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Three Things RPGs Can Learn from Shadowrun Returns

Som Pourfarzaneh Posted:
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I’m usually late to the party with most games, and Shadowrun Returns hasn’t bucked that trend.  I’ve just completed the initial campaign for Harebrained Schemes’ isometric single-player RPG, and enjoyed several aspects of it that are great models for most roleplaying games moving forward.  Here are three that stand out most prominently!

Tell a Concise, Decipherable Story

The original campaign for Shadowrun Returns is a relatively short one, clocking in at about 12-13 hours.  Although the succeeding titles in the series, Dragonfall and Hong Kong, are a bit longer, the first game’s succinctness is a breath of fresh air in a market impacted by rambling storylines.  There’s certainly space for the complex narratives of Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher 3, but not every game has to attempt the same scale of storytelling to be successful.

In light of the more fully realized campaigns of Dragonfall and Hong Kong, Shadowrun Returns may seem to be little more than a tech demo for what Harebrained Schemes can achieve.  Still, the carefully manicured nature of its story and world provides for a refreshingly fun RPG experience that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Take a Chance on a Different Setting

Shadowrun is a fairly popular system as far as pen-and-paper roleplaying games are concerned.  Harebrained Schemes’ game is not the first to utilize the setting, or cyberpunk in general, as inspiration for its world and ruleset.  Yet, Shadowrun-based games are drops in a bucket compared to low and high fantasy RPGs and MMOs.  Too few developers seem to be willing to give the cyberpunk system the same treatment as they have, say, Dungeons & Dragons or Warhammer 40K.

In many ways, Shadowrun Returns could have been developed with a different setting in mind, substituting the cyberpunk dystopia for a dark fantasy one, or exchanging the science fiction mechanics for more medieval conventions.  Shadowrun certainly fits the story being told much more appropriately, and provides for a novel experience in a genre crowded with fantasy RPGs.

Pay Attention to Accessible Level Design

There’s something to be said for sprawling RPG worlds that you can get lost in.  It’s also fair to say that if a game is so large that it feels rambling, or worse, built with copied-and-pasted textures, its gameplay experience can get old really quickly.  Too often, MMOs and RPGs include content that either isn’t conceived very well or is meant to artificially enhance their replayability.

Shadowrun Returns is very good at presenting streamlined levels that are easy to understand without being overly pedantic.  Their contained nature allows for a variety of art assets that are thematic without being repetitive, and while they’re not as complex as areas found in larger RPGs, they still give the impetus for adventure.  Shadowrun Returns’ level design is a great illustration of how a game’s regions don’t need to be convoluted to feel expansive and worthy of exploration.

Have you played Shadowrun Returns, Dragonfall, or Hong Kong?  What are some things that you like about Harebrained Schemes’ RPGs?


Som Pourfarzaneh

Som has been hanging out with the MMORPG.com crew since 2011, and is an Associate Director & Lecturer in Media, Anthropology, and Religious Studies. He’s a former Community Manager for Neverwinter, the free-to-play Dungeons & Dragons MMORPG from Cryptic Studios and Perfect World Entertainment, and is unreasonably good at Maze Craze for the Atari 2600. You can exchange puns and chat (European) football with him on Twitter @sominator.