You know how long-running horror franchises would inevitably have an installment set IN SPACE in a desperate attempt to cling to life by introducing a superficial new element that doesn’t actually fit the genre? Well, Shadowrun is an old TRPG that can be accurately described as cyberpunk but WITH MAGIC. In 2012 magic came back, a large percentage of people turned into various fantasy races, many animals mutated into mythological beasts, people learned to summon and bind spirits of nature, dragons awoke from their millennia-long slumber and decided that running corporations is a good substitute for hoarding gold. Meanwhile, technology advanced in a classic cyberpunk fashion: prosthetics enhancing your abilities beyond human limits, cybernetic implants allowing full-immersion link to cyberspace inventively called the Matrix, etc.
These events resulted in a weakening and sometimes outright collapse of governments, with corporations essentially taking their place and running the world in an orgy of wild capitalism.
The game takes its name after shadowrunners, the presumed PCs, who are essentially freelance black books operatives hired by various corporations, organized crime syndicates and individual clients as deniable assets to do various shady jobs.
Honestly, my knowledge of the setting is rather limited, and I would appreciate someone chiming in on it. From what I’ve seen of it, it feels that sometimes Shadowrun strikes gold in its design (like how it has literal
lizard people dragons – a classic metaphor for greed and malice – essentially running the world through corporate proxies) and other times it’s content to just throw “awesome” concepts together (Magic! Cyberware! Matrix! Samurai!) with little regard to creating a thematically-coherent whole.
But anyway, apparently there are three relatively new RPGs set in this setting, and I’ve decided to check them out. They are… pretty solid, actually.
All three games are built on the same engine and share the same gameplay: isometric view, turn-based combat, point-buy character advancement. Hong Kong, as the most recent and well-funded of the three, is a bit more polished, with somewhat improved graphics and design, a bit tweaked character system and a new stealth mini-game for the Matrix sections. However, the latter was an ill-advised move, I feel, as the stealth system doesn’t really agree with the movement system outside of combat, plus it makes integrating Matrix section with real world combat somewhat awkward.
Overall, though, gameplay can be best described as solid. The emphasis was clearly put on tactics over immersion, on completing the missions over exploring the world, but within those confines the games work well enough. I appreciated that, more often than not, there were several ways to go about a mission, depending on your skills, stats and companions you brought with you. Some missions could be completed without combat at all if you were smart and resourceful enough, while others allowed you to gain various situational advantages or skip some fights, preserving your resources. And when the fight did start, there was always a sense of you having a meaningful choice of how to go about resolving it. The fight system makes a heavy use of cover, making positioning your characters pretty important, even if it would leave them with less actions to fight. There could be ley lines, which amplify the power of spells but occupying them would often leave your mage exposed to enemy fire. Deckers (fancy-named hackers) could often work on subverting some local system, creating an advantage for you or getting data to sell later, but doing so would take them out of the fight for a couple of turns. And so on and so forth. Basically, I found the gameplay rather engaging and never felt like the best course of action would be to hit the enemies ’til they died.
It is not to say that the games don’t have some rough edges. Some character builds are much cheaper, point-wise, than others. Mages, for example, just need to advance Willpower and Spellcasting to be effective, while, say, Physical Adepts (kung fu mages) need Strength, Close Combat skill, Unarmed sub-skill, Willpower and Qi Casting (plus they need Quickness+Dodge more than mages since they generally can’t rely on cover to take the edge from enemy attacks). You can hire some shadowrunners to serve as your party members for a mission, which made sense in Returns, the first game, since it was often either that or doing the mission solo, but in both Dragonfall and Hong Kong you have permanent teams that cost you zero money and adequately cover all the bases, making the feature pretty useless (especially since money’s actually pretty tight in those games and are desperately needed to upgrade your character). Party members also get some consumable items for free for each mission, which does weird things to the games’ economics. In particular, it means that having shaman as a party member is generally better than being one since they rely on fetishes to summon spirits, and fetishes can be pretty expensive at high levels, while your party members don’t have to pay for them.
And while we’re on topic of rough edges, it should be noted that there is a variety of minor bugs plaguing the games. It’s nothing game-breaking (well, aside from that one time when enemy’s combat turn never ended, so I had to reload an autosave, but that appears to be an anomaly rather than a tendency), but they can be annoying. Occasionally, in the Matrix segments controls would get wonky, forcing me to switch to menu and back until they start responding normally. Another time, “neutral” turn (actually belonging to my allies that were around for a fight) never ended, allowing them to run around the map and killing all the enemies without either enemies or me being able to do anything. In Hong Kong epilogue, one character first had correct dialogue tree reflecting choices I’ve made throughout the game, but when I spoke to him again, he had another dialogue tree, clearly based on different choices. Another character in the same epilogue didn’t have dialogue at all, just an empty window.
Speaking of dialogue, there is quite a few typos throughout the game, which is just sloppy. The games also use different text color for spoken words and narration of character actions, except sometimes they get mixed up.
There were other such annoyances.
Overall, though, these flaws are reasonably minor and don’t ruin the games.
Alright, let’s talk about the plot. Firstly, quick premises:
In Returns, you play as an experienced shadowrunner down on your luck. You’re contacted by an old acquaintance on yours who happened to be dead. Fortunately, he set up a dead man’s switch insurance policy: if you can find his killer and bring them to justice, you’d be paid a lot of money by the insurance company.. Since you have nothing else to do and your money’s running short, you take the job.
In Dragonfall, you play as a shadowrunner who recently arrived in Berlin (which is a fully anarchist state here) to work with your old friend, Monika. You go on a seemingly simple mission only for everything to go wrong. Monila dies to some super-nasty thing in the Matrix, and you find yourself on the wrong side of a mysterious organization with a lot of resources on their side.
In Hong Hong, you’re actually not a shadowrunner at all, you’re just an honest ex-con. You were actually imprisoned by one of the corporations because that’s a thing in this setting, and some corporate merging rendered your crime null and void, so you were released. Shortly after, you were contacted by your foster father asking to go meet him in Hong Kong and help with some mysterious mission. Upon arrival, you find your father missing and are soon attacked by the police force that labeled you a terrorist. Fortunately, you meet some shadowrunners along the way, who were apparently hired by your father to help him as well. They also come under fire, so you work together to escape. Afterwards, they introduce you to a triad boss, who offers you protection on her territory and help in finding out what’s going on in exchange for doing some shadowrunning on her behalf.
Overall, I found the plot of Returns rather meandering, which I would partially attribute to the attempt to combine a fairly low-key, noir-ish investigation with fight-oriented missions showing off the game’s design strengths, which led to artificial bloating of the story with action sequences. Another part of it is that the game really wanted to tie the plot to established Shadowrun elements, which led to late-story escalation of conflict to apocalyptic levels, introduction of a bunch of new characters and concepts and general awkwardness.
Fortunately, it seems that the devs were aware of the problem as Dragonfall and Hong Kong both have a more solid, manageable structure where you go through a tutorial mission, then have to do a couple of random missions (to get enough money to pay an information broker in Dragonfall and to work off a favor to a crime boss in Hong Kong) before returning to the main plot. That allows the games to keep their stories focused and well-paced. The cost of it is that the main plot is essentially put on hold while you do side missions, but it’s not particularly different from the usual RPG thing where you must save the world but not before helping a random guy with rat infestation in the basement.
(As a side note, both games allow you to speak with your party members and various characters around your “home area” between missions, advancing their storylines, which I appreciate. It greatly enhances the immersion and creates a sense of connection to the setting.)
I felt that Dragonfall verged into weirdly post-cyberpunk themes in the later part of the game by casting the lone man standing against the corrupt system as a clear villain (if with sympathetic motives) and implying that changing the current status quo would only make everything worse. And, look, there are stories that can pull it off. Psycho Pass anime is actually pretty good about presenting us with a situation where people fighting the systems are very much not someone you’d care to meet at all, but on the other hand the system is rotten enough that you start to wonder if maybe they should succeed after all. Dragonfall is not that story, which I would mostly attribute to the lack of meaningful presence of the system in the main conflict: the villain talks about corruption and power dynamics, and it’s true if you know even a little about the setting, but it’s also not viscerally present in the storyline itself, skewing our perception of the conflict. Plus, his method of fighting the Man is kinda batshit, so.
You also could tell a story with a visionary as an antagonist without making him a villain. Shadowrun is actually pretty good for such a plot since, for all shadowrunners nominally exist outside the system to the point of not having legal identities, they clearly still contribute to it, what with most of their clients being corporations and all. You could tell a story about a bunch of shadowrunners killing the one true hero of the setting because money talks louder than ideals. But the game wants us to feel reasonably good about ourselves, so that’s not what we get.
On the other hand, the ending is thematically bleak, with bleakness being the direct fault of the corrupt system, so I guess it’s possible that the game was going for a subversion of expectations where you defeat the villain, right all wrongs and then realize that, oh yeah, the status quo sucks and you just helped to preserve it. It doesn’t quite feel like the case, though.
I think the core issue is that the devs understandably don’t want to change the setting in such a big way and yet centered the plot around the attempt to do just that, and so had no choice but to present preserving the status quo as a desirable or at least least bad outcome, which led to thematic weirdness.
In any case, I found Hong Kong a massive improvement plot-wise over its predecessors. It uses classic cyberpunk themes of corruption inherent in the system, corporate greed and new technology making the mess of things and ties them to the magic gimmick in an organic way. It verges on horror when it comes to the central mystery of the story, and it does so in a way that I really enjoy by creating an atmosphere of something sinister and alien and grand slowly approaching and threatening to devour the place you came to know and love. It also grounds your character by giving you an actual (if sketchy) backstory that you slowly flesh out by talking with your foster brother, which I found neat.
(Also, the game has Racter, a Russian scientist with a pet murderbot who wants to become immortal and overcome metaphysical limitations of technological augmentation by way of psychopathy. He’s great.)
The only real problem I had with the plot of Hong Kong is that you can actually achieve a flat-out happy ending, which I feel is athematic to these games. Returns had a pretty typical noir ending where the case is closed and some good is done, but the protagonist is also kinda screwed, and it’s not all that clear how much good is done. Dragonfall’s ending is actually pretty bleak, especially when you think about what it would mean to your home ground. Hong Kong, though, allows you to neatly resolve everything of importance and even help out people around you. Granted, there are some prerequisites to achieve the optimal ending: you need to talk to everyone after every mission, do some side missions for your party members, etc. But, like, you were probably going to do it anyway, so it’s not some kind of huge deal.
Well, I guess the bonus mini-campaign fixes that by showing what happened after the end of the game and having you tackle new issues, with the final choice actually being pretty heavy.
(Also, Hong Kong kiiiinda feels orientalist to me. I’m really not qualified to talk about it, so if someone has thoughts on that aspect of the game, please, do speak up, but, like, you’re working on a triad boss running her business from a mahjong parlor, soooo…)
On a lighter topic, there is a surprising amount of women in the games. Female characters are found in every role, from party members to merchants to various friendly or useful NPCs to villains, etc. Even random mooks with one line of dialogue are about as likely to be female as not, which is actually a rarity. They’re also by and large not defined by their gender but rather by their occupations, backstories, personality quirks and other individual traits. So, that aspect was pretty good.
So, that’s it, I think. I’ve called the games solid, and I stand by it. While there are plenty of rough edges on technical and narrative levels, I found the gameplay engaging and the stories interesting enough to keep my attention. I didn’t regret playing the games, and I would recommend them if you like the genre or really want to play a troll with a grenade launcher.