Thoughts: Shadowrun Hong Kong


In a way, my reviewing Shadowrun Hong Kong is somewhat redundant. This is the third Shadowrun game developers Harebrained have put out in two years. The first, Shadowrun Returns, was one of the very first Kickstarter success stories that traded off some extremely clunky engine restrictions and a so-so main plotline for the very great novelty of actually being released within six months of when the Kickstarter said it would be. The second, Shadowrun Dragonfall, vastly improved and expanded on what they’d done with Returns to become one of the best RPGs released in the last couple of years. If you are at all interested in Shadowrun, cyberpunk or wordy-yet-well-written RPGs, the chances are that you have already purchased and tried the standalone Dragonfall Director’s Cut. 1 By doing so, you will already have a pretty good idea of whether or not you’re going to like Shadowrun in general.  And while I feel like it’s a little harsh to tar Hong Kong with the “more of the same” brush, there is no getting around the uncomfortable fact that it is true in this case: if you leave aside the tonal and stylistic changes (which are a pretty big thing to leave aside, to be fair), Shadowrun Hong Kong is, somewhat disappointingly, an almost point-for-point retread of Dragonfall.

I do understand why Harebrained have done this. First, Dragonfall was critically acclaimed by pretty much everyone who played it, and so they’re sticking with what they know works. Second, they’ve pushed the initially-awkward Shadowrun engine a long way in two years, but it imposes some inherent limitations on what they can do with the game. It was built for easily adding new content that used the existing mechanics — which is why they’ve managed to crank out three games in three years — and substantially changing those mechanics would add too much programming overhead. This admirable refusal to allow their projects to suffer any significant scope creep is why Harebrained are pretty much the only Kickstarter developer who delivers their games on time, and it’s why I’ll continue to give those Kickstarters money where I wouldn’t with (for example) Larian, or the Banner Saga guys. It *does* put them in the unfortunate situation of having to do the same trick twice here, though, and the problem with repetition is that your audience tends to have a lot more opportunity to spot the flaws in how it’s done.


So it is with Shadowrun Hong Kong. It opens with the player character flying into Hong Kong to meet with their foster-father to discuss some undisclosed personal business of earth-shattering importance – so important, in fact, that the meeting is rudely gatecrashed by corrupt members of the Hong Kong Police Force, who promptly kill both your foster father and half of the mercenary shadowrunner team he’d hired to escort you both into Kowloon Walled City. You make your escape with the surviving shadowrunners, the cops put out an APB (essentially a hit) on you all, and you’re forced to turn to Hong Kong’s triads for help: you provide them with your services as a deniable asset for hire, and they keep the police off your back and help you get to the bottom of why they want you dead in the first place.

Mechanically this setup is almost word-for-word identical to the one in Dragonfall: there’s an initial job that goes bad, you go on the run until you get back to your safehouse, and then you start taking shadowruns to pay off a debt that’ll move the main plot forward. You have a hub area you return to after every shadowrun where you can buy supplies and talk to your companions, and the missions themselves are standalone encounters that usually result in a payday with no lasting consequences. Even the mission computer is the same, and the rationale behind the nobody from out-of-town being elected the new leader of the shadowrunning group you’re with is, if anything, even more preposterous than the one in Dragonfall.


Structurally it’s all very similar, then. However, in terms of tone at least Hong Kong is a very different game to Dragonfall. Dragonfall had you working out of Berlin’s FluxState, an area where most of the inhabitants were on your side and you had a good existing support network. By contrast Hong Kong starts you off begging for the help of the triads and trying to stay on their good side; they are not very nice people and the game isn’t shy about reminding you of that fact. Because you’re working for them (most of the time) Hong Kong has a much grimier, seedier feel to it – in Dragonfall you were pretty unambiguously the good guys, or at least you could play it like you were unambiguously the good guys. Doing this in Hong Kong is still possible, but it’s much, much, more difficult, and given how morally grey the rest of the world has become (and for a Shadowrun game that’s saying a lot) playing it this way almost seems like it’d be out of place.

Sadly the game doesn’t really make the most of the potential that this shift in theme offers. Although it’s heavily implied that you shouldn’t piss them off, you can go against the triads’ wishes if you want and there won’t be any lasting consequences — it’s just a different veneer laid over the top of Dragonfall, after all, and for all of its scary talk of the criminal underworld Hong Kong proves reluctant to move beyond that core structural idea that the player has absolute control over the pace and the manner in which the plot unfolds. Which I thought was rather a shame, as I feel that even within the existing engine there’s a lot that could be done with the challenge of furthering your own goals while trying to keep the triads on your side. The Shadowrun games have excellent writing, but they’ll also try to pretend the game is packed full of more choice than is actually present by presenting you with three dialogue options that secretly all lead to the same response, and Hong Kong is ultimately the result of this design philosophy being applied to an entire game; it’ll seem different to Dragonfall just so long as you don’t test the boundaries, but as soon as you do you’ll realise you’re being funnelled towards the same actions and the same outcomes.


Which isn’t to say that Hong Kong doesn’t have some improvements over Dragonfall. Some of them are cosmetic, such as the new ork and troll models and animations making these subspecies seem a little less cartoon-ludicrous, and some of them are an injection of features including new weapons, cyberware and the ability to equip cyber-weapons (think Wolverine’s claws) and train them as a skill branch. Probably the biggest change is to the much-maligned Matrix segments, though, which have received a full visual and mechanical overhaul to try and stop the player from feeling increasingly suicidal every time they see a terminal with the “Jack In” symbol above it. Both the matrix environment and the hostile IC programs within it have a much more interesting look about them, and the matrix gameplay has been changed to a fusion of timed evasion of Watcher IC — which have clearly marked vision cones, and which will quickly add to your Trace score if they spot you; maxing this out results in an overwhelming response from the mainframe and usually a reload of your most recent save game — and an odd Simon Says memory minigame to break into the secure storage areas where the juicy informational goodies are being held. This is somewhat better, even if the Simon Says got awfully repetitive after a while (and I’m *good* at Simon Says), but Harebrained just couldn’t resist throwing in unavoidable encounters with combat IC in there too, which means this game segment is thrown back to square one of being stuck in endless pissing matches with enemy programs sat behind Heavy Cover – except this time you can’t even flank them, as you’ll be spotted and traced by Watcher IC.

Unfortunately because they’ve spent so much time revamping the Matrix Harebrained feel like they have to show it off, and so you spend rather too much time in there compared to the previous games in the series. The penultimate story mission in particular is terrible for this – it goes on for nearly an hour, and at least half of this time is spent in the sodding Matrix either plinking away at IC or going through the bip-bip-beep-boop of the Simon Says. Even if they’d made it much better than it turned out to be the new Matrix would still massively overstay its welcome, and in the event it’s not that the Matrix isn’t still incredibly dull and monotonous, it’s that it’s incredibly dull and monotonous in a different way. This is not an improvement.


For some balance let’s talk about the thing Hong Kong does best, though, and it’s the thing that the Shadowrun series has consistently improved on from game to game: the writing, and in particular the companion dialogues. These are outstanding as ever, and two of the characters — ghoul samurai Gaichu and mad scientist Racter — are more compellingly written than anything in Dragonfall. Given how excellent Dragonfall’s crew was that’s really saying something. Hong Kong also does some good work in giving you plentiful opportunities to make use of your companions’ skills; no longer are you stymied by a personal Decking skill check while the NPC decker you dragged along for the ride twiddles their thumbs behind you. If there’s a point where it would be appropriate for one of your companions to do something you’ll usually get a dialogue option to ask them to do it, and sometimes they’ll even cut in on their own. Some of the missions are wonderfully reactive, especially when you do something ridiculous like bringing your ghoul friend to a high society party or a nerdy computer convention. Most RPGs would gloss over how stupid that is, but Hong Kong (usually) acknowledges and embraces it, and I appreciate that it goes just that little bit of extra distance towards making your companions feel like actual people rather than unusually talkative gun platforms.

I think my opinion of Hong Kong has suffered from my relatively recent playthrough of Dragonfall. I haven’t really gotten enough distance from that game for playing what turns out to be a very close relative to seem in any way fresh or new. Given that, it’s not surprising that I’ve recoiled a little bit from Hong Kong’s DNA being so very similar, even while I very much enjoyed the bits that were genuinely different – the setting and the writing. Dragonfall was excellent compared to Shadowrun Returns but it also set the bar for Hong Kong that much higher, and while Hong Kong is a decent entry into the series I feel that it nevertheless falls some way short of meeting those newly-raised expectations of mine. After what they’ve accomplished with Shadowrun so far Harebrained have quickly established themselves as one of the top-flight developers of PC RPGs, but after three games I am suffering from Shadowrun fatigue and am very much ready for them to hit me with something different. Fortunately this new Battletech Kickstarter they’re talking about sounds like it’s going to be just the ticket; if nothing else Hong Kong can at least stand alongside Dragonfall and proves that it wasn’t just a fluke that Harebrained managed to turn out a game that good, and so I’m looking forward to them tackling one of my favourite sci-fi universes.

  1. And if not, why haven’t you? It’s really very good indeed.
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2 thoughts on “Thoughts: Shadowrun Hong Kong

  1. Zenicetus says:

    Good review. I’m almost at the ending with the last couple of missions. The missions had a nice variety in settings and mechanics, and the writing is very good for your team members (especially Racter and Gaichu). The exception was Duncan the po-faced bro, who I just keep wanting to slap. I’ve enjoyed the ride enough to push on and finish it, but there were a few things I didn’t like:

    The new Matrix just isn’t fun at all. They needed to do something different from the reskinned normal combat mode of the last games, but I think they took a wrong turn here with the real-time Watcher IC avoidance and the silly match puzzles. It felt like a worse grind than the previous games, and that’s saying something. About halfway through the game I just started going into the Ctrl-F1 debug menu to cheat and insta-kill everything in my way. I rationalized it as being such a hot Decker that I knew the backdoor codes. Breezing through the Matrix made the rest of the game much more fun to get through.

    A more minor gripe is the weak-sounding gunfire audio FX. Just little chirps and chiffs, like everything has a silencer. It lacks the punch of the gunfire in X-COM:EU, or the flintlock guns in Pillars of Eternity. In a game where the graphics are are somewhat sparse, the audio FX has to do more of the heavy lifting.

    Anyway, I’d recommend the game to those who enjoy this kind of RPG, but keep in mind the Ctrl-F1 cheat option if the Matrix hacking gets too frustrating.

    • Hentzau says:

      I honestly think the Matrix would be much improved by making it a text-only interface. That’s not what Shadowrun is about, though – you have to have a flashy virtual world in there, except even in Hong Kong it’s not flashy enough. If you look at any cyberpunk-y description of the Internet Of The Future (whatever it happens to be) you’ll read about fantastic virtual architecture that is conspicuously absent from the Shadowrun games, and the protagonists never have to spend five minutes throwing glowing balls at IC or doing Simon Says before it’ll let them into the system.

      Basically what I’m saying is: the Matrix segments don’t have to be a game. This is where Shadowrun keeps going wrong; it keeps trying to make it this whole other thing when it’d be far more effective to have it be an almost entirely passive experience where success or failure is determined by a few meta-game choices – just like in a text adventure. Then you can spend the development resources on drawing some really, really good art for it, like the pagodas in the image towards the end of the review.

      I did not know about the cheat option. It would probably have made it all a much more pleasant experience.

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