A fan-funded reboot of a SNES game based on a cyberpunk-themed pen and paper RPG sounds like a recipe for inaccessibility, but Shadowrun Returns winds up being as immediate and fresh-feeling as it is reverent to its past.
An isometric roleplaying game, it takes placed in a Blade Runner-esque world of urban decay, neon excess and dirty technology. So far so standard, but Shadowrun's additional appeal was that it fused cyberpunk tropes with the mainstays of high fantasy. Elves, dwarves, orcs and trolls live in its squalid future-cities, and whatever magic and mysticism they might bring to the party if offset by their having the same vices and struggles as their human neighbours.
You can play as any race you like, with a wide range of abilities from the various spheres of guns, blades, Matrix-style hacking, magic and spirit-summoning - either specialising in one or dabbling in a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Shadowrun Returns is very much open to being played the way you prefer to play, although this butts somewhat against the rather prescriptive campaign included in the base game.
A detective noir tale of murder, duplicitous dames, bent cops and criminals with a heart of gold, this 10-ish hours of play does a fine job of blending in yet another genre but pulls a few fast ones to maintain momentum. There's a lot of being automatically shuffled from one area to the next, rather than getting to wander there yourself, and while the high-detail environments are beautiful and evocative, for the most part they're entirely static with only a handful of interactions.
At times, the game can feel like searching a giant painting for a small hidden button. Meanwhile, certain types of ability can have very limited use outside of specific situations, but to some degree that's a result of the game trying to introduce its complex, strange world and its denizens without a glut of up-front exposition. In fact, it's remarkably breezy about getting itself across to newcomers, and while it's stuffed with references to keep the faithful happy, it certainly doesn't feel as though it's a sequel or that any antecedent knowledge is required.
Even combat, turn-based and involving the juggling of multiple different combat disciplines (again - guns, magic, technology, all sorts), is entirely accessible. It's a turn-based affair that has much in common with last year's XCOM, in terms of involving the use of cover and percentage chance to hit. It's much less punishing though, and a whole lot more absurdist.
Indeed, Shadowrun returns revels in its geekiness, and despite trying to present a world of drug dependence, criminal overlords and sinister mega-corps it knows full well that elves vs robots and shamans vs drug gangs is cartoonish fare. As such, it winds up feeling a surprisingly good-spirited game. There's some sharp writing (lots of writing, in fact- no speech here) that keeps on the right side of playful but without being vapid.
Sadly, a major fly in this rich ointment is the almost unbelievably dim save system. There's no option for manual saving, or even a save and exit facility - instead, the game autosaves upon entering a new zone, and that's it. So if you're defeated right at the end of a large area, you'll have to take it all from the top. If you have to exit the game in a hurry, say goodbye to anything up to an hour of progress. Sure, it prevents cynically reloading every time a fight doesn't go quite to plan, but the net result is wasting so much of its players' time, and even building reticence to keep playing unless you know you'll have a solid block of hours free for it. Hopefully patches will address this in time - it's not quite a deal-breaker, but it's damn close.
Also in Shadowrun Return's future is a vast amount of community-made content from the included editor tool. The main campaign winds up being something of an introduction, really, and while you can choose your combat style and how you upgrade your character, other progression is very static.
There's going to be at least a few far wider-ranging, more open player-made campaigns, we'll warrant, and while the onus shouldn't be on a game's community rather than its creators, there's a strong chance that in this case we're looking at something that will keep on giving long after its official campaign has been completed.