Harebrained Schemes have taken us to Seattle and Berlin, now they’re taking us Far East to do some dirty jobs and get some nuyen. It’s time to run the shadows in Shadowrun: Hong Kong.
Genre(s): Tactical RPG
Developer Harebrained Schemes
Publisher: Harebrained Holdings
Release Date: August 2015
Played Core Campaign
Shadowrun Hong Kong doesn’t waste time to show you its new goodies. The moment you create your character, you get one of the brand new hand-drawn cutscenes. They’re not full motion but a series of still images, like a comic book, that show you snippets of information. Except for the opening and closing ones there is no voice acting in them, just background music. While the cutscenes help transmit Shadowrun’s mostly text-based storytelling, “the nightmare” scene repeats too often. I understand they meant to use it to drive the point of how the nightmare affects the characters and how fear starts to engulf Heoi—your new central hub—but it loses its effectiveness fairly quickly. By the last time you see it, it lacks any emotional impact.
Much like Dead Man’s Switch (the original Shadowrun Returns campaign), Hong Kong starts out with your character arriving in town at someone’s request. This time, however, it’s not an old runner but your foster father, Raymond Black. He’s gone missing but before it happened, he called you and your brother Duncan and begged you come help him. You meet Duncan and his partner, Carter, and move to rendezvous with Raymond but find a team of Shadowrunners in his place. And before you can figure out what’s going on, snipers kill Carter and two of the runners, forcing you to escape with what’s left of their team: an Ork Shaman of the Rat Totem named Gobbet and Is0bel, a dwarf decker.
With the two runners’ help, you find a home in Heoi and a new life as a Shadowrunner with Kindly Cheng, a triad member, as your fixer. The arrangement is simple, you work her jobs and she hides you from the APB the authorities put on you and helps you find clues about Raymond’s whereabouts.
Previous Harebrained Schemes Shadowrun campaigns were lengthy, giving you ample chance to get to know your characters, interact with them, form bonds and help them overcome whatever it is that’s haunting them. That isn’t the case with Hong Kong. It’s the shortest campaign so far and lacks proper pacing. You start working as a runner, doing odd jobs and solving problems for Cheng, and then she announces she has a big lead. You go to that lead, then another and then it’s the end of the game. It’s too straightforward for Shadowrun. Most is as it seems and there aren’t many secrets in these shadows.
Also, it’s the third time around we have a campaign involving some form nastiness from a magical source. First, it was cultists, then a dragon and now more mumbo-jumbo evilness. I’d like to see Harebrained do a pure-tech or political plot next, as the Shadowrun universe has plenty of possibilities in regard to what stories you can tell. There have been Matrix crashes, shifts in power, political struggles and much more, and they only deal with magic incidentally, not at the core of the subject. As such, I’m a bit disappointed on where the story went this time around, even if I liked the plot.
Because of the shortness of the campaign and this odd pacing of “couple of side-mission then big reveal,” you don’t have many opportunities to talk to your team and it’s a shame because they’re really good characters. Is0bel’s cynicism hides the pain of her past in the slums. Gobbet’s cheerful attitude is sometimes genuine but also a shield to protect herself. Duncan can’t let go of his old life and embrace his new one. And that’s without mentioning the other party members you can recruit. You can still get to their personal missions, but to do that you have to break the flow of your game. You have to go back after every mission for a snippet of conversation before heading out again, when your first instinct will be to jump on as many missions as you can to build up your Karma and Nuyen reserves.
Gameplay remains the same for the most part. Outside of combat, you will mostly just talk to people and interact with items. If you have the right skills, attributes and high enough levels on them, you’ll get special options for interesting outcomes or rewards. Experience, as per the Tabletop rules is called Karma and you’ll earn it by completing main and side missions, and you’ll use it to improve your character’s abilities. While you’ll choose an archetype at the start of the game, you can do anything with Karma. You can even turn your Decker into a spellcaster. I did it during my Shadowrun Returns campaign, but not this time around, instead focusing on maxing out the Decker skills. By the end, I outdid the party’s NPC decker at everything, though she still had better special skills than I did.
The Dragonfall levelling-up scheme for party members returns in Hong Kong. Instead of gaining Karma, at certain experience (or story, not sure) thresholds, you’ll be prompted to improve their basic skills. Maybe it’ll be a new power, or an upgrade to one or even a new item in their inventory. At each level, you’ll choose one of two, and the choice will be one that matches your playstyle as they’re both equally powerful. It’s still very satisfying to improve your party members, but without a party experience bar, it’s hard to know when they’ll get upgrades.
Combat is tactical as always, and governed by Action Points. As you complete missions, you’ll eventually get a boost to your AP reserves but much like the party levelling, you won’t know anything about it until it actually happens. For me it was by returning to a former client and talking to them once more as the quest objective remained even after I got the rewards. It’s a minor detail but I would’ve loved to know what I needed to do to gain more AP, as it would’ve driven me to complete even more missions.
The missions themselves are a varied bunch and with experience from two full Shadowrun campaigns—plus a few Tabletop ones—I already knew how Harebrained Schemes did things so it was easy to predict what would happen and plan accordingly. It’s not a failure on HS’ part, but just me growing accustomed to this GM.
The Matrix has the biggest changes. Firstly, there’s the visual redesign. While before each Matrix environment looked the same, now they have a clear identity tied to the server’s location. It might be an ancient Chinese temple as a gateway, or the ICs being golden to match the décor, but now the virtual reality feels better, with a lot more character.
But the gameplay has changed a lot more. Now intrusions into private Networks work as stealth missions, where you have to avoid the ICs patrolling the area. The movement is fluid enough to allow movement between the gaps in their fields of vision and even if you’re discovered, it just makes them start a trace on you. As long as the Trace total doesn’t exceed the maximum, you’re safe. Once it hits that number however, Black IC will deploy and you’ll have a hell of a fight on your hands. With two Deckers on my team, however, it was fairly easy to swap them out to take out the countermeasures. By the end I was even good enough to wade through the security undetected.
Datastores and control nodes now need to be hacked, and it works in two steps. The first bit is repeating a sequence of numbers exactly as shown, each success adding more time to your hacking countdown. The second is a pattern recognition puzzle. Symbols will show on screen for a second, and you need to figure out which of the collections below is the one that matches. It takes some getting used to and it’s fairly easy to jump to the wrong conclusion, so it’s really satisfying when you get the right one on the first go. At least it was for me.
With a game like Shadowrun, you won’t look for detailed character models as a proof of graphical power, but I’m always amazed by how detailed the environments are. Slums look like you’d expect cyberpunk slums to look like. There are dilapidated buildings, sheets of corrugated metal for walls and roof in makeshift shacks and people lying there, in despair. Heoi isn’t much better but feels alive, with people in the middle of their latest smuggling run, or having a game of Mah-jong with friends or at the local parlour. Corporate buildings are clean and shiny and lifeless, even the ones filled with employees. In the Shadowrun universe, there’s freedom in the shadows, in the underworld, and Harebrained Schemes manages to transmit that with their level design. It’s quite the accomplishment.
For the first time in Harebrained Schemes’ Shadowrun campaigns, there is voice acting, though only in the opening and closing cutscenes. It’s fairly good, though there’s so little of it that it’s hard to pass judgement. For the most part it’ll be sound effects, music and walls of text that’ll get you through the game. In this regard, the music is as amazing as always, if you like your electronic music. It seems as though techno is the preferred beat of the cyberpunk genre, and it’s the same for Shadowrun. Mixed in with the beats are now some oriental melodies, a unique blend that works in the game’s favour.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong might be shorter and it might go to familiar territory, but it’s still one hell of a game. It’s fun to play and I haven’t stopped running the shadows of Hong Kong since I first launched the game, and even as I write this, I feel the urge to do so again.
4/5 – Exceptional