Shadowrun Returns is not simply a PC game based on the popular pen-and-paper cyberpunk-meets-magic role-playing game. It's a digital sourcebook geared at harnessing the imagination of thousands of fans in order to power the creation of an entire universe of interactive adventures.
It's a player's handbook, introducing the gamer to the professions suitable for survival in the shadowy underbelly of this high-tech, magical, corporate-run future Earth. Street Samurai brandishing swords and smartguns and so much cyberware they barely qualify as human. Riggers, technomancers with a strong affinty for seemingly mindless machines. Deckers, ninjas of the information superhighway. Shamen, Mages and Adepts — awakened souls capable of harnessing the magic of this twisted new world.
There's a starting adventure included to help players get their bearings, a ten hour romp through the streets of Seattle, searching for the killer of a long-time chummer. In Shadowrun terms it's a pretty standard tale, expertly-crafted by some of the talent behind the original RPG supplements and novel series. They'll meet some of the biggest names in the setting's fiction and encounter (in my opinion) one of the most frightening foes the franchise has to offer.
And they'll familiarize themselves with the way this virtual world works. Exploration is via mouse, like so many classic isometric role-playing games before it. Combat is turn-based tactics. Finding cover is important in a firefight. Spells work better when the caster is standing on or near a powerful ley line. Grenades fly, elementals are summoned, unleashing their fury at a price — there's always a chance they could break free and turn on the party.
Deckers (I started as one) will get plenty of opportunities to enter cyberspace, a world of glowing lines where data and security access can be earned, but not before hostile programs and rival Deckers are dealt with. In these instances the game swaps between realities once every turn, giving the folks in the real world a chance to protect their technophile until the job is done.
The game is solid, but not without flaws, the largest of which being a lack of looting (fallen enemies rarely drop anything) and the goddamned checkpoint save system. This is not an easy game — there are no cakewalks in Shadowrun — and having to go through three or four battles all over again to reach the point where you died is one of the biggest sucks I've encountered all year. I would also love a multiplayer component, but for now my AI companions will have to suffice.
If this starting adventure were all there was to Shadowrun Returns, I'd be somewhat disappointed. Thankfully there's much more here than a player's handbook.
Shadowrun Returns is also a game master's guide.
Just as some role-players crack open the player's handbook and immediately start rolling characters, there's a special breed that goes straight for the game master's guide in order to learn how to craft their own adventures. They are a noble and incredibly sexy group, and I say that knowing full well that one day my virtual life may depend on the mercy of their die rolls.
For these special players, Shadowrun Returns is a creation tool, where the stories that have been strutting the gritty alleyways of their imagination can finally be set free. There is a rich suite of building tools included with the game. I've looked at them. They are not for me.
Luckily they do not have to be for me. Already, on the day of the game's launch, the Steam Workshop features a couple of quick-and-dirty adventures, including a module recreating the first map from the classic Super Nintendo Shadowrun game. There are GM tools for creating random encounters, or adding persistant, lootable corpses to an adventure. These creative masterminds were cocked and loaded for this game, and the potential I'm sensing from these meager initial offerings has me physically tingling with excitement.
Harebrained Schemes' Jordan Weisman was there, way back in 1989, when his FASA released the first Shadowrun sourcebooks into the world, sowing the seeds of decades of tabletop role-playing adventures. It must have felt a lot like the release of Shadowrun Returns.
Shadowrun Returns is now available on Steam for $19.99, $39.99 for the deluxe version for PC or Mac. Tablet version coming soon.