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.