Old school pen and paper role-players have probably spent some time with Shadowrun. It was a brilliant melding of cyberpunk and fantasy, where orcs, trolls, humans, elves, and dwarves mingled with magic and technology in a universe that was as much about hacking networks as slinging fireballs. The biggest problem with the game—certainly its initial few releases—was the obscure rules that went with it.
Non-RPG nerds might also remember the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis Shadowrun games, though hopefully not the awful Xbox 360 multiplayer-only attempt to revamp the franchise. After the Xbox version tanked, the creator of the game, Jordan Weisman, went back to the game’s roots with a Kickstarter project to create a classic-style isometric RPG based on the universe. The result is Shadowrun Returns.
More specifically, the result is a terrific example of how and why so many of the mid-to-late ’90s role-playing games are still considered some of the best ever. Shadowrun Returns is very similar in style to Black Isle Studio classics like Baldur’s Gate, but the feel of the universe makes it stand out against any would-be competition.
Originally released on the PC, point-and-click RPGs like Shadowrun make remarkably smooth jumps to a touchscreen. Touch controls just feel natural for a game like this and the ability to have a true tactical RPG on the go is nothing to sneer at. Shadowrun is very much in the noir style of storytelling. Players take the role of a down on his/her luck shadow runner (the game’s version of an adventurer) who must venture to Seattle and solve the mystery behind the death of an old friend.
There’s no spoken dialogue here—it’s all text and there’s a lot of it. Given all the plot building text and wide variety of characters to interact with, Shadowrun Returns almost feels like an interactive novel at times. If this doesn’t scare you off, however, there’s a meaty 10-12 hour mystery here that is well worth getting wrapped up in.
Exploring the various locations in Seattle’s urban sprawl is done in real time. Here you can search for hidden items, talk to the many denizens of the town, and get assigned new missions. There’s plenty to do and the Seattle setting has a great, moody feel to it. It’s all neon and grunge—just how the future was viewed in the ’80s.
The graphics are closer to hand-drawn 2D than most modern games tend to be, and there’s a nice sense of depth and style. Since the game isn’t actually 3D, camera controls are limited to zooming in and out. The downside to this is that obstacles can get in the way, especially during combat. Combat is turn-based and tactical. It’s easy to learn and mostly intuitive, although subcommands like using items and reloading can be confusing at first.
The player controls every character in their party, though the core character is the one you create from scratch. One notable issue with the initial release is that the game doesn’t yet support either the adventure-making toolkit that comes standard with the PC version, or the ability to download and play user-made levels. Developer Harebrained Schemes says they are working on a solution, however, so it’s not a huge issue. Even without the option of downloadable user levels, there’s enough play value here to warrant the price.
Putting all the obscure rules of the game system into the background where the player never has to deal with them puts the great world to the forefront, and makes Shadowrun Returns a unique and welcome release. It’s a well-written and involving murder mystery that looks and feels great on the iPad.