Amid a storm of bullets and mystic fire, it’s hard to keep hope alive in the triad-controlled concrete empire that is Hong Kong. This was not the reunion I was expecting, and after witnessing the horrors that have been unleashed, this feels more like suicide than anything resembling a plan. Just who’s Harebrained Scheme was this?
In three short years, Harebrained Schemes has all but erased the foul taste left by FASA Interactive’s Shadowrun 2007 FPS. While there were some problems with the release of Shadowrun Returns, it was still a great game, and the team has gone from strength to strength with each successive release – first with Dragonfall, and then with its standalone Directors Cut, which not only improved on the base game but made it one of the gaming highlights of 2014.
Now, the team are back with their next Shadowrun adventure, another single player turn-based RPG that focusses on character-driven stories and a robust combat experience in the brutal fantasy cyberpunk world of Shadowrun Hong Kong.
The adventure starts with you arriving in Hong Kong after receiving an urgent and worrying message from your estranged foster father. Upon arrival, you quickly discover your father is not only missing, but that there are events transpiring that may spell the demise of everyone in the city. The journey to the bottom of this conspiracy takes you through the city, down to its criminal underbelly, and beyond into realms unexplored and otherworldly.
As with previous Shadowrun games, from an isometric perspective you control a single character in a team of up to four. Your character can be male or female and any of five races and six classes, ranging from but not limited to honour bound Street Samurai, magic wielding Mage, or cyberjack-enhanced Decker. You can also chose to play a freeform class of your own design, utilising aspects of each of the six classes. There are enough stats, skills, and character building options to keep most RPG fans very happy.
Mechanically, the game will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played either of the previous Shadowrun RPGs, or basically any isometric PC RPG released in the last few years. Completely mouse-driven with optional hotkeys, the user experience is quite natural once you get to grips with the intricacies of the game systems.
Since Dragonfall, every aspect of the franchise has seen a slight tightening, or very minor tweaks. All of these are improvements, but none are as dramatic as you might expect, feeling more like a slight refinements than an actual overhaul for a brand new game.
Combat remains mostly unchanged, and still uses a system that falls between XCOM and Wasteland 2. It’s essentially a two-phase turn-based system, wherein each character has Action Points that can be used for movement, spell casting, weapons, or support actions. Careful use of each team member’s skills along with an awareness of cover, flanking, and health are vital to ensure the survival of your team.
It's challenging but seldom unfair, and skilled players will be able to pull off some effective coordinated maneuverers. It’s a simple system to learn with enough depth to keep combat fresh, and as your team levels up and new skills, spells and weapons are added, you are able to unleash a bombastic barrage of particle effects, explosions, and cries of pain!
One thing that fans of series were excited for was a promised revamp of Decking, which is essentially a hacking mechanic that allows the Decker to interact with a digital reality found within the Matrix network. If this sounds familiar, it should – it’s an idea a certain movie franchise borrowed very heavily from.
In the previous games, the Matrix was basically a reskinned version of ‘real world’ locations, and a laborious grind to boot. Decking in Hong Kong is a different experience entirely, with a whole new look and feel. Additional options and a lot of refining have finally made it as fun and rewarding as it should have been all along, but it’s not intuitive, and despite an in-game tutorial can be impenetrable initially.
Ultimately though, Shadowrun Hong Kong is a masterfully crafted game with truly exceptional writing and a story that goes in unexpected directions. The pacing drops off in a few places, and some areas are either too large, or not filled in enough, so it doesn’t quite feel as satisfying as Dragonfall - Directors Cut. But this is not enough to ruin the experience by any means, it simply dulls the lustre of an otherwise exceptional RPG.