Shadowrun Returns is the name of this classic-style isometric role-playing game, but it's really just a venue for telling stories in its long-dormant sci-fi/fantasy universe. What you're really getting when you buy it is a short but well-written tale of murder and conspiracy called The Dead Man's Switch, access to what will probably become a fertile ground for community-created content in the future, and just enough of an isometric roleplaying game and turn-based tactical combat to get by.
Returns is set in an alternate future in which magic returned to the world in 2012, bringing elves, witches, and dragons along with it. Shadowrunners are the smugglers, mercenaries, freelance ghost busters, and master hackers for hire that make their way in between the cracks of the magitech-meets-futuretech dystopia. The player takes on the role of one such 'runner, on the trail of an old friend's killer while putting together a diverse team of up to four to pay the bills. This takes place across a top-down, isometric world supported by turn-based combat and text-based dialog trees.
Shadowrun Returns serves as sequel, reboot and homage all in one. It's a game that acknowledges the storylines of the previous games - both the SNES and Megadrive versions were completely different - while broadening its scope. Familiar gameplay systems also return, subtly evolved by modern design thinking.
The Dead Man's Switch's story briskly and entertainingly twists itself into something much bigger and more sinister than the whodunit it begins as. Though its characters aren't particularly novel, they are colorfully written in a style that matches their expressively drawn portraits and compensates for the lack of voice acting. The text could definitely use a copy editor, though, and its many grammar errors and typos can get distracting.
While the storytelling has its ups and downs, combat is definitely a strength for Shadowrun Returns. With a diverse crew, any given round of combat could see you summoning a spirit, throwing a concussion grenade to force your enemies to skip a turn, and unloading with machine gun fire. All this while your Decker (read: super hacker) is in cyberspace, represented by a completely different map, trying to complete a combat mini-game to cut off the enemy reinforcements. Early on, most fights will feel like pushovers (and too far between), but some of the later encounters can be on par with XCOM: Enemy Unknown's Classic Mode. Even with the best party and the best gear, a couple of small mistakes could kill you.
Stories are Shadowrun's selling point, and are also what makes it more than just a nostalgic rehash of former glories. The "Dead Man's Switch" quest that ships with the game is a delight, but it's also just the beginning. Shadowrun Returns also comes with an editor, through which fans can create their own content for the game, and construct their own campaigns. In doing so, the game reaches back beyond even the original SNES title and engages with the 1989 tabletop RPG that started it all.
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