Shadowrun is Weird and Wonderful

Shadowrun is Weird and Wonderful

There’s a lot to like about Harebrained Schemes’ Shadowrun series. The developer’s pair of tactical role-playing games are well-written—full of interesting characters and ideas—and feature settings that are an awful lot of fun to explore. There’s a great turn-based combat system, which marries the deliberate battlefield positioning of a game like Firaxis Games’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown with the spells and character skills of traditional RPGs. All of it, as presented in Shadowrun Returns and the more recent Shadowrun: Dragonfall, comes together to make for some of the more interesting games in recent years. What is most impressive about these games, though, is how strange they are—how willing they are to defy convention in favour of originality.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall
Shadowrun: Dragonfall

I’ve written about my exasperation with typical fantasy games before—about the inevitable disappointment that comes when a genre whose very basis is imagination so often defaults to an embrace of overly familiar, Tolkien-derived tropes. It’s continually baffling that, when presented with the ability to create anything at all, so many fantasy games (and I suspect this is a problem in books and film as well) are happy to continue featuring the same old casts of elves, dwarves, and wizards, fighting dragons, goblins, and orcs in a pseudo-Dark Ages Western European setting. As enjoyable as these kinds of stories can be, there are simply far too many of them. And, as with anything that’s over exposed, familiarity breeds contempt.

What Shadowrun does is take proper advantage of the freedom afforded by its fantasy setting, using it to portray a world that comes across as, for lack of a better word, truly fantastic. Rather than present players with armour-clad knights and towering stone castles, Harebrained Schemes’ games feature leather-clad cyberpunks and grimy, neon-lit city streets. In place of plots centred on the forces of good squaring off against evil, Shadowrun Returns and Dragonfall star money-hungry mercenaries who complete contracts, solve murder mysteries, and undermine mega-corporations. The fantasy genre cornerstones that do pop up in the games are subverted, too. There are orcs and trolls, sure, but they behave like ordinary people, sporting business suits or tank tops. Elves seem little more than pointy-eared, charismatic versions of humans and the few dragons that exist in the world are more likely to subtly influence politics than nest in piles of gold.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall
Shadowrun: Dragonfall

These differences go a long way toward making the experience of moving through both Returns and Dragonfall’s stories engaging. Because players can’t easily fill in the setting’s blank spaces with knowledge of well-worn fantasy genre tropes, an element of genuine curiosity exists that makes simply exploring the world consistently interesting. That’s a good thing because, as generally positive an impression as Harebrained Schemes’ Shadowrun games make, they’re not perfect. Aside from the many well-executed aspects of the games—great combat and character writing—mentioned earlier, there are technical issues, stretches of exploration that feel repetitive, and moments where plot points fall flat. Just the same, the fact that the aesthetic of the series is so distinct—such a breath of fresh air in a fairly unimaginative genre—means that players may be more willing to forgive faults they otherwise wouldn’t.

The warm reception that has accompanied the release of Shadowrun Returns and Dragonfall (as well as the rapidly funded Shadowrun: Hong Kong Kickstarter) certainly seems to support this claim. Whether players are familiar with the Shadowrun setting from its past incarnations or, like me, have come to Harebrained Schemes’ games without any prior knowledge, audiences seem to have responded well to these titles. It only makes sense. So much of what makes a role-playing game engaging is its ability to provide players with an interesting storyline to take part in—and interesting storylines are hard to craft out of deeply familiar genre tropes. Shadowrun Returns and Dragonfall serve as examples of how positively received fantasy games can be if they feel truly original. Hopefully their existence offers a bit of encouragement for developers working in the genre to try new things—to be brave enough to create work that isn’t scared to be weird.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall (PC) Review

Shadowrun: Dragonfall (PC) Review

A game that keeps you up to the wee hours of the morning must have some engrossing quality. Civilization keeps us awake late at night with the urge to play “Just one more turn.” There are mobile games that addict you with repetitive gameplay, or games that require a huge amount of time with the grind, like MMOs. And then there are games that are just engaging enough that you want to keep playing, and you blink to find three hours have passed since you last looked at the clock. There are RPGs where you want to keep pursuing the mission and discover what’s going on.

This game is an example of the last instance. I’ve had a tremendous amount of fun with it, and think it’s a great addition to the library of classics that inform our opinions.


Dragonfall is the first expansion for Shadowrun Returns, a Kickstarter-funded, turn-based RPG set in the pen-and-paper Shadowrun universe, where 2012 led to the end of the Mayan Calendar and the return of magic to the world. As a result, some people spontaneously turned into elves, dwarves, and other Western fantasy staples, along with ancient beings such as dragons awakening to a world of high technology and corporate-domination. Think near-future cyberpunk science fiction combined with modern fantasy. Dragonfall takes the player to the city of Berlin, a free state where corporations and magical beings co-exist in an uneasy peace that’s threatened by free-information hackivists, anti-magical-being racist groups, and monstrous spirits.

What’s more, missions are designed with multiple choices in mind, giving you various outcomes to pursue. There’s no moral binary here, a staple of RPG games – rather than the common morality meter, the game relies on its writing to inform you of the ramifications of your actions. It’s far too easy to give Good and Evil points for decisions, and this game doesn’t take that route. It presents ambiguity – for example, helping a computer whiz find his lost girlfriend might have other ramifications. There’s generally a few choices of how to proceed with what you’ve discovered and how to complete your jobs, and no clear ‘right’ choice. Again, this encourages replay and makes the players feel important, something RPGs are supposed to do. I was tremendously happy to be presented with a revelation in a job that made aborting and risking a loss of reputation a viable prospect. Generally, there’s no ‘lose-lose’ situation, so the game never feels biased.

The game comes with the editing tools used to make the campaign, allowing players to make their own stories. I really haven’t had time to check out the Editor in detail, but I’ve played a few user-generated levels. Harebrained Studios highlighted a few on their YouTube channel, as well, and the content showcases the diversity the editor can provide. Neverwinter Nights and its level editor comes to mind, although this might be more complicated. The fact that players are making their own art assets and abilities as well as using the ones provided show its potential, and a strong modding community can grow from this. Like Skyrim, which still has an impressive user-generated content community despite being completed, this game could continue to be relevant even if there’s no new expansion.


If you like turn-based RPGs; even if you prefer real-time or first-person, this is so well written you’ll probably like it as well. You need the core game as well, but the original “Dead Man’s Switch” story is strong in its own right. The core Shadowrun Returns is currently about $20, and the expansion is $15 or so, and these games are certainly worth $35 with the editor.

RPG fans should buy this. It’s a triumph of Kickstarter games and proves their validity in the marketplace, and it’s up there with my favourite RPGs.

This is just a taste! Alex’s full review for Dragonfall will be appearing in the April issue of CGMagazine set to be released at the end of March.

Cyborgs Belong in Videogames

Cyborgs Belong in Videogames

The last two games I’ve played are XCOM: Enemy Within and Shadowrun Returns. They’re both lovely titles, well worth recommending despite a handful of glitches apiece, that made me start to think about something. Enemy Within and Shadowrun Returns share gameplay similarities — their combat is turn-based and takes place on a grid of invisible movement tiles — but it’s their inclusion of part human, part robot hybrids that made me realize that cyborgs, particularly in the context of videogames, are pretty interesting.

I think, to some degree at least, everyone is fascinated by the idea of humans who have been transformed into partially robotic machines. When we look at the giant MEC soldiers from the new XCOM expansion, seeing soldiers who have volunteered to have their bodies replaced with cold metal in order to better kill aliens, it’s tough to think of them as a purely fantastic invention. Sure, we aren’t likely to see armies of people who have transformed into robotic death machines in our lifetime, but the rapid pace of technological advancement we witness every day at least lets us see the possibility of such a scenario. We can envision a time when, faced with a world-ending crisis of the type posited by Enemy Within‘s hostile alien invasion, our species could choose to combine our organic bodies with machines to become something more.

Shadowrun Returns

A cyborg, according to dictionary definition, refers to anyone “whose physiological functioning is aided by or dependent upon a mechanical or electronic device.” When we hear the term it isn’t likely that we’re thinking of anything so banal as a person with a pacemaker, though. Rather, we envisage strange characters like Enemy Within‘s human/robot amalgamations, with their piston legs and Gatling gun arms. But the truth, as explored in some games, is a lot closer to home. The augmented mercenary Deckers found in Shadowrun Returns are pretty much just normal people with the added ability to interface with virtual reality representations of internet-style information networks. Despite hanging out in a Detroit populated with elves, orks, and trolls, the Deckers are not unlike a modern human who enjoys constant access to some bizarre combination of iPhone and Oculus Rift. When separated from the crazy world they live in, they’re downright plausible.

XCOM: Enemy Within

While Shadowrun Returns presents cyborgs as a matter-of-fact part of its strange alternate reality, there have also been examples of part human/part robot hybrids who grow out of more grounded settings. Eidos Montreal’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution also takes place primarily in Detroit, but omits fantasy trappings in favour of a near future depiction of the city that closely resembles the real one (albeit much more economically prosperous). This foundation allows players to more easily buy into the game’s discussion of transhumanism and allow us to view its cyborg characters as an inevitable result of our current access to devices like Google Glass. Rather than see the superhuman abilities of its cyborg cast as completely unreal, we recognize them as a coming version of ourselves. We live in a time, after all, when South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee, can compete against top international runners on an equal playing field due in part to the technological miracle of his highly advanced prosthetic legs. It’s fascinating to consider how far humans will be able to push beyond our current limitations as time goes on, as we more willingly become cyborgs.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

It’s likely that we’re going to see more of the kind of cyborgs represented in Human Revolution in future games, too. Videogames are one of the more appropriate forms of media in which to tackle the subject. Their reliance on advanced technology in facilitating storytelling almost guarantees that audiences are already keyed into the possibility of sophisticated computers and robotics, ready and willing to entertain ideas of machine-enabled human evolution. This is a good thing because there is so much more for us to think about when we consider the concept of cyborgs. Our species’ march toward a strange new future is intrinsically tied into technology. Looking at what this will entail is something that videogames can mine for fantastic, thought-provoking stories and settings. The coming centuries won’t look much like the world of Shadowrun Returns, XCOM: Enemy Within, or even the more realistic Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but playing these games — and engaging with their cyborg characters — gives us at least some glimpse into possible versions of our collective future.

Shadowrun Returns, Hopefully Here to Stay

Shadowrun Returns, Hopefully Here to Stay

Shadowrun. For those that know it, nothing else needs be said. For those who aren’t familiar with the name, it is a traditional pencil and paper role-playing system set in the near future. The “Sixth World”, where magic has returned, dragons have emerged from hiding and creatures both mysterious and deadly stalk the world again. Many humans “Goblinize” into orks and trolls while some human children are being born as elves and dwarves and other ancient races. Mega-corporations rule the world, and only the SINless (those without System Identification Numbers) can hide in the shadows cast by the corporate arcologies on the gritty streets below. It’s a wonderful blend of traditional fantasy, cyberpunk, horror, crime and conspiracy. And it’s been an incredibly popular setting for endless players over the years.

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