Cyber-elves and samurai hacker dwarves aside, Shadowrun Returns ain’t quite what I’d hoped for.

When I play an RPG I want a basquillion meaningless optional extras. I want to rifle through people’s kitchen cupboards. I want to hoard bits of string just in case. I want to smuggle live grenades into the pockets of smug bastards. I want to hero the hell out of everybody’s problems while simultaneously selling their possessions to keep up a spiralling amphetamine habit. (In the game.)

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This is not that kind of RPG – this is RPG lite. Those of you hoping to find opportunities for creative diversification, turn back: if there is something interesting to do, Shadowrun Returns will bink you on the nose with it.

Ditto if you’re looking for loot drops. My dopamine receptors were crying out for loot drops, but no. No loot drops for me: Shadowrun hands out the goods bit by bit, and tightly controls the money you have to spend on getting it. What you’re hearing just now is the sound of my indefatigable sobbing. (Call me petty, but I like finding items organically, not through a glorified dispenser.)

Cybernetic augmentations do a little to make up for the crippling lack of loot drops.

Cybernetic augmentations do a little to make up for the crippling lack of loot drops.

I think I get why play is pared back like this. It’s straightforward and aerodynamic, and this works on a level because it dispenses with grind and burnishes the combat and the story. But I don’t want to play clean. I want to play messy. I want to wing it.

Most importantly, I want to explore. Poking about new places is one of my favourite things to do, both in games and out there in, y’know, meatspace. Shadowrun has moments of exploration, but they’re too shallow, too choreographed, too puzzle-piece neat. This game doesn’t make me feel like I’m part of its world; it makes me feel like I’m being railroaded through a series of set pieces. Which I am.

The locales of Shadowrun Returns have just the right atmosphere; it's a pity they're little more than backdrops.

The locales of Shadowrun Returns have just the right atmosphere; it’s a pity they’re treated mostly as bit-parts.

Those set pieces are invariably combat-centric; this is for the most part just dandy, because the fighting has a lot to offer. It’s a turn-based affair in which action points buy you time – time to pull a trigger, time to lob a grenade, time to run to the semi-cover of a crate. It’s deeply tactical and rewarding; plenty of yay.

The trouble is the game’s checkpoint-based save system. For all the attempt to streamline the game and do away with arbitrary grinding, Shadowrun’s save system makes me want to choke my computer with the goddamn force. The game saves at the beginning of each scene; that’s it. You can restart a scene, or “rewind” to the beginning of an earlier scene.

So if you screw up and want to try that move again, off to the start you go. (And gods help you if you miss something crucial – like I did – and have to back up a scene.) Yes, in one sense this keeps the action flowing by making it impossible to save-spam your way through every situation – but the punishment of having to redo sections just throat-slams the flow anyway. Being forced to slog through stuff you’ve already done is not just annoying, it’s a serious design flaw that should be killed with napalm.

Hacking – or “decking” in Shadowrun parlance – is pretty much combat with virtual pants on.

Hacking – or “decking”, in Shadowrun parlance – is pretty much combat with virtual pants on.

And then there’s that story. It’s fun but hackneyed, a cyberpunk gumshoe mystery complete with serial killers, evil corporations, and foreshadowing so forceful it stings like a salted towel. The wordsmithing reaches some excellent heights, but it degenerates into error-riddled ham at points – especially the dialogue, which takes turns into deeply suspect territory and snaps any sense of interacting with real characters.

I guess I’m trying to tell you that I don’t really care for Shadowrun Returns. (Can you tell?) I love the universe, and I love RPGs – particularly RPGs with awesome isometric graphics – but this is not my kind of game, flawed or no.

“And I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn't been for you meddling kids.”

“And I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids.”

I must emphasise what I’m trying to say: Shadowrun Returns is not my kind of game. Technical issues aside, though, it’s not a bad game. If you don’t have my admittedly subjective expectations of RPGs, chances are you’ll enjoy it – especially when you consider the wealth of player-made campaigns that are sure to come.

If you’re looking for a game that’s more Fallout Tactics than Fallout 2, give this one a bash.

Shadowrun Returns is available on Steam for US$19.99.

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