Monday, April 14, 2014

Shadowrun Returns!

As S. C. Barrus wrote in a guest post, crowdfunding has facilitated the re-emergence of the isometric RPG as a viable market segment in the crowded field of video games. Though primarily developed for PC/Mac, tablets are a natural home for these games. After all, most can be programmed by a relatively small group of developers (and thus sold for a pricepoint mobile gamers will tolerate), while featuring point-and-click gameplay that translates well to multitouch and doesn't require a hell of a lot of computing power to run smoothly. And the consumers these games target--nostalgic 30-somethings who want to relive a 90s gameplay experience--are, as far as I can see, slowly gravitating away from attention-requiring console or PC gaming and towards something that better fits a life defined by constant multitasking. Shadowrun Returns, then, seems a perfect fit for iOS and Android--and, indeed, most elements of the 2013 PC/Mac hit translate well. More on that in a bit. First, though, some background...

The '90s ruled, man
Shadowrun Returns is based on the famous pen-and-paper RPG Shadowrun, as well as the legendary 1993 isometric adaptation for SNES. The basic premise of Shadowrun is to put AD&D races/classes into a near-future cyberpunk universe, so that elves, trolls, shamans and mages quest alongside "runners" (people who go on "dungeon" crawls in corporate offices) and "deckers" (people who hack into "the matrix").

The original iterations produced remarkably balanced and deep gameplay, but 2007's ill-fated attempt to turn extract a console FPS out of the beloved franchise sparked anger and consternation among fans clamoring for something more faithful to the original vision. Enter Jordan Weisman, developer of the pen-and-paper game (as well as Heroclix and BattleTech), and Kickstarter. One year and $1.8 million in donations later, Weisman's studio Harebrained Games released Shadowrun Returns for PC/Mac. By the end of 2013, an iOS version hit the market.

...with elves!
Shadowrun Returns is, like the 1993 SNES classic, a true isometric RPG--featuring turn-based squad combat, highly customizable character classes, balanced gameplay and a well-developed and engaging story. Rather than attempt a modernization, Harebrained smartly doubled-down on the early 90s cyberpunk nostalgia--evident in everything from character hairstyles to the goofy drum-n-bass music triggered by combat. The result is a highly enjoyable, addictive experience that hits the right note of nostalgia for life-long Shadowrun fans, as well as those who, like me, cut their teeth on PC games during the 90s (and 80s).

On the other hand...

There are, however, some issues I'd like Hairbrained to address in the sequel. First off, I experienced some stability issues: freezing, crashing and so forth. After some online consultation, I learned that these could be mitigated by putting the iPad on airplane mode and closing all other apps. It did work, but eh...this kind of thing should have been dealt with in beta, no?

Of course, that might have just been a minor annoyance if it weren't for the game's frustrating "checkpoint only" save system. I guess the PC/Mac version has already been patched to allow for quick saving, but iOS has not. Though Shadowrun Returns is not a large game, a few of the levels could have benefited from some extra checkpoints--especially considering the game's propensity to crash. Going back and replaying 30+ minutes five times and not by choice is retro in the wrong way.

It's a testament to how fun this game is, though, that I didn't quit in frustration. I found myself thinking about the game when I wasn't playing, and waking up an extra half hour early so I could get a level in before the day began. Last game I did that for was Skyrim, and that's basically my favorite video game ever.

See, Shadowrun Returns isn't perfect, but it's a hell of a good time, and a great way to relive the good old days without the crappy hardware.

Tips and Vitals

If you decide to buy a copy of Shadowrun Returns, you may naturally wonder whether it's better on PC/Mac or iOS/Android. I can't speak to the PC/Mac version, but I will say that the touch interface was solid but at times less responsive than I would have liked. And I do think a two-button mouse would have come in handy. On the other hand, I spend most of the day hunched over in front of a computer screen. When relaxing, I prefer to be on the couch, with my feet up and either a controller or mobile device in my hands. So in that sense the trade-off worked in my favor; the iOS port is definitely good enough to justify not sitting at a computer desk.

After committing to iOS/Android, though, there's still the question of phone vs. tablet. Some games naturally work better on one or the other (e.g. FPS on phone; adventure games on tablet). Bottom line, I think Shadowrun Returns is clearly made for tablets, and would feel cramped on a phone. But maybe that's just my fat thumbs talking.

Once you've gone procured the game and fired it up, you are faced with a host of character creation questions. My character, "Nerd," was officially a shaman (dude who can summon creatures under certain conditions) but was fairly balanced between summoning, decking and the use of ranged weapons. I also made him a tank, which helped a lot towards the end of the game. By the time you can select your own party, however, you realize that the easiest rode involves balance among characters, rather than within them.

It's okay to be a jack-of-all-trades, as I was, but every party needs one straight up soldier (armed with a shotgun, which is immensely overpowered). Coyote, who you meet in the course of the game, will do for this role--so keep her close. And it's vital you hire a decker--unless you are one yourself. I also found support mages useful for the fourth and final slot--someone who can up your accuracy, lay down fire or lightning fields if you get attacked from both sides and, crucially, heal squadmates without spending precious medpacks. Conversely, I found specialized shamans and assassins basically worthless.

Oh, and one other piece of advice: defensive tactics are your friend, particularly in the matrix.

Enjoy the ride, chummers...

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for balanced, lively isometric retro; +1 for the 90s are back, man!

Penalties: -1 for stability issues; -1 for stupid checkout-only save system.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10. "Well worth your time and attention."