The neon-drenched streets of a future Hong Kong, awash with trash and desperation, resound with malicious intent as something sinister stirs in the shadows of the monolithic corporations that practically enslave the general population. In those very same shadows one might catch fleeting glimpses of the criminals who remain free, fleeing from the whisper of alarms and the heavy footsteps of those that pursue them. In a world where magic and technology collide in interesting and terrifying ways, where dragons and gods vie for power with corporations and world governments, Harebrained Schemes manages to tell a story that remains surprisingly human.
As the protagonist of Shadowrun: Hong Kong, you’ve been summoned to the titular city at the request of your aged foster father, who you haven’t seen in the years following an incident which resulted in your incarceration in an off-the-books corporate prison. Shortly after arriving and meeting up with your estranged foster brother, things go bad. Really bad. Forced to turn to a local crime lord to burn your life-long identities, you now owe some dangerous people dangerous favors. What happened to your father? What was he calling you to Hong Kong to do? Why are you now hunted in the streets like a rabid dog? The mystery sucks you in and slowly spirals toward an unnerving conclusion.
Hong Kong represents the third Shadowrun title from developer Harebrained Schemes. The accumulated experience shows as does the extra refinement from the successful Kickstarter campaign that went toward additional funding for various side characters and revamped mechanics. The additional characters are really very interesting and feel fully integrated into the story, managing to void that "tacked on" feeling that can sometimes accompany such situations. While Hong Kong shares a base framework with Returns and Dragonfall, it distinguishes itself through well written dialogue and vivid scene descriptions that often surpass Harebrained’s previous efforts.
This improvement lies in the sense of scale that Hong Kong seems to exude. Though some of the areas might be technically small, the descriptions and the ways in which the characters talk about the various locations impart a sense of bigness. If this were done in AAA fashion, the costs would be astronomical to achieve the same effect in a third-person environment. The tense moments of talking your way through heavy security or deadly shootouts in secret labs are no less exciting for the isometric angle of the action. It isn’t going to blow anyone's mind when it comes to graphical presentation (though the animatic scene transitions added by the Kickstarter certainly look nice), but it has a lot of heart and manages to soar to greater story moments than many games with larger budgets.
Shadowrun provides an enjoyable mix of strategic, turn-based gameplay and RPG progression. Players will have to be able to make use of magic, melee, combat drones, guns, computer hacking, a number of empowered abilities, and even cybernetic enhancements if they want to get through Hong Kong unscathed. No matter what paths players choose to take while leveling and customizing their character, there will always be unique dialogue options to pursue that open new routes through sticky social situations. Or, you know, you could just shoot everything that stands in your way. To me, having a wide array of viable options is where Harebrained Schemes really manages to capture the spirit of the tabletop RPG.
However, Hong Kong wobbles a bit at the landing. The narrative doesn’t allow for the climax of the story to stew quite long enough, which prevents the resolution of the plot from being as satisfying as it might otherwise be. The finale hits the ground sprinting and left me scratching my head at the number of important loose ends that were wrapped up with only a single sentence. One thing you really don’t want is for your story to leave people confused (unless that ambiguity is part of the point your work is trying to get across). It simply feels rushed and the finale of Hong Kong would have benefited from more time allowing the situation to truly sink in.
There are a few technical hurdles, too. The Unity engine that previous Shadowrun games have operated on sometimes suffers from hiccups that make a certain part of the isometric arena untargetable. Accompanying that annoyance are some staggeringly long load times (not Bloodbourne-long, but still sizable), even on high-end hardware. On top of those issues, it is possible to break your game on inventory screens by replacing required equipment. There seems to be no remedy for this besides restarting the game from your last save or checkpoint. For a game that heavily relies on text it is also more than a little strange that I encountered a few residual filler text portions that were still in the text. No, Shadowrun: Hong Kong, my name is not [Insert Player Name]. Or moments when the action on screen was being described incorrectly, which happened a couple of times toward the end. I know the text for this title must have been hugely long, but it would have benefited from another run through an editor.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong represents a high point for Harebrained Schemes. The writing and characters will stick with you after you’ve finished playing and leave you wanting more. Hong Kong is an ambitious project and it largely succeeds in achieving its goals, despite a wobbly ending and some jagged edges. The gameplay is solid and enjoyable, especially if you are a strategic gamer. There are always multiple routes through an area and multiple solutions to a puzzle. It manages to consistently feel rewarding. Only a few years ago people were worried that the increasing cost of game development could spell an end to games espousing big ideas with grand designs. Shadowrun: Hong Kong shows how unfounded those fears were, demonstrating exactly what a focused team with a smaller budget can accomplish. While the future might eventually involve a lot of shadows, for now – for gamers, developers, and certainly Harebrained Schemes – it looks promisingly bright.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong is currently available on PC and an additional mini-campaign will be released sometime in the near future.