When I was a kid, I remember really wanting Shadowrun on Genesis. I didn't know a whole lot about the game, actually. But I saw the cover art and I wanted it. This would have been around the time I watched movies like Terminator 2 and Total Recall, and my young mind was being completely blown by sci-fi. Shadowrun just seemed so damn cool. It was an RPG through and through. It was based on an actual pen and paper RPG. But instead of dungeons or dragons, it had the elves and mages living in a cyberpunk world. In many ways, Shadowrun represented a ridiculously awesome mash-up of all the cool stuff that came from Tolkien-inspired RPG's and then plopped them into a world that was very much inspired by William Gibson's writings. Basically, they heard you liked nerd stuff so they put nerd stuff in your nerd stuff.
Of course back in the early 90's it wasn't so easy to just get any game you wanted. Basically, if a game wasn't on the shelf at Electronic Boutique or Babbages or Funcoland, then you were out of luck. There was no ebay. There was no Amazon. There was no Matrix... yet. So I never did get around to playing the original Shadowrun. And in the years since, I've heard that both 16-bit versions were kind of a drag. Though the Genesis version had the better artwork, I've heard that the SNES version is the better of the two rather different games. But I don't know firsthand.
What I do know is that when Jordan Weissman created a Kickstarter to completely relaunch the series with Shadowrun Returns, I was paying attention. We were going to get an all new Shadowrun game that had the benefit of time on its hands. Time to soak in decades of cyberpunk media and nostalgia; time to see how a new Shadowrun would be improved from a gameplay perspective; and time to present it all in glorious high definition. This reboot would present the game as a single player tabletop game with fantastic writing and dialogue, and would layout the battles as if they were ripped out of XCOM. All of this appealed to me. And when the game launched in 2013 I made sure to buy a copy. And yet for some reason I never got around to playing it until 2022 when it finally launched on consoles and landed on Game Pass. Here I am all these years later finally playing a Shadowrun game and completely kicking myself for having never done so before. Because - my God - Shadowrun Returns is a game made for me!
Runners are basically guns for hire. You create yours and your mission is to solve a murder. You were hired by a victim from beyond the grave. He knew he was going to get killed, and he left a message to find the killer. And so Shadowrun Returns is set in a futuristic cyberpunk Seattle. You're goal is to track down The Emerald Ripper. All of these things appeal to me. And the tactical turn based battle system? Icing on the cake!
By the way, my mention of William Gibson was not just to toss out a name for reference. Shadowrun as a franchise has always leaned heavily into Gibson's work. And I mean, it's not subtle. They mention The Matrix (not the movie). And they mention The Sprawl. There's also some sprinklings of Philip K Dick in here for good measure. The memory chips that let you live out another life? Boy, that sure sounds like "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," while most any cyberpunk media produced after Blade Runner's release in 1982 owes at least some debt to "Do Android Dreams Of Electric Sheep?"
But nothing here feels derivative. And oddly, nothing really feels like homage. Rather, it all feels iterative. Like cyberpunk as a genre has always been building on these tropes and it all just has a comfortable digital sleaze. My kind of a game!
And let me just say that Shadowrun Returns is completely brilliant. Literally everything about this game, I love it. The writing is strong - and no surprises, pays homage to Gibson. In fact, I've spent this week thinking that I want to download some ebooks. My only qualm - do I want to read Burning Chrome before Neuromancer, or after Count Zero? The music is downright incredible, owing itself to a mix of Vangelis and Aphex Twin. The combat is great because frankly, you can't really go wrong by ripping off XCOM.
AND NOW TIME FOR SPOILERS SO TURN BACK LEST YE WANT THE PLOT RUINED FOR YOU...
So the serial killer thing - it's kind of genius. The dude who hired you from the grave? His sister had orchestrated the killings. Her mom was an organ donor, and when she took her own life, her organs were parted out. And the killer is recollecting her organs to reassemble her before burial. This includes her son's new liver which he got due to his drinking. It's... deep. And honestly, not a plot twist I saw coming, nor one that I'd say was rehashed from any movie I've seen or anything. Just top-notch writing of the old noir style.
One knock on the game for me is that although the writing stays rather riveting throughout, things do kind of fall apart just a bit in the final act. Once you get into the whole cult that's creating giant undead bugs it's all a little... what? And then there's the whole weird Matrix darkweb thing going on. It kind of just feels like too much is thrown into the mix at the very end and makes things feel a little confusing and precarious. But what are you gonna do? It's pretty much a fantastic game that just doesn't quite stick the landing. If I were rating the game, it'd be a 9 instead of 10 solely based on the last few chapters. But still, I had a really phenomenal time with Shadowrun Returns for the vast bulk of its time. And I look quite forward to playing through the sequels as well.