Posted by Dave Frear
Computers and magic meet in this overlooked gem of an RPG
Waking up in a morgue with amnesia it’s clear that your character, Jake Armitage, is having a bad day. Set in Seattle in the year 2050, Shadowrun is a cyberpunk RPG based on the pen and paper game of the same name. Having been gunned down in the streets you must uncover exactly what’s going on and fast, because people are still after you. What follows is a gripping and atmospheric tale that quickly draws you in. Upon release the game sold about five copies, which is criminal as it means most gamers missed out on an absolute cracker
Having risen from the dead, the first few minutes of play see you freak out the morgue workers and then chat to someone who saw you get shot. He doesn’t say much before he runs off to get shot dead himself. Picking up his gun you kill his assassin, whose jacket you can then swipe for a bit of protection. Oh, and you encounter a mysterious dog, babbling on about controlling destiny. Things aren’t going to get easier for poor Jake anytime soon.
When you begin you may not have much to go on, but a bit of exploring provides items such as clue-giving scraps of paper. The story keeps pushing forward as you find out more about your world, and upon achieving a goal you will find some new name or place mentioned, and you will hurry off to find out more, or you will learn a magic spell and will be keen to test it out. Whether exploring sewers, fighting a vampire or searching for items there is always something to hold your interest. You can’t just rush through the game though: things get harder as you progress and you will need to take some time out to level up.
Upon defeating an enemy, as well as usually leaving behind some money you may find yourself rewarded with Karma. Find your way to a bed (which also restores health and allows you to save your game) and you will be able to use your acquired Karma points to level up your strength and other abilities including any magic spells you may have learned. There are also shops where you can buy upgraded weaponry and armour to help you out and if you are still finding things difficult, and that’s where Shadowrunners come in.
Shadowrunners can be hired to help, providing extra firepower if you think you’ll need it for a particularly tough section. As well as mercenaries, some Shadowrunners posses magic abilities whilst others are skilled computer users. Prices of your hired help varies as do their abilities; sometimes you will grumble upon realising you’ve wasted your money but others impress, becoming likeable and making you watch that they are not getting low on health. You may even find yourself a little saddened when they announce they’re leaving.
Computers play a big part in the game and a lot of the time you will find yourself jacking into the Matrix: the computer system of the Shadowrun world. In the Matrix you work you way around grids, avoiding or combating unseen objects and hacking the systems to get a lift working or to transfer money to your account.
The game’s intro plops the Space Needle into a Blade Runner-esque landscape with angular architecture and flames bursting from industrial towers. In-game, however, Seattle is made up of plain-looking streets and buildings. The lighting is moody and there are a variety of environments so you won't get bored of it, but you will find that each office has the same interior décor as the next, and the same is true for other places like clubs, corridors and the monorail stations you use to travel between parts of the city.
Though an RPG, the game also features a number of elements that would feel more at home in a point and click adventure. When talking to people you have a number of things you can choose to ask them about, and their responses can generate new things that get added to your list, that either they or someone else in the city can tell you more about. With some characters you don’t have to go see them direct as you can call them on a vidphone which saves some trekking about.
Interacting with people and objects is done by bringing up a hand-pointer and then selecting an option such as ‘talk’, ‘examine’, ‘open’ et cetera. When it comes to using objects you will have to select them from your inventory which adds a puzzle element as you work out what item has to be used in a given situation. This is good but having to select your cyberdeck from the inventory every time you want to use a computer gets annoying, and likewise having to use the hand pointer to pick up dropped money seems needlessly fiddly.
Combat is similar in that Jake stays fixed to the spot whilst you control a crosshair to determine who to shoot at. Sometimes this is troublesome, as if you could move and fire you could avoid some damage, but for the most part it works fine as not all enemy shots will hit you and you can always reposition yourself to make sure you are only fighting one foe at a time. This may be tougher to do later on but at that point you will have better weapons, armour and abilities plus a few spells to help you out.
There are many different enemies and non-hostile characters including street thugs, mercenaries, orcs, characters with an elfish appearance, street doctors, businessmen and a shape-shifting fox lady. Though sprites are reused for various people, talking to them reveals a variety of different personalities which keeps things interesting - though strangely sometimes you will find the sprite doesn't match the close up view you get when in conversation. The rich cast of characters really enhances the game with some being threatening, others rude and some politely asking not to be killed. There are also humorous moments too such as your girlfriend being surprised you're alive, before casually informing you she’s got someone else now, so shove off.
Music-wise there are a few tracks that play, which alter as you change environment. Some are adventurous, others haunted and they are often quite catchy. There’s a set track that kicks in whenever you enter combat that adds to the excitement, and the sound effects are also good. Though mostly used for firearms and explosions, there are good little moments like the amusing “uggh” noise Jake makes when you accidentally open a door onto yourself.
There’s quite a lot of city for you to explore as you play through the game, as well as trips away to a boat and a base. Though the game begins with you easy to kill, the difficulty is quite well-judged assuming you take time out to level up every now and then. However even levelled up, the later parts of the game where you will find yourself battling floor after floor of enemies can be very challenging, ensuring the game will occupy quite a bit of your time.
There are some things about the controls that irritate and visually the game lacks polish but for the most part the game is challenging fun, with atmospheric music, interesting characters and a gripping narrative that makes each play through an absolute joy. Perhaps the only disappointing thing is that the ending mentions ‘Shadowrun II’ and whilst games based on the license appeared on the Mega Drive, Mega CD and Xbox 360, sadly none were the much deserverd sequel to this fantastic game.