When computer memory expanded in the early '90s, it brought a wave of narratively ambitious RPGs like Fallout, Shadowrun, and Planescape: Torment. Their visuals were crude and the characters only spoke in text boxes, but their world-building was on par with anything tried in other mediums, and as graphics and sound cards improved, we looked forward to seeing those worlds become ever more real.
Instead, the industry became more like William Burroughs's man who taught his asshole to talk: great big eyes fronting a withered brain. It turns out that the more mimetic video games became, the more financially prohibitive it was to create the kind of vast universe that could once be evoked with a few lines of text and a tiny sprite. So the isometric view and text-based presentation of Shadowrun Returns isn't just an exercise in nostalgia; it's an attempt to get back onto the industry's untaken road. The result isn't quite a masterpiece, but it's smart, fun, and best of all, explicitly built with the intention of spurring more creativity in the future.
The gameplay of Shadowrun Returns will be instantly familiar to anyone who remembers when "cRPG" was a viable acronym. In exploration mode, you click around the world looking for icons that reveal clues, items, or meaningful conversations. Conversations happen in text boxes, where you swing through the branches of a conversation tree trying to land on the information you need. It's totally linear, and not exactly challenging; I felt more like a guest on a guided tour than an adventurer. But it's also a great reminder of how immersive games can be when players are given space to project themselves into the scene. Much of the prose is just barely serviceable, but when you get to picture the voice and body language of the characters, your imaginative complicity makes them far more vivid than a mo-capped digital puppet could be.
Fights play out as turn-based combat, with various attacks and spells rationed out through a pool of action points. The combat isn't as ferocious, or as beautifully presented, as the gold standard of XCOM, and the three-quarter overhead view sometimes makes it hard to tell what your character can actually hit. But the complex balancing of AP, reload times, buffs, and character classes means you're making interesting strategic decisions with every turn, and your choices just get richer as you progress.
Like the adventuring, the combat is a little too easy, but that's because the developers really don't want anything interfering with your ability to follow the narrative, and narrative has always been the real point of Shadowrun games. The plot isn't going to win any prizes for originality, but the tale of a street-level murder that reveals high-level corruption is a good, sturdy detective story, well adapted to the Shadowrun mythos.
The series is set in a world where computer hackers and trolls rub elbows in sleazy bars and conspire to bring down multinational corporations. The black leather trench coats and technoshamans are the signifiers of '90s nostalgia, but what makes that nostalgia poignant is its fantasy of networked technology that isn't just used to consume entertainment, but to sound a barbaric yawp across capitalism's advertising-bedecked roofs. Levels that require you to "hack the Matrix" while your team lobs magic spells at riot cops beautifully recreate the millennial fantasies that powered many a subculture.
But the very best part of Shadowrun Returns is its future potential. The game ships with campaign creation tools and a top-level menu option for playing community-created modules. Before Shadowrun was a cRPG, it was an RPG of the pen-and-paper variety, a medium that did more than a thousand junior-high workshops to encourage young people to tell each other thought-out stories. Between the accessibility of the tools and the plot-idea goldmine of the Shadowrun mythos, we're likely to see a whole lot of great campaigns before the year is out.
Like much cyberpunk writing, the Shadowrun series was always about how gutbucket technology could empower scrappy outsiders, so it's inspiring to see the developers taking that lesson to heart. If this were just a $20 RPG with a solid story and delightfully old-fashioned presentation, it'd be worth a buy for anyone with a shred of nostalgia for the deliberate pace and imaginative investment of an earlier generation of games. But the potential for future wonders makes it not just a game worth getting, but a platform to watch.