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To understand my personal love of the tabletop role-playing game Shadowrun, you’d have to travel back to 1989, where a gawky, socially awkward nerd went eagerly to his local game shop to pick up an exciting new science fiction game that I thought would give my dice-rolling wrists a workout. That game was Cyberpunk 2013, but what I came out with was Shadowrun—a brilliant mix of high fantasy and the gritty near-future science fiction collectively referred to as cyberpunk.
Shadowrun exists in a world changed from ours, where magic suddenly reappears (along with elves, trolls, dwarves, and dragons, among other things). In a society run by mega-corporations, hackers literally put themselves into the virtual reality internet called the Matrix, and shady dealings with organized crime are the norm. Cyberpunk, as an overall genre, fell out of favor in the 90s and games like this went with it. Publishers stopped using the term entirely, as if it were tainted. Only recently has the genre started to earn favor again. Even that old Cyberpunk game I didn’t buy 27 years ago is getting a slick video game revival from the same developer as the popular The Witcher series, re-monikered as Cyberpunk 2077.
So, when one of the original creators of Shadowrun announced his company, Harebrained Schemes, was starting a Kickstarter funding campaign to bring the game back, I jumped in head first. As it turned out, so did a parade of other nostalgic gamers. The result was Shadowrun Returns—an engaging take on the classic game that, while flawed, felt right and proved successful enough to spawn two more sequels.
That second sequel is Shadowrun: Hong Kong, which had an astounding success during its Kickstarter run, getting more than 10 times the money Harebrained Schemes was asking for. The game itself shows a clear evolution of style and refinement in the series. The original (new) game, in particular, was a fun introduction to Shadowrun’s seedy, noir-heavy world, but suffered from interface and pacing issues. The first sequel, Shadowrun: Dragonfall, switched locations from Seattle to Berlin, and improved on almost every aspect of the original game. Hong Kong, however, sees the developer squarely in their groove, and the result is something akin to an interactive potboiler noir novel. Harebrained Schemes has taken all the fun elements and cliches of classic hardboiled stories and infused them with the over-the-top style of Hong Kong action films to create an adventure full of memorable characters and scenes.
The story revolves around your character—made from scratch using the core Shadowrun rules—reuniting with their adopted brother to find the man who raised them, somewhere in the seedy underbelly of Hong Kong’s poor district. A few minutes after getting off the boat to the island, things turn bad and suddenly, you’re Hong Kong’s most wanted, fighting off cops and hitching up with an underworld crime boss.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong is heavy on twists and turns, betrayals and violence. There’s a gleeful sense of dark humor that fits the mood perfectly and the art style—despite the lack of any sort of high-tech 3D graphics to power it—is a moody mix of neon, rain, dirt, and metal. The art direction of each location is gorgeously detailed, even if the overall technology used to power the game is getting long in the tooth.
A major difference in this series and other recent role-playing games is the complete lack of voice acting. This is a double-edged sword, since most gamers expect a full complement of audio with their games these days. It’s an oddly antiquated design decision—partially budgetary, partially stylistic—but lends Shadowrun a singularly intimate literary feel. You read the dialogue and scene descriptions at your pace and it fits the classic roots of the series nicely.
A bigger problem for newcomers—and Hong Kong is a perfectly acceptable place to start this series, since they’re all independent games—is how nostalgic-centric Shadowrun is. The game assumes the player has some concept of all the virtual die-rolling going on in the background. The combat, which plays out in turns between your party and the enemy, can be a perplexing maze of options thanks to a confusing layout of menus and buttons and often mysterious cause and effect actions. In an early fight, for instance, my characters kept getting incapacitated by something completely unseen and I had to just muscle through until it randomly didn’t happen.
The overall structure of the game desperately wants you to know you’re playing a virtual version of a tabletop game, and it’s often at the expense of more casual players who might not have the patience to work out the details. There’s an incredible array of options to customize your character to perfection and combat offers waterfall of choice. Do you want to hack drones to turn on their users? Sling fireballs? Raise up a demon or spirit to fight for you, or just blow the hell out of everyone with shotguns and automatic weapons? Better yet, why not all of the above!
Shadowrun’s tactical and methodical approach to combat is both glorious and imposing in its intricacies. Since combat is turn-based, there’s no penalty for thinking things through at whatever pace fits and the handy quick save option lets you experiment without much penalty. But as much as I adore this series (and the Shadowrun universe in general), these games need to start evolving with better technology behind them and a better user experience upfront.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong is definitely the best of the series, with the most refined approach to storytelling and visuals. This is a great example of gaming that focuses most of its energy on creating mood and atmosphere by merging the art with a topnotch, entertaining text-based narrative. The learning curve might be a bit steep, but the end result is a singular, worthwhile experience.
Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.
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