Cyberpunk — as a genre for video games — has been enjoying a renaissance lately, with games exploring themes such as inequality, blanket government surveillance and corporate greed taking on increased cultural relevance in our technology-focused world. While big budget franchises like “Deus Ex” (2000) are arguably the most visible example of this resurgence, game development team Harebrained Schemes’ “Shadowrun” series, based on the eponymous tabletop game, has carved out a niche among those who like hardcore role-playing games and a fusion of sci-fi and fantasy to go along with their futuristic dystopia. The latest entry in the series, “Shadowrun: Hong Kong” (2015) does little to deviate from the formula established by the previous games in the series, and that is mostly a very good thing.
“Shadowrun: Hong Kong” begins with character creation and, in this respect, is clearly trying to emulate the granularity of a pen and paper role-playing game. Players can choose from five races, four “metahumans” — Orcs, Trolls, Elves and Dwarves — and the unremarkable Human, each with unique statistical tradeoffs. The player can also select from six predefined classes, which run the gamut of both science fiction and fantasy archetypes (everything from Shaman to Drone Pilot is available), or create their own class. Compared with the amount of statistical customization available, appearance customization options are paltry, limited to only a handful of preset hairstyles and the like. The one bright spot in this dearth of options is the selection of lavishly rendered character portraits that players can choose from.
Mechanically, “Shadowrun: Hong Kong” is both helped and hindered by a desire to emulate the tabletop game on which it is based. The turn-based combat is dominated by statistics and behind-the-scenes dice-rolls. The systems that underpin the game can seem impenetrable at times, as very little about them is explained. A complex and poorly explained combat system, however, is hardly a problem that is unique to “Shadowrun: Hong Kong” and may even be a positive for those who are inclined toward spending hours on community wikis dissecting damage formulae. Fortunately, those who are less numerically inclined can avoid the game’s more arcane aspects by lowering the difficulty setting and instead focusing on the viscerally satisfying combat animations.
The “Shadowrun” setting’s juxtaposition of science fiction and fantasy elements provides tremendous scope for telling compelling stories, and Harebrained Schemes goes out of its way to make the most of this rich backdrop. A story comprised of evil corporations, government corruption, profound inequality and organized crime is delivered primarily through on-screen text with the occasional hackneyed voiceover. Descriptions tend to verge on overwrought, perhaps in an attempt to emulate the tabletop experience of a dungeon master setting the scene with pompous narration. Early dialogue, in particular, is a little exposition-heavy, with characters clumsily asking questions that they surely knew the answers to solely to move the plot along. Despite this occasional lack of narrative subtlety, the game’s story is still competently delivered.
“Shadowrun: Hong Kong” benefits from outstanding art direction; detailed environments and a gorgeous neon color pallet join to create an immersive setting. The soundtrack, which combines the obligatory synths with strings, is also excellent. One persistent and annoying flaw, however, is that future Hong Kong seems surprisingly sparsely populated, with the overwhelming mass of humanity that the game itself references conspicuously absent. There are obvious technical and gameplay reasons to avoid rendering dozens of characters on screen, but one can’t help but feel that Kowloon is a bit of a ghost town.
All in all, “Shadowrun: Hong Kong” is a well crafted, albeit old school, roleplaying game with a well-realized story, outstanding art direction and a stand-out soundtrack that creates a compelling experience.