By Nathaniel Jack Charpentier
The year is 2056 in Seattle, Washington. It’s three in the morning and you’re wide awake. The sounds of your stomach growling have woken you up and roused you from the sweat-stained fabric you call a bed. Stumbling over to your fridge, you open the door to the blinding light of emptiness. Even though you haven’t put anything in here, you are still surprised the ice box is empty. The second you get a few Nyuen to your name, you are going to load it up with all the beer and junk food you can. Your stomach growls again with increased agitation. You can’t even remember the last time you had a job, let alone the last time you earned some cash. The last run went somewhat drek so you decided to lay low for a while. In your absence, the shadows moved on, making getting new work difficult. What you wouldn’t give for a quick smash and grab.
Suddenly, your comp springs to life and illuminates your shitty squall. It’s an incoming message from your old crew member, Sam. His weathered face appears in the cracked screen as he finishes off the last of his beer. “Hoy, chummer. Been too long, eh?” You ask him what he wants at this hour, but he quickly holds up a hand. “No use in trying to talk back, friend. If you’re getting this message, I’m already dead. This is my Dead Man’s Switch.”
You didn’t particularly consider Sam the greatest friend in the world, but he was loyal, and damn good with an uzi. He saved your neck almost as much as you saved his, but it seems he has one last favor for you: Find out who killed him and bring them to justice.
A hiss and pop proceeds Sam opening another bottle. “You’re the only one I could ask this of,” he half slurs. “I’m counting on ya.” End message.
It’s three in the morning and you have nowhere to go, but down.
Welcome to the world of Shadowrun! A cutthroat, table-top, roleplaying game of bullets, blood, magic, and chrome. Here, fantasy is mixed with dystopia as mega corporations vie for control of a world reawakened with power. Existing in a future version of Earth, Shadowrun is about one thing and one thing only: Making money and not getting shot.
I friggin’ love Shadowrun. Ever since I first came into contact with this setting, I’ve been obsessed. Friends, family, complete strangers at the bus stop, all have been annoyed with my never ending praise of this world. However, a beautiful setting can only take you so far.
A while ago, I saw an advertisement for a new game on steam called “Shadowrun Returns”. It was a single player adventure designed after the Shadowrun table-top game. Normally, I stay away from digital D&D games. I stay away like I got a restraining order! Too often I find that they prance around as “The next evolution of Dungeons and Dragons!” But, like the mighty house cat, I am always curious. It’s not that I don’t want a digital D&D game. It’s simply that no one can do it justice. Or at least no one had yet.
Having just played the third installment from the studio, I can safely say “Shadowrun Returns” is an excellent game. It takes all of the wonderful potential and world building found its table-top counterpart, but then says “What if we just took out all the bullshit?”
The game itself at first appears standard issue. Isometric, role-playing PC game where you build a character, level up, and gain new abilities and weapons. However, it then declares it isn’t going to be like all the other games, grabs you by the hair, and immerses you in its rich world. Every installment has its own unique story with an immense cast of colorful and realistic characters for you to interact with. Each game takes place in a different section of the globe and shows how the world can be so different, yet so similar:
-Seattle’s grime covered streets both push you away and make you feel at home.
-Berlin’s amorphous nature both empowers your sense of individualism and threatens to destroy you.
-Hong Kong’s spiritual beliefs both makes you question what truly is real and reminds you of the importance of family.
Each of these stories left a lasting impression upon me, so much so that I can’t talk about only one. Instead, I will review all three as one large game. But first, I feel I must explain the original game.
Originally, the table-top version of Shadowrun is similar to Dungeons and Dragons. You get together with a few of your friends, build some characters, and then set off into the dystopic hellscape. Players take on the role of what is known as a “Shadowrunner”, a sort of mercenary for hire who will do almost anything for the right price. Jobs can come from anyone, anywhere, and can be as simple as stealing some electronic files or as complex as leveling an entire building. Along the way, the runners try their hardest to not get shot, stabbed, blasted, smoked, ganked, or even betrayed. Anything can happen and there are no easy jobs.
There are many things that make this setting enjoyable. For one, the fusion of fantasy and future makes a wonderful partnership. According to the lore, humanity experiences a reawakening of magic in the early 2000’s. Suddenly, certain people are able to blast fire from their hands or float through the air like a bird. Creatures once thought confined to the realm of myth and fable emerge in the city streets. Goblins, dragons, pixies, and ghosts shock and frighten the public. A few individuals actually change themselves as their bodies unexpectedly twist and contort. The lucky become sleek and beautiful elves while the unfortunate transform into monstrous trolls, orcs, and dwarves.
Overnight, the world becomes a very different place. But it doesn’t halt. Capitalism is still going strong and eventually takes over the planet in the form of a dozen or so Mega Corporations. Nationality goes out the window as borders fall to the power of the almighty dollar. Private enterprise rules and forces the world to step in line or fall to the wayside.
Fast forward a few decades and you are left with the year 2050, brimming to the top with fast cars, body augmentation, and system identification numbers.
Basically, picture Lord of The Rings with frag grenades and helicopters and you got a pretty good summary:
There is an unbridled freedom that comes in this fusion setting. In a single game, you can have one person playing a mystic elf whose clever enchantments deceive his foes while at the same time another player is a chromed out cyborg whose only concern is “Does this rocket launcher make my robot butt look big?”
Fun for the whole family.
Compared to traditional table-top games, Shadowrun can be rather complicated. There are several books to help you get started, but the system functions mainly on what is known as “Dice Pool”. You add up all your modifiers and roll an equal number of six sided die. Sometimes, you can roll upwards of thirty separate dice! Character creation is also a detailed process as you scour several books to find the best way to maximize your ideal character.
Now, I am no novice to table-top games. At the time of this article, I am currently running two separate campaigns of Dungeons and Dragons. At the risk of sounding cocky, I’m damn good at it. But recently I attempted to build myself a character in the table-top game to experience it firsthand.
It took over ten hours.
Afterwards, I was informed that I had built my character both incorrectly and poorly which sucked up another ten hours of my life.
Now, if you’re like me, handsome and intelligent, you also feel that is a bit excessive. In fact, you might just be a tad bit annoyed! Why on earth would someone spend over twenty hours of their life just to GET READY to play a game? Surely, there can be better alternatives?
While there may never be a perfect synthetic replacement for the wonders that is table-top gaming, there are some close contenders.
Enter “Shadowrun Returns” by Harebrained Schemes.
WARNING! Potential spoilers below. You’ve been warned, chummer.
The first game in the “Shadowrun Returns” series is a murder mystery set within Seattle, Washington. Players enter the game learning that an old friend of theirs has recently died. They then set off to find who did it and make them pay. As far as “Whodunnit” stories go, this one left me fantastically entertained. New clues and pieces of information were sprinkled in-between the high adrenaline combat, never leaving me bored. I sought victory not only to make my character stronger, but also to get one step closer to the truth. Eventually, my cold and cynical heart beat new blood into my chest as I truly wanted to avenge the death of my dearly departed, digital friend. Here I am, getting all invested and committed, when in real life I make up excuses when friends ask for help moving. At the end, when the dust had cleared and the final battle won, I bore a satisfied grin as I looked upon all I had done to reach success. I even got to punch this one cop in the face, which was super awesome because he was a total dick the entire game.
The second game released by Harebrained Schemes was “Shadowrun: Dragonfall”.
You start the game in Berlin midway through what is hoped to be a simple infiltration. You crew jokes around, discusses tactics, and talks about what they plan to do later that night. However, like previously mentioned, there are no easy runs. After the stuff hits the fan, you find yourself now leader of your team. Despite your new title, your crew partially blames you the trouble they are in. It is only slowly do they warm up to you, forcing you to earn their trust over time. Unfortunately, time is a commodity you just don’t have as the story unfolds into a doomsday plot involving dragons. You saddle up with your crew, make a few important decisions, and set off to stop Berlin from being wiped off the face of the map. Along the way, you come to highly regard these simulated crewmen. Their stories are complex and deep, moving me to actual emotion on several instances. Be it bonding with the punk rock shaman over our mutual enjoyment of destruction, or bro-ing it up over a successful plan with the orc sniper, I came to really care about these people.
And finally, the third game in the series is “Shadowrun: Hong Kong”.
Coming right at you with revamped gameplay, Hong Kong starts out with your character arriving in the new country, pockets empty and head full of questions. You had been summoned by your estranged foster father via a frantic and confusing digital message. Stepping off the boat, you are greeted by your foster brother and the two of you butt heads just like old times. But nostalgia can wait as the two of you are ambushed and chased into the sewers of Hong Kong. Your only means of survival is to seek help from those who run in the shadows. Before you know it, you’re leading your own team of illegal mercenaries, taking odd jobs to pay the bills and falling asleep to the grime of Hong Kong. Soon, you’re up to your eyes in conspiracy, murder plots, ancient folklore induced paranoia, and So. Much. Booze. What more can you want? Of all the exceptional NPC’s this game has to throw at you, my favorite had to be the elder Chinese gang leader who acted as my personal job finder. When she wasn’t slamming down shots of liquor, she was talking mad shit on all the other gang leaders. On several instance, I burst out laughing at some of the crazy insults she was slinging.
So what’s the verdict then? Why play this game instead of sitting down and experiencing the real deal? What’s the point? Many things, you impatient little questioner.
For one, a good role playing game is first and foremost judged on its story. I’ve been in many entertaining table top games, but their success depends on the world the Dungeon Master creates. The joy of playing a game created by a studio is that the weight is more evenly distributed. Don’t get me wrong, many RPGs today have terrible stories. “Shadowrun Returns” is a delightful exception. As shameless as it is to admit, I have even blatantly incorporated several story elements into my personal D&D games. In addition, the NPC’s all feel very real and if you play for too long you start to think you can hear them aloud.
The gameplay is rock solid, forgiving the occasional bug or glitch. Unlike its table-top predecessor, building a character in the PC game is a breeze. However, it still has potential for unique and creative builds. Combat is easy to learn, but consistently thrilling in the moment. You order your characters to duck behind cover, flank enemies, lay down cover fire, and summon powerful spirits to turn the tide of battle. In between missions, you collect your pay, investigate new leads, do a little shopping, and then prepare for your next job. As far as turn based combat games go, this one felt fast paced and engaging without fail.
Keeping the good, simplifying the bad
My personal favorite aspect of “Shadowrun Returns” is that it gave me the experience of playing Dungeons and Dragons without going through all the messy number crunching. Even though I am a certified genius, excessive calculation still bogs me down. This game gives you enough numbers to feel like you’re making estimated decisions, but then does all the combat and skill calculations in the background. Like a true bro, the game says “I got you, friend. You just play the game. I’ll roll all the dice.”
Like stated above, all three installments from Harebrained Schemes perfectly encapsulate the wondrous setting that is Shadowrun. Mages try to blast you with lightning, chromed out soldiers try to fill you with bullets, and dragons secretly control the world. Around every corner is another gold nugget of world building, whether it is a private email in a computer you’ve hacked or a conversation between two guards you’ve found encoded in a misplaced PDA. Each loading screen even has a short summary of your current situation, making special care to emphasize how tired, lucky, or pissed off you might be. The world is a bloody and dangerous place, so turn off your safety, grab your spell book, and make sure you aren’t being tailed.
Who do you want to be? A gun toting street samurai rushing into battle on his metal legs? The mysterious conjurer who spawns entities of pure fire to make escape easier? The savant hacker who employs battle drones to protect him while he breaks into the buildings security system? “Shadowrun Returns” is designed so that any concept you can have for a character is playable. Every time you hit “New Game”, you can be a radically different character or the same person in a different setting. I played each game multiple times and never played the same character twice. The only thing that carried over in my many incarnations was a love of disrespecting authority, and the game is quick to satiate my desires.
…So this is supposed to be a reference to the old Guess Who board game. Feel free to change this out if like… it’s not funny at all or doesn’t make sense.
So there you have it. Harebrained Schemes has done the impossible and made a D&D purist enjoy a digital D&D game. Naturally, it isn’t a direct computerized conversion, but it isn’t trying to be. “Shadowrun Returns” is a brilliant single-player game that allows veterans and newcomers alike to experience the awesome setting that is Shadowrun. While I will never swear off traditional table-top games, this was a nice change of pace and a fun journey in between my other adventures. I greatly enjoyed each installment of the series and will definitely return another day. After all, there’s always money to be made in the shadows…