Birb Friends Review: Shadowrun Returns (PC)

Shadowrun Returns Title Screen
Image credit to Harebrained Schemes, retrieved from the official Shadowrun Returns Steam page.

Shadowrun, as a setting and a world, has always fascinated me. A pulpy mixture of Tolkienesque high fantasy and the gritty noir flavor of Gibson’s cyberpunk, what else could an angsty adolescent male want? That is, besides a way to insert himself into that world without 50d6, vacant mouthbreathing stares, and that one decking player that always stalls the game for everyone else. (You know who you are…)

SR5 Cover Book
Image retrieved from the Shadowrun Tabletop Media Kit.

That’s right, Shadowrun is a tabletop RPG from back when the medium was in its prime. The first edition Shadowrun ruleset was released in 1989 and presented a world relentlessly steeped in the pop literature traditions of the time. Filled with quirky lingo like “chummer,” fantastical racial slurs like “dandelion eaters” (it’s for elves, if you were curious), and slang for new technological developments like “trid” (holographic 3D television), rereading the Shadowrun ruleset for the fifth time was a surefire way to impress your friends and immerse yourself in early 90’s cyberpunk.

At least it was if you were me… in middle school. I’ll confess, I exhausted every possible outlet for Shadowrun roleplaying that didn’t require social interaction. From the black ASCII screens of old school MUDs to the terrible first person shooter that made its way onto the scene in 2007, nothing filled the empty hole in my heart for Shadowrun. That’s why I, like so many others, was elated when the Kickstarter campaign was launched. A genuine Shadowrun CRPG complete with Steam Workshop support for a virtually limitless stream of content? Push that drek out, chummer! Shut up and take my credsticks!

The Streets of Seattle
Image credit to Catalyst Game Labs, retrieved by Birb Friends.

In terms of gameplay, it’s a pretty standard turn-based RPG with a classless progression system taken straight from the tabletop game. It’s sleek, slim, and easy to understand so I won’t explain it here, but it’s not revolutionary, and it’s not exciting. Some design choices also slow and detract from the experience, like how clearing a combat area doesn’t always return you to the exploration movement mode, so your characters have to individually scramble. That’s not to mention the fact that this game, a mystery game about underworld espionage and infiltration, has no dedicated stealth system… so there’s that. The game’s systems are hardly ever turned on their heads, and when they are it’s often more frustrating and stalling than anything else. Despite a variety of character builds being available, most will feel the same to the player, because player agency is practically nonexistent in terms of narrative progression. That’s not to mention that some builds are far superior to others because of a design choice made in the last few hours of the game! Don’t play a shaman. Seems like a fun idea, isn’t really worth it. Diversify in a few different attributes, and have some fun with the combinations. That’s where the system shines.

As for the narrative, it’s stock. Full of archetypal characters with no deviation, even less motivation, and average character growth if any at all. If you thought Bioware was the king of bland, you haven’t met developer Harebrained Schemes yet. Of course, this is their first outing, but pushing more funding and development into the narrative would have helped this game more than anything else. There’s only one consistent companion, Coyote, in the game, and while they’re complete, they aren’t interesting. To make Shadowrun Returns’ short story shorter, your buddy Sam kicked the bucket but the campaign’s eponymous “Dead Man Switch” triggers with the message that he has money if you can get to the killer. In need of the cash, you go through a few twists and turns along the way, say hello to familiar faces in unfamiliar places, then realize that the most interesting parts of this story happen elsewhere – without you. I’d comment on the use of symbolism, metaphor, et cetera, but it’s either so on the nose you might as well be a Proboscis monkey, or just not there. As interesting as the setting could be, this is not a tale to sweep you away.

The Seamstresses' Union
Image credit to Catalyst Game Labs, retrieved by Birb Friends.

Shadowrun Returns falls especially flat in the narrative department because of its often excessive, flowery, and purposeless walls of text. I understand that not every game can be voice acted, especially one made on a Kickstarter budget, but it would have helped push things along and draw my attention in a more immersive way than what I got. The music is passable but only passable. You’ll find no sweeping beautiful arrangements in Shadowrun Returns, just dingy electrified beats in songs reused as much as the syllable “du” in Darude’s Sandstorm. As for the graphics, they’re vibrant and often varied, but stereotypical for the cyberpunk genre. Occasionally, a setpiece will attract my eye, but never for more than a few moments. Beyond that, the character models look like something straight out of 2006, and their animations, with every character hunching awkwardly as they shuffle to the designated spot, aren’t much better. Still, everything in Shadowrun Returns is perfectly functional.

Shadowrun Returns Header
Image credit to’s Shadowrun Returns media page.

Shadowrun Returns is a run-of-the-mill tactical turn-based CRPG with a lackluster whodunnit narrative and everything else to match. Its greatest strength is its intriguing setting and its greatest weakness is how little time it dedicates to exploring and giving life to that setting. $15 is a little steep if you only plan to play the Dead Man’s Switch campaign, but with comprehensive modding tools, there’s plenty more to explore. That being said, Shadowrun Returns was followed by two successors that most agree are far superior, so before you buy, consider picking up Shadowrun: Dragonfall or Shadowrun: Hong Kong instead.

49/100 – Failing…


Save When You Trade: Money in Gaming

Save When You Trade - GameStop
A short infographic displaying GameStop’s used games sales model. (Image credit to GameStop, retrieved from their official trade page)

Paying for games has always been a dilemma for developers, publishers, and consumers alike. How can developers be properly reimbursed for their hard work and investment while also moving  to bigger and better works? Can they accomplish this without hurting the consumers they depend on? Where do publishers fit into this equation? The answers have changed over the years, and with the advent of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon, we may be in the midst of a new era right now.

Developers make the games and, as consumers, we need as much of our hard spent gaming money as possible to go towards making new and improved content we love in a way that we can find and consume it. That’s where publishers would normally step in to make sure that developers create consumable, profitable, and visible video games. In a less connected age, such as when Electronic Arts began its work as a publishing company, this was not only necessary but a great way for new developers to get out there. Now that the internet is taking front stage in transforming our business world, the game industry is starting to look more and more like the music industry. In the information age, video games are adopting a service model.

Premium Plans - Star Wars: The Old Republic
Subscription services are popular for many ongoing experiences such as MMOs, for access to a library of games such as with GameFly, and for game streaming services like Playstation Now. (Image credit to EA, BioWare, Lucasfilm, and all other holders, retrieved from Star Wars: The Old Republic’s buy page)

In the past, the music industry’s record labels served to help artists record, publish, and market their work but today many successful artists handle each of those aspects themselves, collaborating with others when needed. The indie scene is flush with creators like Chance the Rapper who have found their market without any sort of affiliation with a label. Music was once a product market in which the consumer purchased an album and kept it as their own, but has since transformed into a service market with streaming competitors like Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music. Piracy was a huge factor in forcing the shift towards streaming services. While gaming isn’t exactly the same, the pressures impacting creators decisions in gaming are very similar.

I’m curious how this shift will impact lower income gamers specifically. GameStop is the largest source of working used games in the United States and home to a plethora of forgotten and niche games just waiting to be discovered. For lower income gamers, it presents a selection of products within their price range that no other gaming company will, or perhaps can. Sadly though, GameStop is dying as digital downloads dominate game sales and physical copies become less desirable. It’s my belief that the gaming community should want to keep physical copies and GameStop alive due to their bolstering of diversity among game consumers, aid in cataloging and providing access to games from the past, and support of the cost effective console market.

GameStop Logo and Tagline
(Image credit to GameStop, retrieved from their official Logo Site)

For gaming, consoles have an undeniable advantage over computers: they cost a fraction of a gaming computer’s cost and last about as long if not longer. This is especially true if the console you buy is a refurbished unit from GameStop, so support GameStop with trade-ins (another way GameStop can reduce costs even for high income gamers), console purchases, and by rejecting the digital download future. Where GameStop fails is supplying developers with a direct profit line from their consumers. Some publishers and developers have even called GameStop and the entirety of the used game market piracy with extra steps (which it can be, but it’s not without its benefits… which I’ve listed above). If GameStop is the game industry solution to consumer friendliness, Kickstarter is the game industry solution to developer friendliness.

Kickstarter allows higher income consumers of video games to invest their money personally into projects of their choice without having to bother with a publisher. On the flip side, it also allows established industry minds to take on projects that would never be funded by a publisher through the financial support of their fan base. While this can lead to some terrible disappointments and wasted cash (I’m looking at you, Keiji Inafune and Mighty No. 9), it can also be a huge benefit to developers and consumers alike. With a much larger portion of profits heading to developers and a guaranteed install base, losing money would require a catastrophic or intentional failure on the developers part. This means that when games succeed, everyone wins big! Projects like Shovel Knight, Yooka-Laylee, Hyper Light Drifter, Shantae: Half Genie Hero, and the innumerable and high quality CRPGs from Kickstarter prove just what a great tool it can be for the industry. Patreon is similar, but instead provides a path for service based monetization.

So the next time you buy a game, think about where your money’s going and how you can make the most out of it, not just for yourself but for the rest of us, too. Let your wallet do the talking!