There was a magic period in computer gaming that lasted approximately from 1996 to 2002. This golden age produced an unprecedented smorgasbord of the most immersive, complex, imaginative, and yet refined games to ever grace personal computers. Before console limitations (accessibility and control scheme) began to pollute computer game design, before the annoyance of DRM, and even before the prevalence of crowd sourcing and social media campaigns, the personal computer was experiencing its renaissance thanks to the spread of affordable graphics cards and Windows compatibility. During this period I was grateful to experience such monumental releases as Thief, Diablo, System Shock 2, Half-Life, Age of Empires II, Deus Ex, and StarCraft. But the games that really captured my attention were the RPGs, notably those in the isometric perspective with complex, turn-based mechanics derived from or influenced by tabletop RPGs. These games were rich in lore, dripping with character drama, and with a narrative presentation so heavily built around reading chunks of text that it felt like a perfect marriage between interactive fiction and a dungeon crawl. Of course I refer to games like Baldur’s Gate, its sequel, and their expansions, the first two Fallout games along with Fallout Tactics, and Planescape: Torment. While other, more recent CRPGs—such as Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Skyrim--have tried to draw me in as completely as these classics, each have failed to captivate me. Alas, I’ve been looking in the wrong places. The shiny AAA games from multibillionaire publishers aren’t even trying to provide the same sort of role-play experience, but smaller studios and indies just might be. And this is where Shadowrun Returnscomes in.
Designed by Jordan Weisman—the creator of the Shadowrun tabletop RPG—and with a story written by Michael A. Stackpole—science fiction novelist known for the Star Wars: X-Wing novels among others--Shadowrun Returns transports me back to that golden age of CRPGs. Mixing elements of cyberpunk with urban fantasy, the game takes place in a near future Earth in which magic has returned, changing some humans into fantastic creatures, yet maintaining the concept of megacorporations as corrupt, and all-encompassing, defacto government entities. Able to draw from the rich lore of the Shadowrun tabletop RPG, the city of Seattle is teeming with character. The default campaign, “Dead Man’s Switch,” is essentially a hardboiled detective mystery full of the typical genre tropes such as the cynical protagonist of questionable morality, the femme fatale, the red herring, and frequent plot twists. Despite the heavy use of tropes and what turned out to be a surprisingly linear tale, the narrative is strong enough to draw me in. In a time when gamers are spoiled with voice acting, a text-heavy game must be interesting, rich in content, and well-written to captivate the player, but Shadowrun Returns succeeds in this respect.
Although I would prefer a more open-ended RPG with lots of optional side missions, and although the dialog choices exist mostly to add personal flavor to the experience without any real narrative effects, I thoroughly enjoyed Shadowrun Returns. The game proves to a worthy successor to CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Fallout in a time when RPGs of their ilk seem sorely lacking.