Developer: Harebrained Schemes
Publisher: Harebrained Holdings
Release Date: Aug 30, 2015
Franchise Fatigue. It happens to the best of them. Many times it’s a “it’s not you it’s me” kind of situation. Maybe you played a bunch of entries in a row, or maybe a sequel simply doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself form its predecessors.
I didn’t think I’d start feeling Franchise Fatigue in the Shadowrun games. Shadowrun: Hong Kong is only the third game after Harebrained Schemes resurrected the series through Kickstarter several years ago.
Shadowrun: Returns told a great story using a simple but effective turn-based combat system reminiscent of XCOM. It was very short and linear, however. Shadowrun: Dragonfall began life as a large expansion before being developed into a stand-alone game via a Director’s Cut. It was a vast improvement, with tons of varied missions and content, and an excellent cast of supporting characters and party members.
I loved Dragonfall, and Hong Kong is pretty much more of the same. That should be perfectly acceptable. Except the story is weaker, the characters not as interesting, and the gameplay now feels far too simplistic. Shadowrun: Hong Kong is still a fun game, but it’s just inferior to Dragonfall.
The story opens with your old adoptive mentor Raymond Black sending you a mysterious note to meet him in Hong Kong. I’ve loved the Noir plot devices and themes in the Shadowrun world, and it’s used to great effect in this opening.
You soon meet up with your fellow adopted brother Duncan, now a cop. Duncan ended up being one of the better characters of the game, with a passion he wears on his sleeve. The opening mission results in several deaths, and you’re suddenly on the run with a surviving group of Shadowrunners – a rat shaman named Gobbet and a dwarf decker named Is0bel.
The awkward plot structure of Dragonfall returns here. Shadowrun is all about going on missions to earn money. Unfortunately this means the main story often takes a back seat while you tackle a bunch of fun but self-contained missions. Hong Kong doesn’t really fix this. I made an effort to actually skip a few missions so I could get through the more interesting main story faster, but it ended up going in a predicable and tiresome direction.
I like when Shadowrun deals with Noir and cyberpunk themes like betrayal, murder, gang warfare, transhumanism, etc. I don’t like it when they simply do the big fantasy thing of demons, dimensional portals, and the end of the world. Shadowrun: Returns was guilty of this at the end as well.
Hong Kong‘s villain is also basically just this outside corporate figure, which is a big bummer. Instead most of your interactions are with your crew and your fixer, the delightfully surly older woman Kindly Cheng. She reminded me of Avasarala in The Expanse series – abrasive, cursing, and intimidating. She’s great.
Your fellow runners are used the same way as in Dragonfall. Duncan, Gobbet, and Is0bel are later joined by Rachter, a smooth Russian rigger and Gaichu, a ghoul samurai. Overall these characters just aren’t quite as fun or interesting as your crew in Dragonfall, and I found myself not talking to them nearly as much. Though Gobbet’s stories of past runs gone wrong were entertaining.
The writing and art is still fantastic. The art design has never been better. Nearly every area of the city drips with a steady rain fall and an impressive level of detail in every background. It does have the unfortunate side effect of highlighting the few things you can actually interact with. There are very few people and objects you can ever click on – an annoying limit that I’ve finally grown sick of.
Inventory and character management is still a mess as well. There’s very little loot and you still can’t manipulate your party member’s equipment until you actually loot something – which is very rare.
The writing remains a major hallmark of the series. I love the descriptive text and the dialogue kept me engaged in most scenes. Many runs have a twist or quirk thrown in that forces you to adapt – like a third party contacting me in the middle of a run to reveal that my client was setting up to betray me. Whom can you trust is a wonderfully recurring theme, though some missions worked much better than others.
A particularly irksome one involved the new Matrix changes. The Matrix is essentially Shadowrun‘s “future internet.” In the games it’s represented by a Tron-like level that only deckers can traverse. In Shadowrun: Hong Kong they added stealth mechanics, allowing combat to be triggered by enemy sight or manually by you. It rarely made any difference in meat space.
In the Matrix dodging these new little sentry patrols was a royal pain in the ass. Combat is still a slog as you have limited moves and only one character (who takes more than 1 decker?).
In the penultimate mission you infiltrate a megacorp building, which sounds cool. But most encounters involve holding off security forces while your decker has to go through the boring motions of Matrix combat.
The one change that was a welcome addition was each of your core party members has some cool unique weaponry or abilities (making it even dumber to spend your precious little nuyen on outside hirelings). Is0bel has a crazy awesome grenade launcher. Rachter can power up his awesome four-legged drone. Gobbet can use her rat totem to steal other spirits. It helps give them all unique flavors and helps make the familiar combat a bit more interesting.
I thought I’d love Shadowrun: Hong Kong because I dig the Shadowrun world and the previous two tactical RPGs. Hell based on the fun I had with those games I ran a Shadowrun tabletop game for a solid five months. But in this case the “same-ness” of the combat and structure felt more tiresome than fun.
I didn’t find the plot nor the characters quite as fun or engaging as Dragonfall, and the frustratingly limited UI and world are too annoying to ignore. I sincerely want to play more Shadowrun games by Harebrained Schemes, but they really need to evolve beyond making clones of the previous iterations.
- Retains the immersive noir-cyberpunk writing and art of previous entries
- Party members have fun unique abilities
- Lots of great new weapons, especially melee-based
- Too much “been there, done that” if you’ve played previous Shadowrun games
- Still very limited in inventory, interactivity, and combat
- Plot starts strong but devolves into lame “defeat the big bad, save the world”
- New optional stealth/ambush mechanics don’t work very well
- Matrix still sucks