Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing, lulling us into enjoying the same familiar things over and over instead of breaking new ground. And if anything in gaming could get away with that endless repetition, it might be Shadowrun Returns. The series was one of the earlier Kickstarter video game reboots, with an impeccable geek pedigree — it’s a successor to a video game adaptation of a 25-year-old tabletop role-playing game, set in a world that mixes J.R.R. Tolkien’s supernatural races with William Gibson’s ‘80s futurism.
But Shadowrun Returns isn’t just a throwback, it’s an excellent creation in its own right: a smart and addictive combination of turn-based fighting, meticulous character building, and virtual social maneuvering. It’s difficult enough to feel challenging, but not so hard that you can irrevocably break something and only find out three hours later. It offers clear choices, but there may be no obviously “right” blanket answer, and the biggest consequences are your own moral qualms. It’s the purest iteration of RPGs’ particular brand of escapism: a string of new lives where you get to pick exactly what you’re good at, the world is built to accommodate it, and you can always start over if you fail.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong, released last week, is the third campaign, but it’s the rebooted series’ first real upgrade. It’s got the same look and feel as the original Shadowrun Returns, the same basic mechanics, and the same hardboiled writing style. But it’s also a lesson in how to — and how not to — keep the core elements of a game while pushing their limits.
Every single Shadowrun game begins the same way: your character arrives in a city on the instructions of an old acquaintance. Within ten minutes, that person will be dead, and you will have to find their killer. To do this, you will enter a dangerous underworld full of hackers, shamans, megacorps, dragons, megacorps run by dragons, and street samurai. The repetition is a good indicator of what the series delivers: a mashup of comfortable tropes (are any two genres more overused than high fantasy and cyberpunk?) that meld into a piece of competent, thoughtful, and creative design.
The latest installment sets its narrative ambitions higher than usual. Cyberpunk has often used East Asian imagery as exotic window dressing, but Shadowrun: Hong Kong tries to incorporate future-fantasy versions of feng shui (including a slightly tongue-in-cheek mission about sabotaging a geomancy consultancy by disrupting its qi) and Triad gangs as integrally as it does elves and European anarchists. And the game frequently pulls it off — partly through its general cosmopolitanism, and partly because it’s usually too interested in the minutiae of characters’ lives to reduce them to stereotypes.
Hong Kong’s characters are connected in a way that previous games in the series haven’t managed. Instead of being thrown together by circumstance, they have clear networks of friends, relatives, and criminal partners. This includes the protagonist, who spends the game butting heads with their estranged foster brother while searching for their surrogate father.
Writing people that the player character knows but the player doesn’t can push conversations towards awkward "as you know" exposition, which the game sometimes falls into. For the most part, though, it turns character development into a minigame. Branching conversations let you pick what you want to remember about your past, and everyone else responds as if they’d known all along. The system doesn’t seem all that complex, but it was deep enough to make me feel bad when someone commented that they never really got to spend time with me, right before the end of the game. (I also, it turns out, missed out on some quests by ignoring everyone outside missions.)
Underneath the standard corporate intrigue and double-crosses, Hong Kong also has a new and uniquely creepy tone. You’re soon at the center of a conspiracy involving some shady civil engineering and an otherworldly nightmare, and the first half of the game effectively builds a sense of foreboding: you’ll pass through a nearly deserted Kowloon Walled City, some eerie interstitial dream sequences, and a moment where your own teeth start falling out.
These elements, though, feel like they’re straining against the game’s capabilities. Hong Kong’s relatively simple visual style allows for a large, diverse cast without expending too many resources — maybe because swapping out genders is such an integral part of RPG character creation, it’s got more female characters than almost any other game I can name. It also allows the game to simply describe things it can’t show, putting a block of text over a highly stylized scene. But it’s a victim of its own success: the more surreal and evocative the scene, the more I want to see it instead of read about it.
Every design tweak reveals how delicate a balancing act the Shadowrun series pulls off. You don’t need to know anything about previous campaigns or the original tabletop rules to play Hong Kong, but it only explains its many systems in the virtual equivalent of a low-profile user manual, so it relies on players broadly understanding what kinds of characters they can build and how they should approach missions. Hong Kong is longer than earlier campaigns — I finished it in 21 hours, without some optional quests — and its fight scenes and conversations can feel a little too long, noticeably throwing off the pacing. It’s especially frustrating when you end up in a place that plays to your weaknesses, like being a shaman in a tech-obsessed community or a hacker in a brawl.
Hacking — sorry, "decking" — is a case where thematic effectiveness doesn’t equal satisfying gameplay. Previously a series of straightforward turn-based battles, it’s now broken up by stealth sequences and memory puzzles. It’s far better at evoking the sense of sneaking through a network undetected and deciphering its codes. Unfortunately, because Shadowrun’s point-and-click controls aren’t good at precise movement, it’s also miserable. Tripping alarm after alarm because I clicked a couple of ticks too far or couldn’t see a virtual camera didn’t feel difficult so much as arbitrarily cruel.
In order to really do justice to its ideas, Hong Kong would need to be a different game: one with an art style that was built specifically for its horror elements and controls built for its new mechanics. I’m not sure it’s the strongest overall segment; Dragonfall, the second campaign, is a great contender. But there’s so much good in the formula that changing it feels unnecessary. Should I feel bad for wanting to play variations on the same thing over and over? Potentially. But in some sense, that’s the point. The Shadowrun Returns series isn’t a story, it’s a style — a set of opportunities and restraints for its developers to experiment with. Hong Kong isn’t a perfect fit, but it’s a worthy addition.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong is available on Mac, PC, and Linux platforms.