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SummaryOrcs and computer hackers of all countries, unite!
The GoodCreated by Australian developers, Shadowrun for SNES (not to confuse with the entirely different MegaDrive adaptation) is somewhat of a rarity in the console world: it is a fairly simple, yet unmistakably Western-style role-playing game that has somehow infiltrated a domain ruled by the Japanese variety of the genre.
The role-playing system of Shadowrun relies on a well-balanced, satisfying skill-based character development. I assume most of the features were carried over from the tabletop RPG the game was based on. In any case, its system is quite original and refreshingly different from most RPGs of its time, though there are certain similarities to Wasteland. Besides basic attributes such as strength (higher levels allow you to wear heavy armor) or charisma (allows you to have more people in your party), various skills are often acquired by the protagonist from people and places, but you start the game already having two basic and most important skills: firearms and computer. During your adventure, you will be able to learn other skills such as negotiation or leadership. Finally, the magic you can use must be learned by obtaining specific items; various spells can be leveled up for increased efficiency.
You upgrade your skills by gaining experience points, which are called "karma" in the game. The cool part is that you decide yourself in what ability or skill you want to invest karma points. Since all the skills are important, and an improvement in any skill is clearly visible, you'll be spending quite some time fighting in areas where random enemies appear to gain karma and shape your character the way you like. Needless to say that skill-based progression is more addictive and rewarding then simple leveling. You'll find yourself unable to quit playing the game until you've gained one more point to a skill, and then you'll remember another skill is still at a low level, and will go and get karma and upgrade it too.
Much of the game's world is accessible to you from the beginning, and you generally have freedom as to when and in what order you'll want to complete the mandatory missions. That said, there is a certain adventure-like vibe in the game: you advance the plot mostly by finding the necessary items and saying the right things to the right people. Shadowrun is more "urban" than most other RPGs, as you spend most of your time in the city instead of traveling and crawling through dungeons, which gives it a certain laid-back, comfortable pacing.
Combat in the game is very simple and yet strangely compelling. Basically, you target an enemy and press a button to shoot. The speed is significantly lower than in arcade games, but the shooting still feels like action and does challenge your reflexes somewhat. You can hire certain NPCs who would aid you in battles, though they cannot be directly controlled and I often found it easier to fight without them. Hacking computers leads players into cyberspace with its own exploration possibilities and combat system.
The setting of the licensed universe is a bizarre futuristic world populated by hitmen, ferocious orcs, mages, shamans, computer hackers, and giant snakes, and the game captures the unique style quite well. The moment I saw the first location of the game I was hooked by its atmosphere. It is hard to forget a world that clearly build upon elements of cyberpunk and has a certain film noir edge, yet features no permanent rain, overgrown Chinatowns, or brooding protagonists in fedoras. Instead, gangsters roam the streets, trolls are armed with machine guns, vampires co-exist with corrupt mega-corporations, and indigenous shamanic techniques are widely practiced in Seattle.
Living in such an unusual world, your hero Jake Armitage has to find out who is trying to kill him and why. He wakes up in the morgue after being attacked by mysterious hitmen and left for dead. That's an original opening for a role-playing game if I ever saw one. The story opens up only a small part of the alleged complex conspiracies taken place in the universe of Shadowrun, but its strong premise is enough to sustain the players' curiosity.
The BadConversations in Shadowrun are based on keywords, which is a good thing except that the advancement of the plot relies on them a bit too much. This means that you'll have to frequently revisit locations to make sure you've talked with everyone about everything to keep the story running. Some events are very loosely connected to each other, and certain trigger actions are absolutely illogical. For example, at one point you'll need a boat, but the owner will refuse to give it to you, saying the mermaids in the sea are too dangerous. Instead of giving you a possibility of convincing that person, or doing something directly connected to sea or mermaids, the game forces you to complete a totally unrelated small quest that will miraculously trigger the needed change in the conversation with the boat owner.
This is part of a larger problem that lies in the game's adventure-like structure imposed on perfectly functioning RPG mechanics. Although the game allows you to complete most of the main quests almost in any order you like, it doesn't allow you not to complete a quest. In other words, you'll sooner or later have to visit every area, talk to every important NPCs, and fight every boss, or you won't be able to finish the game. That would have been fine in adventure games which rely on scripted puzzle-solving and where optional content can even be misleading. RPG players, on the other hand, are bound to feel restricted by the mandatory quests.