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Shadowrun games: cyberpunk orcs, mercenary dwarfs, and matrix hacking elves

I've recently played Shadowrun: Hong Kong and I am currently replaying both it and Shadowrun: Dragonfall, so I think it is on me to create a general thread for the series.

Background info:
The Shadowrun franchise started life as a popular tabletop role playing game in 1989, being a science-fantasy take on your dungeon-master-guided party 'em ups like D&D. It has also served as the source material for a number of beloved video game adapations, which is what this thread is about.

The setting takes place in a cyberpunk 21st century which posits that fantasy magic is in fact real and works in cycles of about 5,000 years. Many cyberpunk settings have the feeling of the "new world" being built over the history "old world", and this is the case here as well with cybernetic augmentation, magecraft, and the rebirth of Tolkein races becoming the new normal for the nations and geography that we all know from the actual world.

Shadowrunners are a type of independent, for-hire criminal contractor. Assassinations, hacking, corporate espionage, or just your usual smash and grab. They live on the edges of society, but with a more glamorous life than a corp wageslave, and also with a more dangerous profession than a gang thug or lone star cop. Of course, shadowrunners are always the role the player steps into. The standard depiction of shadowrunners is that of a small, close-knit team of diverse specialists who work together and complement one another (obviously tracing directly to its tabletop roots).

I will only put small blurbs here for now. I think a lot of people visiting this thread know at least something about most of these games, so let's give a refresher for now and leave most of the meat for anyone to write about later. Until recently, pretty much all the games were very different beasts. They also possessed the uniform title "Shadowrun" so you have to refer to them by their system instead.

Shadowrun SNES (1993): An isometric game that is more of a plot based action-adventure first and foremost with a simplified RPG progression stacked on top. Very unique system of interaction using keywords to handle all conversations and a d-pad cursor to handle both enviroment interaction and combat (and the game has tons of both!). Colorful characters at each bar, club, and plot junction. Moody atmosphere and lots of run-ins with supernatural beasts. This game is the best <3 and I will probably have the longest write up for it later in this thread.

Shadowrun Genesis (1994): A completely separate game by a separate developer, not uncommon for this era of course. A top down game with a more heavily delineated class system, and skills that more closely reflect the tabletop game. The most "open" Shadowrun game. You'll spend a great deal of time in the middle game performing instanced runs to build up karma and gear. The initial area presents a miniature version of this gameplay loop using easy runs to build up your starting character, which is a very satisfying arc to reach "escape velocity" and become strong enough to feel like you have solid footing. I regret not giving this game enough chances in the 90s and had to make up for it almost two decades later.

The Shadowrun Returns series (PC platforms):
  • Shadowrun Returns (2013)
  • Shadowrun: Dragonfall (2014)
  • Shadowrun: Hong Kong (2015)

A Kickstarter revival brought Shadowrun back as a trio of tactical RPG games where you follow a cybperunk story intermixed with battles, light exploration, and flavorful text dialogue. The first game being just "Shadowrun Returns" with two much more expanded followups: the great Shadowrun: Dragonfall and the good-to-great Shadowrun: Hong Kong. Sometimes you'll see Shadowrun Returns referred to as "Dead Man's Switch" to give it a more unique moniker.

Lots of X-COM grade cover shooting goodness here. Outside of battle you'll spend plenty of skill-point karma to hone your main character's build. Then you'll outfit them by investing nuyen into different weapon and gear types. Dragonfall and Hong Kong have you leading a (mostly) plot-mandated team of shadowrunners from a small hometown of NPCs and shops. You choose which teammates to bring with you on each run and get to enjoy little bits of character advancing dialogue each time you return to your hometown and safe house.

Of all the Shadowrun games, the Returns series embodies what might be called the "western RPG dialogue choices" tradition the most. Sometimes these choices are gated by skillchecks, thus making those dialogue responses and mission approaches available only to specific builds. Sometimes it's just a matter of how you want to handle it (i.e., by being overly aggressive or being a wise cracker). All that said, I should keep your expectations in check because most dialogue options are flavor that will not deviate individual conversations very far from their predestined course.


...Finally, while perhaps less likely to attract discussion, there are a few more Shadowrun games that round out the franchise (none which I've played):

Shadowrun Mega CD (1996). A Japanese only visual novel with some turn based combat. Set in cyberpunk Japan with a 90s manga style that only a CD based format could deliver. Sounds cool + looks cool..... sooooo if it ever, ever gets translated it'll be a neat curio to experience (although unlikely to be a hidden masterpiece I gather).

Shadowrun Xbox 360 (2007). Microsoft's ownership of the franchise brough us a class-based, team deathmatch, FPS for the Xbox 360. Uh.. ok, you do you I guess. I think it died more quickly than people could say "why slap the Shadowrun IP on this game?". I recall it did not feel like it was marketed towards fans, but rather a general audience, but people who've played it usually have nice things to say about it at least.

History should record that Shadowrun made for a more elaborate backdrop than Team Fortress 2 or Counterstrike, and being able to pick races, tech, and abilities was very different for the era. However, there is more to making a popular shooter than being unique, and you could tell no one really cared that you should play this one because there were teleportation spells and shamans could revive a team member or whatever.

Shadowrun Chronicles: Boston Lockdown (PC platforms, 2015) -- aka "The other shadowrun kickstarter" from mid last decade, originally having the moniker "Shadowrun Online". This game is *also* a tactical RPG, with perhaps confusing initial similarities to the Returns series, although they are quite separate games. I think the driving part of this game's conception was to create a co-op multiplayer video game that taps into the feeling of performing a shadowrun with other real people. The game is dead now because the servers went offline in 2018 and it was built as an online only experience even if you played solo with NPCs.


The thread rule is that you can discuss all plot and story events without marking things with spoiler text.

For one, I'd like to see these stories discussed and commented upon freely and casually. I also think most Shadowrun games are 1) old and 2) short, so it isn't a great burden for someone currently playing through one of these games to exercise caution for a little while. Or perhaps they can live-blog their first playthrough in a new thread (I'd love to see that!) where others can comment more judiciously.
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hardcore retro gamin'
At some point I really want to play through the SNES game. One thing always struck me about it, though: it seems tailor-made for the SNES mouse, yet doesn't support it. That being said, someone took it on themselves to implement mouse support via scripting.

I also really like what I played of Shadowrun: Dragonfall, so I'm very open to giving it some run again. Maybe when I finally give in and buy a new PC.


Me and My Bestie
(He, him)
I'm sad that the mobile versions of Shadowrun Returns and Shadowrun Dragonfall were delisted completely before I got my LG in late 2018. Though I didn't get into 'em much (mainly 'cuz they didn't run the best on the ol' RCA slablet) it was neat to have 'em portable.
This thread serendipitously popped up a few days after I started Shadowrun Returns: Dead Man's Switch. Because the game is pretty short, I've finished it now. I really enjoyed it! If this is widely agreed to be the worst of the three Harebrained Schemes Shadowrun games, I'm very excited to try the others. I also wonder how much of its reputation is tied to its initial release, because my understanding is that it was revised as part of the Dragonfall development process.

I played an INT focused elf that did both drones and hacking. I was worried a bit about a hybrid build, but on Normal at least the skill points were generous enough and the difficulty curve was smooth enough that over the course of the campaign that except for one minor case my Decking and Rigging scores were always high enough to pass skill checks and the character was also very useful in combat, especially at the very end when drones essentially give a character 9 AP instead of 3. (The one exception to being able to make all the skillchecks was during the break in to the Universal Brotherhood. Decking 6 will basically let you skip literally everything else in that adventure game style sequence, but Decking 4 and INT 5 will let you skip almost everything. So, it really didn't matter.)

It's true that in some ways the game does feel like Babby DM's First Campaign, which I understand is the consensus about Dead Man's Switch. But the other side of that is that the game feels very focused, and I appreciated being able to get used to the world and the various systems in an RPG that's wraps up in a dozen+ hours.

In any case, I definitely plan to play more Shadowrun games! I already did the prologue mission in Dragonfall, this time with a dwarf mage. I like that it seems to have more focus on companions with personalities instead of generics, because that was one thing I wanted more of from Dead Man's Switch. I was kind of bummed when Shannon Half-Sky didn't at least show up on the hires list after her story ended.


Plastic Vampire
I don't have a heck of a lot to offer here, because I've only dabbled in SNES Shadowrun (and loved my brief time there), but I can share this beautiful artifact from 1990 which is worth watching thru to the end.

@estragon Great that you enjoyed it. I'm tossing around the idea of doing a rigger character for Dead Man's Switch as well should this turn into a whole trilogy replay. I'm not sure how much Shadowrun Returns was revised down the road other than fixing bugs and adding "save anywhere", which I recall being a major complaint of the initial release.

BTW the difficulty modes only affect your base chance to hit. Karma, nuyen, and enemy troop numbers are unaffected. Personally I feel even "Very Hard" still has a fun and non-frustrating level of overall difficulty, but the fun is also undercut by having certain weapon types feel terrible for missing so often (melee, shotguns, SMGs) so I opt for 'Hard'. The series definitely encourages the player to settle in with the notion that the games are pretty breezy no matter how you play them.

@Dracula (me on the left without my shirt)
So does that apply to all of the 'returns' games?

Yes, I'd say all 3 games have a similar overall difficulty. So if one was relatively easy for you then they all should be about that. Hong Kong also does away with the "Very Hard" difficulty mode. On that topic, Hong Kong has a bonus campaign which offers notably more difficult encounters using some new, more troublesome enemy types. I would rate that bonus campaign as the hardest the series gets, but it is still pretty manageable.

Shadowrun SNES (1993):

The first Shadowrun video game, and I think it is still something of a standard bearer for the series despite simplifying the RPG-ness relative to other entries. There is an arresting moodiness to this game's isometric buildings, open cityscapes, and great soundtrack. A world populated by fuzzy little NPC sprites with indistinct faces performing simple animations to pump their arms and legs when running, or spin around and dance at clubs.

Playing this games sometimes means going from building to building, talking to everyone about local keywords. It sometimes means cursor-based environment searching and adding items to your adventure-game inventory. It sometimes means tip toeing through a minesweeper-esque matrix network. And sometimes -- often times -- playing this game means real time combat against hit squads trying to do in the main character.

For an RPG with a narrative plot and colorful characters, Shadowrun on SNES doesn't actually want to spend a lot of time cozying up with NPC backstories, or trying to form a bond between the player and a home location or anything more typical of the genre. The writing you get from each person is brief and related to the current storyline in some way, with world and NPC details pouring out around the edges.

A good example of how the game's story does a lot with very little is the two street docs you'll visit as you try to fix your headware computer: Dr. Ed from Ed's Patch' N' Fix and Dr. Maplethorpe. Dr. Ed is the "bad" doctor you meet first who makes the problem worse and sets off a cortex bomb in your skull (even though it isn't entirely his fault). This literally triggers a tense section of the game where you will have to progress the story through more plot points while a ticking timer constantly reminds you about your soon-to-be exploded head. Dr. Maplethorpe is the "good" doctor you meet later who fixes the problem and relieves all that stress. While Ed barely seems to sympathize about your dire situation, Dr. Maplethorphe seems to genuinely care about you. The first doctor is young, relatively fresh faced, has a clinic in a shabby part of town, and engages in a little gallows humour when you step on the operating table. The second doctor is visibly older, has an expensive, well maintained clinic with a receptionist, and seems to serve wealthier clientele judging by his cyberware offerings. Two distinct characters that you can imagine existing in this world, but there's like, maybe ten text boxes between the two of them.

The keyword dialogue system is perhaps this game's most unique feature. A memorable touch is how these conversation windows occupy the entire screen, suddenly shifting music tracks and showing you a drawn portrait of whatever tiny NPC sprite you walked up to. There is a certain satisfying feeling here when you ask your conversation partner a keyword that gives a non-generic response. Most often this is messaged by learning a new keyword (bolded in-game), giving the visual center of your brain an instant signal of success before you can even read the words.

If you wanted a very visual embodiment of the terms "plot flags" or "event triggers", then learning those bolded keywords would be it. Progress is typically hinted by and tied to these exchanges. There isn't an over abundance of dialogue though, and you aren't always given clear "go here next, do this" when you make keyword progress. This keeps the player focused on what is said and what is happening with the plot, because ultimately it is up to you to form an internal guess for what you are supposed to do. Your eyes and ears should always be peeled for places and people you've heard about but haven't seen yet, and what would be reasonable keywords to ask in this or that situation. (And, failing that, you can always just blast down the keyword list.)

You start the game as the amnesiac Jake Armitage who wakes up in a morgue bed after the bad guys ordered a hit on him. You now have to figure out who you are and why people tried to kill you. It immediately becomes apparent that your previous run uncovered something too big and the bad guys know you are still alive. Poor Jake is stumbling around in the first 5 minutes literally just trying to find the keys to his apartment, all the while the bad guys are sending waves of hitmen after him to finish the job. This premise gives enough justification for the game's random battles in street corners, alleyways, and rented office spaces. (and through open windows... and hanging off ledges... and pushing their way up from inside dumpsters... There is more than one dose of intentional-to-unintentional humor here!)

The combat encounters are surprisingly fun for being mostly stand-in-place affairs. The combat controls have you kinesthetically aim your cursor as quickly as possible, and then hammer away at the A button. To me at least, it feels like drawing your weapon and going to town on the trigger. Sometimes the damage ticks away faster than you expect, making you scramble to retreat or heal. If you want, you can mess around with manually giving your companions priority targets, manually casting their spells, or even tossing out a grenade or powerball of your own. But these options represent a level of extra combat depth that is entirely secondary, optional, and not enormously effective anyway. Every enemy NPC lets out the same wailing, bit-sampled cry as their life expires. Frequently this sound is followed by mysterious chimes and a small text box indicating how much karma (experience points/skill points) you gained from that battle.

Like would become standard for all Shadowrun games, you are the master of only your main character's level progression and gear selection, not your team mates. In fact, this game is by default a one man show and your companions will mostly have to be hired for limited durations. That said there is one shadowrunner, the fox shaman Kitsune, who has more ties to you and the story. At the mid point of the game she becomes your one forced, free companion (if you can keep her alive.)

Jake himself is also a shaman (of the Dog Totem variety) but he can also cast hermetic spells (Mage class) as well as hack into the matrix (Decker class), wield awesome shotguns, rifles, and assault cannons (more typical of a mercenary or military background), and fight with enhanced cyberware (Street Samurai). I mention this only as a minor point, because being a jack-of-all trades character who is quite proficient with everything is not how you would construct an RPG with distinct specialities and trade offs. In particular, this game doesn't penalize mixing cyberware and magic which is a key part of the source material.

And yet, as an adaptation of the source material into a SNES game it works smoothly. It's hard to imagine a small game with such limited mechanics giving you such a good, focused adventure otherwise. Like, even though you can ostensibly level up your stats, spells, and specialities how you want, almost everybody's "Jake" is going to chug along with a strong weapon, frequent use of the heal spell, and enough decking to get by. And you know what -- that's okay! The game doesn't need a shaman-only build or a street samurai-only build or whatever that handles each scenario in a completely unique, gated way.

Structurally, Shadowrun on the SNES is pieced together out of two main "styles" or "modes". One mode is where you feel like you are wandering around in a non-linear fashion, figuring things out yourself and learning new things. The second mode is when you are on a purpose-driven story mission. Which always means exploring virgin territory and facing high density encounters as you crank through that antagonist's domain. These missions are where the level variety kicks in: gang hideouts, rat sewers, abandoned ship wrecks, volcano complexes, and vampire mansions. These are good times to hire up those extra shadowrunners from the local club, so that you can multiply your firepower and pool of hitpoints. You almost want to call these the game's "side missions" because they are clearly about "explore once" locations that branch off from the hub, but of course these missions are 100% required and move the story along.

The result is a nice little tale that starts off in with a one-on-one gunfight with the dinkiest pistol in a dark alley and ends with raiding a dragon's highly secure corporate tower in order to blow up the AI housed in the main computer and then escape by helicopter. Ages ago I did a screenshot Let's Play for this game -- which I am proud of and recommend -- but I still would try to push people to play Shadowrun for themselves!
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Two things about Dragon Fall:

(1) I like that they borrow the Baldur's Gate 2 structure of making one of your first major goals just doing enough side quests to raise a lot of money. I'm fine with more RPGs just incentivizing poking around in that way. Obviously this is less free form than BG2, but I still like it as a premise.

(2) They did a good job making Trial Run mission feel psychologically unnerving. I figured it was going to have major complications because I'm aware of the genre tropes of "this is your audition and we'll be watching every move" type missions, but I figured it would just be like . . . getting caught by guards and maybe being evaluated by your dialogue choices and not also one of your teammates trying to kill the other.

James was so irritating that I thought he might have been the test supervisor but I guess apparently not, unless he comes back later in a follow up mission. I figured he might break character at the very end to congratulate you or something but it didn't happen.
I feel like the 'Trial Run' mission inverts or rearranges the fantasy race tropes: the elf is the pack mule, the human is the mage, and the dwarf is a timid pacifist. I think it is implied that the canister you plant is the explosive, although it seems strange to me that it is placed in a room elsewhere on the floor. Must have been a huge explosion. You can ask your teammates for more information about 'The Lodge', as well as a few NPCs (Lucky Strike, and maybe Aljernon?), but the overall purpose of these optional mission objectives only gets the faintest explanations for now.


Random question about the SNES game- Was there some area that was scrapped at the last minute? I distinctly recall weapons listed in the manual and NPCs shown in the ending that, to the best I've ever been able to determine, just do not exist.


Well now I have to actually look it up and... the assault cannon. Never found it back in the day, apparently because I didn't think to look around for newly available weapons after already having killed a freaking dragon. And I could swear all the end credit character jokes had some people who don't show up in the game itself, but, may just be hazy memories.
I reminded that earlier this year I watched this retrospective video on the Shadowrun Returns trilogy:

It might be of interest for some of you as well.


Just some poster
On Shadowrun Returns Hong Kong, while I appreciate that they put some more thought into the cyberspace segments, the game mechanics did not feel up to the task of what they were going for in said segments.
I binged the back half of Dragonfall over the weekend. I ended up going maximum chaos and freeing both the dragon and the AI. From the perspective of a "good" ending versus a "bad" ending, I think the former was the right choice but the latter was a huge mistake (and pretty obviously, in retrospect). Oops! Sorry, deckers of the world. As a story though, I liked watching the result of these choices play out more than if I had destroyed the AI, and I'd rather have an interesting story than a "good" ending.

Maybe more thoughts on the game as a whole later...

I'm debating whether to go right into Hong Kong or to take a bit of a break, and also I'm wondering what sort of character to go with. I really enjoyed being a mage in Dragonfall, so I'm torn between just doing that again or going for some sort of Chi Casting adept, because my only experience with that archetype is with a few hires from Dead Man's Switch, so it might be fun to dig into the one character type I'm unfamiliar with. Quickly skimming some old threads here and there, it seems like mages benefits from a new approach to ley lines in Hong Kong, but also they make swords much cooler which many people say benefits adepts (and other close combat characters)? Hmmm.
Ley lines do help mages a fair bit (not that they need it of course), but I really think it is a good idea not to do the same character type in Hong Kong. I think the same character type can get stale if you play it right after Dragonfall, which I say in part due to my opinion on how well HK engages the player vs DF.

I think adepts are the only class which I've never played in these games (those Qi casting skills just don't tickle my fancy I guess). You could also try a hand razor specialist, since Hong Kong added cyberware weapons and a cyberware affinity stat (and razor skills are cooler than spur skills). A troll throwing weapon specialist is surprisingly good in Hong Kong in my experience as well. BTW: one of your team mates uses swords in Hong Kong, although you have 5 team mates to pick from.
I think the same character type can get stale if you play it right after Dragonfall

Yeah I'm basically torn between "will I get bored of this?" and "maybe but unless they've totally rebalanced things mage spells are extremely fun so maybe I won't."

Basically I think my love of being The Wizard might be enough to not got bored of it.

If anyone reading this thread is interested in the PC Shadowrun games but somehow did not pick them up when Epic was giving them away for free or in a bundle or in any previous sales, they're all 75% off right now on Humble. (They go on sale pretty often though so don't feel tricked by the sale into buying if you don't want to play soon, just pointing it out now because the thread is new-ish and maybe someone else will want to play along. Also, note that the Deluxe editions are just soundtracks and other things external to the actual game, all the base games are going for ~$3.75 USD, an absolute steal for how good Dragonfall is, in my opinion.)