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Shadowrun Returns review: Hack the planet


There is no single word in the English language more objectively radical than "cyberpunk." One could even describe the word as "awesome" or "gnarly" or any number of other terms that really should have died off around the time MTV stopped playing music videos. Cyberpunk may not have been invented in the 1990s, but it's the perfect symbol for the goofy excesses of the decade. At one point, the sort of techno-fetishist fantasy seen in the Shadowrun pen and paper game was the height of geek cool, and the newly released Shadowrun Returns either stands as proof that it is still is, or that we collectively spend far too much time pining for the Clinton administration.

The world of Shadowrun Returns is best described as a hybrid of cyberpunk noir and Tolkien-esque fantasy. Almost every important event takes place in or around the particularly-cool-circa-1994 city of Seattle, and you can expect to see orcs casting spells just as often as you'll spot elves who've traded half of their flesh for cybernetic implants. You play the role of a hardened "shadowrunner" (think: cyberpunk mercenary) who has been hired by a recently deceased friend to track down the people who killed him. For the most part the story follows traditional noir plot points from there on out. You investigate the scene of the crime, track down the victim's sister and uncover a massive conspiracy that wouldn't seem out of place in a Mickey Spillane novel (were it not for the horse-sized, immortal space bugs you periodically encounter).

Gallery: Shadowrun Returns | 21 Photos

Despite these clichéd conventions, the writing in Shadowrun Returns is excellent, at least within its setting. In fact, the game's text is often better than many of the official Shadowrun novels. Almost every dialogue option presented to players offers a unique response from the game's characters, and while the story is linear, this leads to some clever exchanges. In particular, there's a cop, a towering orc named McKlusky, who harasses your character throughout the game. He always has it out for you, but softens a bit once he realizes you're fighting on the side of the angels. You could be nice and make a new friend, but if your intelligence is high enough the game offers you the chance to distract him before knocking him out. In most games that would be a simple "hey look!" followed by a punch, but in Shadowrun Returns you get a full, violent description of your avatar driving his or her knee through the officer's once-solid nose, then smirking about it. It's brutal, but delightful and apropos for the setting.

The developers at Harebrained Schemes (which includes Jordan Weisman, creator of the Shadowrun pen and paper game) clearly love this world, and the meticulous attention to detail feels tonally perfect for the sort of gritty, neon-drenched world Shadowrun traditionally depicts. The writing in Shadowrun Returns may not be Shakespeare, but it does compare favorably to the dime store detective novels that serve as its obvious inspiration. Anyone who has any experience with Shadowrun, whether it be via the pen and paper game, the classic SNES and Genesis role-playing titles, or the more recent Xbox 360 and PC shooter, will immediately recognize the key themes in this game, and if they appeal to you, you'll likely cherish the adventure.

If that last sentence seemed to have a hopeful tone, it's because that's the part of Shadowrun Returns that people should focus on. Please, if you take anything away from this review, let it be that the writing is really, really good. Why emphasize this? Simply put, in its other areas, Shadowrun Returns is spartan. The visuals are relatively simplistic and there's no voice work to speak of. The only sounds you'll hear are gunshots, grunts of pain, and an omnipresent soundtrack that, while perfectly suited for the game's ambiance, comes off as a bit muted and is very easy to inadvertently ignore.

One could also easily describe the gameplay in Shadowrun Returns as simplistic. You click to talk to other characters, click to open doors, and click to attack enemies. If you're so inclined, it's entirely possible to play the game purely via mouse. As you accrue experience you can spend points on any of the game's skills, which, when the appropriate ranks have been reached, unlock new abilities. One ability might allow a character to aim his or her shot, while another might permit them to create an ethereal wall of light. Each of these actions requires a certain amount of Action Points to perform, and in practice combat plays out like an action-focused, turn-based strategy title. Though simple, this design proves a solid skeleton on which to flesh out a quality story, and again, Shadowrun Returns offers players exactly that.

The same could be said for Shadowrun Returns' simplistic presentation. The spartan graphics and sound work nicely for the setting, and the gameplay systems seen in Shadowrun Returns are efficient, clean and serve their purpose quite well – especially when you consider the game's relatively modest budget.

All this text, and we still haven't covered the most important reason for Shadowrun Returns to exist: its potential to create a massive, thriving community. The adventure vaguely described above is only a single module contained within the overarching Shadowrun Returns framework. Harebrained Schemes designed this title with a sort of plug and play functionality that makes it easy to load up any sort of modifications the community has created. When combined with the intuitive editor included with each copy of Shadowrun Returns, you have the perfect recipe for a game to live well beyond its retail shelf-life with the support of a devoted community creating new modules. It's only potential at the moment, but if the community continues to grow, Shadowrun Returns could become the next Neverwinter Nights.

If you haven't picked up on it by now, all of those references to the 90s were a sly way of insinuating that Shadowrun Returns succeeds because, beyond its cyberpunk leanings, it's also a mash-up of many concepts born in that halcyon decade. It's very much of its time, but for many of us, its time was pretty great. Children of the 90s will adore its blatant homages to classic BioWare role-playing games and the general feeling of angsty, grunge-fueled cool. Younger generations may not appreciate it the same way, but for anyone with a closet full of flannel shirts and Sub Pop albums, Shadowrun Returns is like Arsenio Hall-flavored catnip.

This review is based on a Steam download of the Mac version of Shadowrun Returns, provided by Harebrained Schemes. Shadowrun Returns is also available on PC. Linux, iOS and Android versions are in development.

Earnest "Nex" Cavalli is a freelance journalist with a mercenary's outlook and the cheekbones of a Greek god. His latest work appears on The Escapist and in the Portland Mercury, and he generally smells very nice. You can follow him on Twitter, which didn't exist in the 90s, @ecavalli.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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