Back in the day, RPGs were a big deal. The spirit of the genre, rooted in the tabletop roleplaying games, kind of lends itself to 'filling in the blanks' - where you get a description of a place or situation and use your imagination to paint a picture rather than being bludgeoned with wonderful graphics. As technology moves forward, naturally, this need to fill in your own details has become less necessary - there's a pretty big divide between Kylearan's tower in Skara Brae and the College of Winterhold, for instance.
Not that I'm knocking the modern RPG. Losing yourself for days in the lush beauty of Skyrim, where everything is painstakingly detailed from the roughest cobblestones to the finest golden jewelry, is one of life's greatest pleasures. But there is still room for the old-school, where skilled writing and careful, artistic storytelling can evoke the imagination as well as any big-budget graphics.
Shadowrun Returns. The name gives you a clue. We've seen this before. Kind of. See, Shadowrun was originally a fantasy-cyberpunk tabletop RPG that was big in the early nineties. Characters can be elves and wizards, trolls and shamans, but they can also be computer hackers, robotics experts or bionic street commandos. It's a grim future where traditional fantasy roleplaying has spilled over. It either works for you as a genre or it doesn't. Anyway, it’s an obvious choice for a videogame setting as well, and there have been a couple through the years, ranging from the obvious RPGs to a bemusing online shooter set in a slightly different timeline to the RPG. But after all this fiddling around, Shadowrun Returns returns to its roots.
(That was just so I could say 'Returns returns' and have it still make sense. I've got to get my kicks somehow).
Here's the good news: Shadowrun Returns brought to mind two games for me, and those games were Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment. All of these games have an isometric viewpoint with an open character development style and fairly similar combat styles, and all have exquisite storytelling, involving plots and immersive worlds. Because great stories need more than just great settings - there are enough horrible movie tie-ins to prove that point. It's all to do with how you use the tools that world gives you. Planescape did such a good job with this, I don't think it's overstating it to describe it as legendary among RPG fans. To my mind, though, Shadowrun Returns isn't far behind.
It's the little things, really. Every time you return to your home base and chat with the person who sells you medical supplies, for instance, they're different. One time they may be described as overworked and haggard, and then next time they could be dwelling on past mistakes or something, and usually you can chat to them about what's going on. Suddenly the merchants become actual characters, not just 'Ho there, traveller! I have healing potions for 5 gold!" every time you click on them.
In between scenes you're treated to a couple of paragraphs of reminder-backstory, and descriptive text, which can be really useful when coming back from a saved game. As with the rest of the game this stuff is all masterfully written, and serves the game far better than just a flowery screen shot and a 'pro-tip' reminding you to search bodies or whatever.
For the asking price, Shadowrun Returns is a terrific, absorbing roleplaying game that takes its design cues from the masterpieces of old. But it's not without the occasional flaw. Firstly - and this is going to sound ridiculous after everything I've just said - it's not the greatest eye candy. I know! I'm a horrible hippocrite! But bear with me. Because for the most part, the fairly simplistic graphics don't really detract too much. But when you're jacked into the Matrix, the visual aspect of monsters built from data and a landscape of information is sort of important. It's here that the graphics just feel like they could have used perhaps a little more in the way of imagination. There are occasional glitches too - Sometimes the end-of-turn counter gets confused, resulting in combat turns that never end. Other times the music cocks up a bit when the map moves around. These are just tiny optimisation issues, really, though.
Speaking of the music, prepare to be transported. Back in time, to the mid nineties, a dystopian landscape or trancey warehouses and bug-eyed ravers who need to ask everyone they meet if they're having a good night. It matches the kind of 'futuristic a couple of decades ago' style of cyberpunk pretty well though, in a wry way.
The game saves at the end of each map, but if you die in-mission, it's back to the start every time. While this makes you play a little more carefully and ramps up the tension occasionally, it can be infuriating on some of the harder levels, particularly when you're just blown away by bad luck, sustaining a few critical hits in a row, when you've nearly reached the exit.
It's always wise to reward success and starve failure, as the wise Sun Tzu wisely said, wisely. Shadowrun Returns has great writers, so there's a lot of text to read, and no voice acting really. But with skilled voice actors I think it could have been even more engrossing.
Sometimes, games come along that, sure, they occupy your time for a while, but once you're done playing, they go away. Out of sight, out of mind. Then there are games that you think about while you're falling asleep, then the next day in the shower, then on the way to work, then all day at work, then on your way home again... Shadowrun Returns held my attention utterly.
Then the bonus little gobbet of beauty, that just makes the whole thing even better? The construction kit has been thrown wide open, and new adventures and campaigns can be imported from the Steam Workshop once the original campaign is complete. This allows players to continue their adventures for as long as people are inspired to continue creating scenarios, just like the tabletop roleplaying game from which it came. Inspired by the past but looking to the future – a fitting accolade for a cyberpunk RPG.