The quick bits:
Available - on PC and iDevices (reviewing PC version)
Price - $19.99
Game length - 14.5 hours so far
tl;dr - cyberpunk meets high fantasy with more options in combat than the recent XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Shadowrun Returns (SRR) is one the first in a batch of franchise revivals on Kickstarter. Over the past few years we've seen a lot of old-school franchises brought back, some with incredible success (DKC Returns, XCOM) and others with not so much success (Syndicate). I'm still eagerly anticipating Wasteland 2 and Torment, but Shadowrun Returns is important because in a lot of people's eyes, it will "prove" to people if Kickstarter is a viable route for developers to take when they want to revive an old game.
To start things off, I'll admit that I'm not a Shadowrun fan. I never played the old SNES or Genesis titles, nor did I play the most recent Xbox 360 shooter. The setting for Shadowrun is cool, and I vaguely remember thumbing through a few of the pen-and-paper sourcebooks years ago, but I'm not a follower of the material. So, if you're looking for me to tell you how faithful SRR is to the original games or the PnP RPG, I'm not the guy. I am, however, both a veteran and a big fan of old-school RPGs.
Shadowrun Returns is an isometric RPG reminiscent of Jagged Alliance, Fallout 1 and 2, or Baldur's Gate. There are text-based dialog trees, side quests, and combat is turn-based and tactical. If your concept of "RPG" is Skyrim or Dragon Age, the gameplay will feel distinctly old-school, but that's kinda what the fans who Kickstarted the game want.
When you start a new campaign, you create a new character. After you pick gender, race, and class (or no class at all), you distribute your Karma to level up skills of your choice. Races are more diverse than many RPGs. You have humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, and trolls, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. The three most familiar class archetypes would be a melee fighter, a ranged fighter, and a mage. But Shadowrun Returns also has deckers, who hack security systems and electronics, shamans, who have their own brand of magic including summoning creatures, adepts, who are like kung-fu monks, and riggers, who use robot companions to survey and fight.
And of course, you can be a mix of these. Your character can be a decker who is also great with throwing weapons or a melee-focused troll who dabbles in magic. My starting character is a mage who can also snipe from a distance with rifles. There are a lot of options and thankfully, the breadth of options do actually make a difference when it's time for battle. Levelling up is different than most games. You don't have "levels" per se, just stats. When you complete objectives you get Karma points which can be spent on stats or skills. The cost of levelling up a stat or skill is simply the number of its next rank. Going to 2 in Charisma costs 2 Karma. Moving up to 4 in Decking takes 4 Karma.
It's a very simple system that works, and as an added benefit it allows players to make a "jack of all trades" character, a very skilled specialist, or a mix. Stats give general benefits (like how far you can throw a grenade or how much damage you can take) but your stats also determine how far you can advance in subsequent skills. Your rank in "Pistols" is limited to 2 if your Quickness stat is only at 2. If your Intelligence is at 5, you can upgrade any skills that are dependent on Intelligence up to rank 5.
Battles are turn based, isometric, tactical affairs, very similar to XCOM (even down to the same iconography for taking cover). Players get Action Points to move, shoot, cast spells, duck behind cover, and more. The interface is simple, but I really appreciate the extra depth. Guns typically have several options on top of their default attack (like a spray 'n pray shot, or an aimed shot). Spells are the same way. When you start, you already have several spells at your disposal (depending on your class) and more become available as you progress.
Within the battle mechanics there are a lot of neat tricks. Most abilities have a cooldown of two, three, or more turns. However, in some cases you can sacrifice health to - for example - cast that really powerful spell a second time in a row. It's a nice touch, and throughout my time with the campaign over the past several days I had the chance to try out new strategies and tricks. One negative is that the campaign doesn't often take the opportunity to challenge your tactics. The combat is challenging, but what I mean is that if you find a certain method that works for you, SRR rarely throws a big monkeywrench into the mix to force you to change your overall strategy. That's not to say that the battles lack variety, but rather that the battles lack the brutal challenge of games like XCOM or SWAT.
Graphics work well. The 3D character models look...okay, but the backgrounds are the star of the show. The maps look really, really good and are filled with details. It won't win any contests against Naughty Dog or Crytek, but Shadowrun Returns is an eye-pleasing game. The aesthetics are what give this game its charm. Seattle is a blend of a '50s New York back alley, Blade Runner, and a Shanghai market district. If I was to draw a direct comparison, it reminds me of Hong Kong from the first Deus Ex game.
The storyline is also something I enjoyed. Again, I'm a long-time fan of PC RPGs so for me, the dialog trees and the descriptive text were a pleasant reminder of a bygone era of PC gaming. It won't be that way for everyone. Some people don't like to sit there and read. Granted, you're never reading gigantic walls of exposition, but I'm just letting you folks know that SRR has text and you'll be reading in this game.
Anyway, back to the storyline. It's good. Since I'm not too familiar with the Shadowrun source material I don't really know exactly HOW good the story is compared to other Shadowrun stuff, but for me, it was good. The characters are interesting, there's some genuinely fantastic writing, and this is all tied together by the atmosphere and descriptive text. This sort of thing is right up my alley, being a big fan of the Infinity Engine games (Baldur's Gate, Torment, etc). Though I'm unfamiliar with Shadowrun's lore, it really does feel like a game made for the fans, and it shows (in a good way). Every line of the dialog is dripping with flavor. Even simple stuff. I talked to an elf bartender, trying to investigate for a job. I thanked her by saying "Wiz" to which she replied "Nil sweat". Cops are "the bronze" or other less-pleasant colloquialisms. Characters often tell me to "Frag off" or "drek that". The streets and shops are littered with advertisements (odd stuff like NERPS) and logos that I'm sure resonate with fans of Shadowrun. For someone like me, it still creates a fascinating and cohesive world, even if I don't get all the references.
How the devs handle races is also very well done. I mean, for starters, we have elves and trolls and dragons in a cyberpunk setting. How cool is that? It's definitely unique. But beyond that, the game does a great job of avoiding typical "race tropes" found in most fantasy games. Dwarves are more than just loud drunks and stubborn melee fighters. Elves are more than just snooty magic-users. One of the best-dressed and most polite characters in the whole game is a troll bouncer you meet at the beginning of the campaign. Sure, there are plenty of cliches, but SRR also does a great job of defying typical fantasy conventions.
The "extra" gameplay features are pretty fun, too. I like using hacking to solve an area, and the use of drones with the rigger class is cool. Mages can stand on ley lines (only visible if yo're high enough in Spellcasting) to get boosts to their magic. It whets the appetite and I'm definitely ready to see what comes next for the game from the developer and also from the community.
My total playtime so far is just shy of 15 hours. I skipped some side quests but I was able to complete the main storyline in that time, which isn't bad at all for a $20 game but might seem a bit short for an RPG. Let me say that the game is designed to be replayed. It's also designed to be expanded by fan-made missions (more on that in a second). The way I look at it, we don't get very many isometric RPGs these days, and for $20, this isn't a bad deal. It IS replayable due to the variety of characters you can make, but some people might be disappointed that it isn't a 200-hour epic RPG. Well, you've been warned. It's a $20 campaign. The story doesn't feel like there are loose ends and I'm eager to jump back in and replay it. The developer has also said that they are making more content for the game beyond the one campaign that comes with the game.
There are some other flaws. The game uses an Autosave system which typically saves every time you travel to a new area. There are not - however - manual saves, which kinda sucks. Another quirk is the lack of a robust loot and equipment system. There are plenty of weapons and items to equip, but it isn't as robust as a lot of other PC RPGs. I suppose, to be fair, that the game is a successor to two console games, and apparently (according to what I've read on various Shadowrun fan sites) picking up loot in combat makes absolutely no sense in the Shadowrun universe. Money is what people want and they buy their own equipment before a mission, so I guess (if you're willing to swallow the excuse) that seems reasonable. Just be aware that you aren't going to be able to give each character 16 different weapons to use in battle. There is weapon-switching in the middle of battle (switching between a pistol and a shotgun, for instance), but it's tailored for the tactical combat (similar to how XCOM handles weapons). When you're not fighting and you're just exploring the world, there isn't much to explore, giving the game a feel of linearity. I mean, in all fairness, if the game included two or three campaigns, I wouldn't complain because I figure "hey, I'm playing a specific story. Of course it's going to be linear". But since there's only one campaign for now to showcase the game, it comes off as a bit limited. Not a deal breaker, but you're not going to have that feeling of searching every nook and cranny and going down every street you can see.
Now, I'm about to do something stupid. I'm going to recommend Shadowrun Returns based on the upcoming player-made missions. It's lame. I admit it. PC gaming flourishes because of mods but I believe a game should be judged on its own merits. But in this case I must make an exception. Shadowrun has a very loyal and passionate fanbase. The editor tools (which are available to anyone and everyone who buys the game) are already being used to craft not just one-shot missions, but entire campaigns from the Shadowrun universe. We're talking about a property that has decades of history and dozens of campaign books. And this fanbase is already at work.
Here's just one website that aims to recreate the official Shadowrun campaigns from the 2050s era of Shadowrun (link: http://www.shadowrunidentit... ) and they say that campaign will be 100+ hours of content (that's their claim, not mine). And keep in mind that the Shadowrun PnP also has a fully fleshed-out 2070s era. Another group of fans is going to faithfully recreate the entire Super Nintendo Shadowrun campaign, for those who wanted to see what the fuss was about. And these campaigns are just - for lack of a better term - remakes. There will be plenty of fan-written missions and campaigns to download, all for free. To me, this is a huge seller. I'm not very good at making content but I've played a lot of PC games where the player-made mods are just as good (and often better) than what the developers made. It's clear that the Shadowrun fanbase is going to give this game some serious legs. How serious? We'll have to see, but I'm gleefully optimistic against my better judgment.
Again, I usually don't buy the excuse that a game is good because of mods. And please don't misunderstand: the "vanilla" Shadowrun game that you get for your 20 bucks is well worth it. But the potential for hundreds more hours of content is something that must be mentioned.
To sum, I think this is a great game. I love isometric RPGs and I love tactical squad-based combat, and Shadowrun Returns totally scratches that itch. If you've played XCOM: Enemy Unknown (or older tactical games like Jagged Alliance, old X-COM, SWAT, etc) and you're looking for something with much more depth, SRR fits the bill. There are a lot of options in combat depending on your character class. I'm probably being a bit more lenient on the game simply because I really like this genre of RPGs, but I already expressed the game's drawbacks (short length, lack of save). It's up to you if you want to give it a try.