faithful to Shadowrun in their own way. Over on their Kickstarter page, the Shadowrun Returns team specifically takes the time to praise the SNES game's conversation engine, which features discussions that will branch out depending on new information picked up from other discussions. The Genesis version, on the other hand, features a handful of major quests that can be accessed in any order, which feels appropriate for a system that prizes its open-endedness. Years later, BioWare would popularize much the same approach in its own games.

Both versions also grapple with the problem of the Matrix, which is a huge part of the original tabletop game, as well as quite complex. I remember poring over the sourcebook, memorizing the intricacies of battling hostile programs and breaking firewalls, and finally just resolving not to roll up a hacker. The Genesis version in particular remains pretty faithful to the original idea of the Matrix as its own world with its own rules. Running through cyberspace, stealing data files, battling ICs with offensive and defensive programs ... it's all there. Given the limits of the hardware of the time, I wouldn't have believed it possible.

The Shadowrun Returns team is wise to integrate that legacy into their new game, even going so far as to promise a musical score that will "resonate" like the memorable SNES and Genesis soundtracks. But I'm also glad to see that the series is returning to its roots and dropping the real-time action of the 16-bit games in favor of turn-based tactics. Such a step will offer Harebrained Schemes an opportunity to layer in the added mechanical depth that makes Shadowrun... Shadowrun.

For CRPG fans, I would think this would be an exciting moment. Shadowrun's scope is vast, and the thematically similar Deus Ex: Human Revolution can't come close to matching the overwhelming amount of detail accorded to the customization and the mechanics. It obviously won't be as high-profile as fellow Kickstarter project Wasteland 2 – apart from having its roots directly in the medium, Wasteland has raised double the money – but it will provide yet more evidence that there is still a market out there for a CRPG that is willing to kick your teeth in.

As recently as a couple years ago, I wouldn't have guessed that this project would have been possible. Mainstream turn-based tactical RPGs have more or less vanished. Even Dragon Age -- not turn-based, but still reasonably tactical -- has eschewed its formerly measured pace for a more immediate, more action-oriented system. There was just no way to pitch a game like Shadowrun to publishers in a form that fans would find palatable. Now we're getting pretty much everything we could ever want and more. Interesting times indeed.

Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.
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