Shadowrun: Hong Kong Review!

by on October 11, 2015

                Shadowrun
Hong Kong is the third installment in Harebrained Schemes’ Shadowrun series and
my second encounter with this universe after the recent addictive experience of
playing Dragonfall. Left with a craving for more shadowrunning in the same
dystopian “technology meets magic “ futuristic setting , Hong Kong’s release
came at a perfect time. Featuring a campaign that is 15 to 25 hours long, the
new Shadowrun game has players visit the iconic cyberpunk city of Hong Kong
which is engulfed in a battle between corrupt corporations, triads and shadowy mystical forces. Having said all that, let’s dig in and see
if this title is a worthy addition to the series.
                The
game starts in the standard fashion of the series with the creation of your
shadowrunner: choosing the sex and race, assigning karma points in different
categories (Body, Quickness, Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma) and
skills (decking, conjuring, ranged or melee combat, drones and etiquettes, etc).
As disappointing as it was to see that the skill trees haven’t received much
attention in terms of new additions, the great variety in the way you can build
your character is still present and this increases the game’s replayability
value. I personally went for a charismatic sniper who was also very skilled at
decking, which was extremely fun to play but quite expensive to develop, both
in terms of karma points and currency. More on that later.
The skill system, mostly unchanged.
There’s more cyberware to choose from now.
                After
creating your character, something unusual for the series happens:  a narrated cinematic! Raymond Black, the
player’s foster father, asks them to come to Hong Kong to help him, as he says
that his time is running out. The cutscene ends with a group of armed men led
by a masked individual entering a shop and opening fire on Raymond.
                Unlike
the previous games, there is now a backstory attached to your character. You,
along with your friend Duncan Wu, were once orphans on the streets of Seattle
and were taken in and raised by Raymond. Eventually, you got into trouble with
some corporations and were imprisoned, thus being separated from your foster
father and brother. Raymond’s message comes at a short time after your release
from jail and you travel to Hong Kong to come to his aid.
Upon arriving
by ship, you reunite with Duncan, but Raymond is nowhere to be found. By investigating
the area around the docks you meet the Gobbet and Is0bel, two shadowrunners and
future companions who inform you that Raymond had hired the entire group for
protection. From there, the situation goes south and through a twist of events the
player and his new found allies are forced to hide from the Hong Kong Police
Force (HKPF), who put an APB on their heads. To get out of this situation, the
two shadowrunners take you and Duncan to Kindly Cheng, the leader of the Yellow
Lotus triad and their fixer. She makes an offer you can’t refuse: if you agree
to work for her as shadowrunners, she promises to get rid of your SINs –
effectively erasing your identities – , to make use of her position and
connections to find Raymond and discover who set the HKPF on your tails.
Welcome to the real world!
                From
here, the structure of the game is quite similar to the previous Shadowrun titles.
You find yourself once again on the path of a shadowrunner taking missions
arranged by a fixer, investing your earnings in an expanded range of weaponry,
gear and cyberware and spending your spare time talking to your crew members.
There’s also a new main hub, Heoi, a village built on the outskirts of the
Walled City, an overpopulated and nightmarish slum that emanates negative Qi.
All in all, the design feels comfortably similar, albeit a tad repetitive.
                The
story progresses in an interesting manner with the main actors in the play remaining
in the shadows for the first half of the game. All the people in Heoi,
including you and your crew, are having nightmares on a nightly basis,
nightmares which all share a common element: teeth. This adds a note of fear of
the unknown and intrigue to the atmosphere and is maintained until the end of
the game, when the mystery regarding Raymond and the main villain is resolved
with a spectacular and somewhat unexpected appearance of the latter. That is,
if you hadn’t paid attention to the dialogue with a few companions. And this
time around, there are even more possible endings to the story – five, to be
specific -, all which feel satisfactory and wrap things up, with the exception of
a story thread that will be covered in the upcoming mini-campaign.
Can I sleep now?
                With a
new setting and a new fixer, there also comes a new crew, and this is one the
best parts of the game. There are five new companions, three of which I’ve
already mentioned: Duncan, Gobbet and Is0bel. Before I say a few words about
every character, I must mention that the dialogues with them are extremely text-heavy.
Now, I’m a big fan of well written RPGs and the dialogue in this game fits that
criteria, but sometimes I felt like the companions had way too much to say
compared to how much time was spent in missions. However, talking to them
during missions would not have been realistic, as jobs would require complete
concentration. Since I don’t see an alternative to the way the companions’
dialogue has been handled, I’ll mark my complaint as a warning: this game
involves a LOT of reading! This also applies to all the characters in the main
hub: their willingness to share so much information with the player feels unjustified.
Whereas your companions should and are inclined to tell your about their
background due to the fact that you’re in deep shit together and need to act as
a team, the characters in Heoi do not have a reason for being so talkative, since
they live in a dirty slum where their life standard isn’t too great and they
have all the reasons in the world to be suspicious to strangers.
Well-written indeed.
Stop talking, will you?
                Onto
the actual characters and their personalities, Duncan used to be a police
officer, but has had his ID revoked once the APB was put out. As such, he is an
expert in security with experience in both crowd control and lethal force. Most
of the dialogues with him revolve around the period you spent together in
Seattle and around Raymond, so he is a great source of finding out more about
your past. You also need to reach a certain conversation with him to access a
secret ending. Duncan complains a lot and is easily affected by things, but I
thought that the reasons for his behaviour are believable – considering his
past – and as such, I always kept him in my party. He’s the only companion who
doesn’t have a side quest because the main story that involves finding his
foster father feels very personal to him.
Duncan’s ready for revenge!
                Next
up, we have Gobbet. An ork shaman and a follower of Rat, Gobbet feels like a
replacement for Dietrich in terms of gameplay. Due to her experience as a
shadowrunner, she takes on the role of mentor to you in-between missions. Her
lessons are structured in the following way: an account of a past mission in
which things may or may have not went wrong, followed by a prompt for you to say
what you would have done *better* in that scenario. A few of these lessons
involve her life in another “community”, where she eventually returns for a
brief time and will require the aid of the player. Gobbet is easy going,
carefree, has a good sense of humor and is very likeable, and through her interactions
with the player she finally learns how to reflect and learn from her mistakes.
Learning from mistakes.
                The
third companion is Is0bel. I won’t dwell too much on her because I didn’t like
her enough to take her on more than two missions, and I also wanted to be a
decker. No point in having two deckers on the team, sorry! Is0bel is a dwarf
decker who grew up in the Walled City, the worst place in Hong Kong, so her introvert
personality and preference of living in the Matrix come at no surprise. She is
the second companion to hold vital information about the Walled City that is
required to access a secret ending. Her side mission involves finding a way to
restore her memories which have been locked away, but the conclusion of this
mission isn’t too happy.
                Let’s
talk about Racter. He’s a rigger who is always accompanied by his custom-built
drone, Koschei, and they can be found on the bottom level of the ship you claim
as your new home in Heoi. The two form an epic duo in combat and are a must in
any team, mostly because of Koschei, who can be specialized
on melee or ranged weapons and is extremely powerful. There’s more to them than
it initially appears and uncovering their mystery is very satisfying, although
quite unnerving. Racter is a posthumanist who appreciates pragmatic and maybe
slightly evil decisions taken by the player, and upon getting to know him well
enough he will ask for help with concluding his business with two scientists
from his past who determined him to come to Hong Kong. I don’t want to say any
more about him since he is a character worth getting to know on your own.
I hope we’ll meet in posthumanity, Racter
Always on the same page!
                And
now, about Gaichu. On par with Racter in my companion top, he’s the one who
stands out immediately, mostly because he’s a .. ghoul. Perhaps the reason why
I like him so much is because he reflects the theme of humanity in monsters
compared to the inhumanity in people. Gaichu is found in a situation that
strongly incriminates him, but further investigation reveals him to be on the
higher moral ground. It is completely up to the player to decide if he will join
the crew or not, although I strongly advise everyone to take him, as he’s a
complete badass with a great backstory and personal quest. He’s also an
ex-member of Renraku’s Red Samurai, one of the most feared security forces in
the world, and is being hunted by the members of his old squad who consider him
to have broken his samurai code by not committing suicide after he contracted
the ghoul plague. Although his new condition made him blind, he is able to put
his ghoul abilities to use and even exceed his former capabilities. Gaichu
stands as a symbol, inspiring the player to always aim to improve and perfect
himself. My only minor complaint about him is that he is rarely noticed by other
people, which is a bit immersion breaking as ghouls are not accepted in
society.
Welcome to the team!
Experience has taught the exact thing.
                It’s
hard to choose my favourite companion. I initially thought it would be Gaichu,
but as Racter’s story evolved, I found myself liking them in an equal manner. The
most ironic fact is that both were rewards of the Kickstarter campaign
additional stretch goals, so hooray for Kickstarter! All in all, I felt that
Harebrained Schemes did a great job with the crew members, even more so than in
Dragonfall. Well, maybe with the exception of Is0bel, but that may be just
because of my preferences.
The crew!
                Despite
that what we have here is more of the same Shadowrun, the game never struck me
as repetitive or boring, mainly due to the amazing variety of shadowrunning
missions. These include investigating a series of murders, attending a party in
order to extract information and incriminate someone, affecting the flow of Qi
in a corporate headquarters, obtaining the prototype of a super weapon and many
others. What’s even greater is that you can go through all of them in multiple
ways, through the use of skills or by making choices. You can also make use of
your crew members in case your skill levels aren’t high enough, which proves to
be a very logical and helpful addition. One of the missions in the second half
of the game has you exploring several levels of a corporate building, all of
which are heavily guarded. Through the use of decking, charisma and different
etiquettes, it is possible to completely avoid fights until the last section,
where combat is mandatory. It’s always great to see a game that encourages and
rewards different playstyles.
                Speaking
of decking, the Matrix has been revamped. It now involves memory and pattern
matching puzzles, as well as a real time stealth element, beside the usual
combat featured in the previous games. Each Matrix map has several Watcher IC
that patrol the area and attack you in case you enter their field of view. In
case of detection, they become hostile and also increase your trace in the
system, up to the point where additional ICE spawn and attack you. However,
managing to stealth past them gets you to the Blocker IC which guards data or
access nodes and can be hacked. The hacking is done by a mini-game with two parts:
the first one is a memory puzzle that extends your time left in the Blocker by remembering
and typing in sequences of digits; the second one ultimately unlocks the access
to the node and involves putting together a pattern of symbols from a series of
symbols that flash on the screen. All things considered, I appreciated these additions
and thought they made decking more challenging and interesting.
Just.. stealth.. it!
                When
words or decking fails, you can always resort to the old-fashioned combat,
which is exactly the same as in Dragonfall with a few exceptions: fights can
now be initiated whenever you want with the press of a button, gaining the
upper hand, and there are many more spells and weapons to choose from. The
skill system is mostly the same, although a new tree for cyberweapons has been
added for the main character and the skill trees for crew members remain lackluster.
More diversity or depth in this regard would have been great.
On guard while the decker is doing his job.
                Unfortunately,
there’s no Very Hard difficulty, which is a great shame. I started the game on
Normal and while it was a bit challenging for the first missions, the
difficulty falls off and I eventually switched to Hard but still found the
combat too easy. I suspect one of the reasons for this is the fact that I obtained
an extremely powerful sniper rifle early in the game which somewhat trivialized
the combat, hitting for 18-40 damage per shot. Truth be told, acquiring it
involved a rather tough decision that made me feel a bit guilty, so I’d say
that balances it out. Another reason for why the combat may have felt so easy
is that Koschei can have up to 5 action points and wreak havoc each round. I
also had a strong team composition in which the members – Duncan, Gaichu and
Racter – strongly complemented each other. Thus, I felt challenged in only two
or three situations, and the ending boss was a complete pushover.
To be fair, that prototype laser was so powerful it was worth waking up ancestors for it.
                There
are also a few other minor complaints that I’d like to mention. A few times I
felt that my response options in dialogue were a bit limited and did not
include what I would have actually wanted to say. There’s also the matter of
the loading screens, which become unbearably slow in the second half of the
game, so slow that I stopped reloading earlier saves to try different
approaches. I also ran into a money problem even though I did all the side
missions and almost all of their optional objectives. I only managed to buy my
character a full cyberware set and a mediocre deck, and didn’t have enough
nuyen to purchase gear for my team or buy better weapons or the best deck. I
don’t know if this is intended or if I had spread my skills too wide – decking,
sniping and cyberware gear -, so I have to admit that it didn’t bother me that
much in the end. More items would have made the game easier, and that is
certainly something I wouldn’t have wanted.
                The
last aspects of the game that I will cover will be the way the game looks,
sounds and also feels. Graphically, Hong Kong looks better than Dragonfall, due
to its splendid art direction and detailed environments, characters and bigger
levels. The whole eastern setting look is pulled off very well and all the
locations, especially the outdoors ones, look amazing. Sound wise, I feel that
this game has the best soundtrack in the series, featuring a multitude songs
that support the visuals and reinforce the eastern thematic, creating a mystic
atmosphere which gives the tense impression that danger always lurks nearby. As
mentioned in the beginning of the review, this is the first Shadowrun game to have
a few voice acted cutscenes, featuring slideshows of nicely painted backgrounds
that present the narrated story. All in all, Hong Kong scores highly in its
graphical and sound components.
Party time!
Hong Kong slums.
                Ultimately,
Hong Kong represents more of the same Shadowrun, which can be both a good and a
bad thing. Much of the way the game is structured will feel very familiar to
the veterans of the series, whereas for newcomers this title may be the perfect
entry into the universe. Regardless of the somewhat repeated formula, what we
have here is a fascinating new setting that features a very well-written and
text-heavy story with strong characters and addictive gameplay. For those who
want more Shadowrun and don’t mind the absence of radical changes to the
formula, there is no reason not to get Hong Kong. I have greatly enjoyed my
time with it and look forward to the upcoming mini-campaign.
Pros:
+ More of the same Shadowrun
+ Great story in a new setting
+ Memorable cast of characters, especially Racter
and Gaichu
+ Good overall writing: story and companions
+ Improved Matrix
+ Beautiful art direction, visuals and soundtrack
+ Incredible variety in the type of missions and
various ways to approach them
+ Multiple endings
Cons:
– Combat is way too easy
– Lackluster skill development for party members
– Unbearably slow loading screens in the second half of the game
– The dialogue options are sometimes a little restrictive
– A few unresponsive menus
– Gaichu not being noticed while in public
– Involves a LOT of reading
– People are unnaturally open and talkative to the player

 

Written by Wolfe for The Game Slashers.

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