Shadowrun Hong Kong

This is primarily a review of the latest Shadowrun game (released August 2015) but I'll also talk about about the entire Harebrained Schemes series (Shadowrun Returns/Dead Man's Switch, Dragonfall/Director's Cut, and Hong Kong/Extended Edition) as I want to contrast some of the changes in this game to the previous ones. I'll talk about the plot a bit later, but I'll warn you before I get there in case you don't want to hear any spoilers. First I'm going to start with my overall impression.

In a word, inconsistent. There are bits of this game I really love and bits that I really hate. There are bits that seem to be well-designed, well-implemented, well-written, etc. and just very high quality and professional. There are other bits with really blatant errors, including at least a couple of bugs that break parts of the game. This long after release, there's really no excuse for that.

That lift's going to be crowded.
But I'm going to talk about the good bits first. The characters range from inoffensive to excellent, as does the dialogue. I rarely found myself in a position where I had to compromise my vision of the protagonist due to lack of dialogue (or other) options. The main story is nothing special, but it does its job of giving the characters reasons for doing what they're doing, so it's fine.

Those who've played the previous games will be familiar with the three gameplay modes, which I'll call “narrative”, “combat”, and “dialogue”. In dialogue, you have choices about what to say and often the option to use you're character's (or team-mates') skills or “etiquettes” (knowledge about different cultures, eg. corporate, academic, etc.) to interact with characters in different ways. For example, a high “strength” skill might let you intimidate someone, while the “socialite” etiquette might help you blend in at a party.

Is Song male or female? Even the game doesn't know!

Combat works basically the same as the previous games. Each character takes a turn to act, whether moving, firing a weapon, casting a spell, or performing some other action (or actions) and once everyone on one team has had a turn then the other team goes. It's pretty fun, but after playing the first two games I've kind of learned the system well enough that it's no longer challenging.

Narrative mode is normally just used for moving around safe areas, finding people to talk to and things to pick up, etc. Usually you'll go into combat mode as soon as you get within sight of an enemy. But this game adds a new twist that wasn't really present in the previous games and seems really poorly thought-out. Basically, sometimes you'll see an enemy before they see you, and you'll have the option to either go into combat mode or to remain in narrative mode. By staying in narrative mode you can try to avoid them or sneak past.

The problem is, you only have direct control over your main character, not the rest of the party, and it's pretty much impossible to know how far enemies can see. These sections, for me, were a total waste of time. They could just have dropped me straight into combat mode and it would have made no difference.

Why would you say the pool cues are leaning against the wall when we can see they aren't?

Then there's the matrix. I hate the matrix. Some computers can be used just like a real life computer: You have a screen and a keyboard and so forth. Others require a “decker” (hacker) to physically connect to them to “deck” into “the matrix”. This means the decker takes control of an avatar and runs around inside the matrix. This is pretty much a staple of cyberpunk, but it's really dumb and a huge pain in the arse.

In the previous games, the matrix was always in combat mode. It was a nuisance, because you'd be stuck with most of your team sitting around in the real world waiting for the decker to do all the matrix stuff by themself. You can have multiple deckers, but they tend to be pretty specialised and about the least useful member of the team outside of that function.

But in this game they've changed it so the decker can run around the matrix in narrative time. That would be fine, if they hadn't also added patrolling sentries that you have to try to sneak past. This game is not at all suited to stealth, and these sections play totally differently to the entire rest of the game, requiring some pretty careful timing.

The other issue with narrative time in the matrix is that you can't use your “programs” (basically spells) until you're in combat mode, not even the one that lets you reduce the current alert level. You also can't use that one in combat (or rather, you can, you'll just learn through trial and error that it won't do anything) meaning that to use it you basically have to get caught by a sentry. It really feels like no one thought about how this was supposed to work.

Also new in this game are the barriers in front of anything you need to access. Once your alert level gets high enough they just become enemies that can't move, and if it weren't for the other enemies that pop up when your alert level gets that high it would be the easiest way to deal with them. Your other options are to have a password (which happens so rarely that I actually forgot to use it when it did), increase your alert by 50 to just brute force it, or play a weird minigame that never really gets explained and makes no sense. Yeah, I just did the brute force option every time.

This actually highlights two larger issues though. The first is the passwords. It really shouldn't be possible to forget you have them, but this game does that thing where you have to enter passwords manually. They're all written down for you, but you have to remember to call them up, and it's just a complete waste of time. The other is how bad it is at explaining things.

The closest these games have to tutorials are the help screens which basically just label the different parts of the screen and leave you to figure stuff out yourself. It took me a while in the first game to realise you could reload weapons – I thought you just had a set amount of ammo per mission and that was it – and I couldn't make head or tail of the matrix hacking minigame in this one.

The games are generally easy enough that it doesn't matter if you don't fully understand what you're doing, but that just means that once you do figure stuff out, everything becomes too easy. Having already played the first two games, I was able to make my character this time essentially unstoppable. But then there were some fights that made me think that maybe someone who hadn't made such a combat-oriented character might have some serious difficulty.

Which brings me to the missions. Some of them are really good, giving you plenty of options for how to go about things and letting you make full use of your team. There are often ways to talk your way out of trouble, or use decking to get information you need, or send a drone through a vent to get something for you. When I was playing one of those missions, I really felt like they'd put a lot of thought and effort into it.

But some missions are not like that at all. Some missions just dump you straight into fights. Some missions just don't have anything for a decker or rigger to do, other than help out in combat. Most missions actually don't seem to have much for a magic-user to do outside of combat, but magic-users tend to be more combat-oriented than deckers and riggers, so that's not as bad. But there are also some weird lapses, such as the one mission where a particular check required the player character to have the decking skill rather than letting you just have a team-mate do it for you.

And there are missions that are just badly designed. One in particular seems like it's meant to be possible to do it without fighting, but I just couldn't figure out what I was supposed to do. No matter what, it seemed like it ended up with me just having to fight a bunch of security guards – whether I successfully disguised myself and obtained the security codes or not.

And then there are the bugs. Some are harmless – like the time my character was told to use the code name “Argent” but used “Argyle” instead in one bit of dialogue – but others are pretty serious. There's one mission where, if you trip the alarm too soon, it becomes impossible to finish. You're supposed to get a key and you just don't, so you can't get what you came for, nor can you abandon the mission or do anything else. Another time I got an email that I couldn't see, and then later I got another email berating me for ignoring the first. Not only did I miss out on an objective there, but it turns out this actually changes something not insignificant. Every issue I encountered had been publicly reported to the developers, and they have patched the game since release, so it's hard to cut them any slack for this kind of stuff.

Another time, I had -1 unread messages.

And before I go on to review the story, just a few more odds and ends. One thing that briefly took me out of it was when Felicia Day showed up; You can't just have a famous actor appear in your game and expect people not to notice. The dialogue is mostly great, but there are times when the cracks start to show and it becomes obvious that what you say generally has no impact on anything. Most environments in the game are fine, but some of the ways you're prevented from wandering too far feel really artificial, and some areas are a bit large and awkward to navigate. Oh, and I love the message board conversations you can read from your home base computer. They feel 100% like actual message board posts and they're hilarious. Best part of the game.

Seriously, best part of the game.

Now on to the story. If you care about spoilers, stop here.

The main story is kind of mediocre. You're called to Hong Kong by your father, where you find him missing and a trap laid for you and your brother. You join up with a ragtag team of Shadowrunners to find your father, get some answers, and avenge the fallen. At the same time, everyone's having these terrible nightmares and something evil is gathering. Of course, it turns out the two plots are connected, and your father came to Hong Kong to stop the evil that's causing the nightmares. But that is pretty much relegated to the background while you go do other stuff.

In order to escape the ambush you end up having to work for Kindly Cheng, a low-level crime boss. She sets you up with jobs, you do them, and she has her people investigate your father for you. Eventually you implicate a corrupt cop and a ruthless CEO. The corrupt cop kind of gets away (until the extended edition) but you take down the CEO (even though a lot of the endgame dialogue seems to imply that you didn't) and, in the process, you stop some kind of demon god from coming to Earth. It's not a great story, but it gets the job done.

Where it gets good are in all the side stories. Of course, each of your team-mates has their own side-quest, as do a couple of the locals, and the jobs that Cheng gets you can also lead to meeting interesting people. It's these side-stories that are where the game actually gets good. I kind of wish they hadn't bothered with the central story for any of these games, because it always ends up being pretty weak. Dead Man's Switch starts really strong but then just falls off a cliff about two-thirds of the way through. Dragonfall is decent, but not especially memorable. This one is probably the weakest of the lot.

In fact, all up, I'd probably rate this as the weakest game overall, not just in terms of story. It does some things better than the previous ones, but it does other things much worse. Dragonfall is still the highpoint for me.

Finally there's the bonus bit at the end of the extended edition. I guess there were complaints about how the corrupt cop plot never got resolved, so now you get to do that. Combat in this bit is scaled way up – to the point that it was actually challenging to me, where the main game had not been – but that's about all it has going for it. It's essentially more of the same in a game that had already dragged on a bit too long. Maybe I'd have enjoyed it more if I'd left it a while before playing it, but on the other hand, I'd probably just have forgotten what was going on.

I really feel like this whole game should have been about half as long. It could have been more consistent that way, and instead of feeling burned out on it I'd have been left wanting more. At this point, if they make another one, I'm probably not going to bother buying it until I see it on sale for under $5.

You said it, Gobbet, more spice than. More spice than.

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