There is a lot of pressure on developers to increase the length of their games because of the belief that this will in turn increase the value of those games. This is especially true with roleplaying games, in which popular examples like Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age can last for fifty or more hours. However, the quality of the game is ultimately more important than whatever value equations that are thrown around and this is where Shadowrun Returns falters. Numerous superfluous levels and poorly balanced classes drag down the pacing.
Before I say anything more about Shadowrun, I should talk about the world because it certainly needs a set up if ever a video game world needed one. Elves and Orcs walk dingy streets lit by neon. Addicts slip computer chips into their spines to delude themselves with fantasy lives while shaman speak with the spirits of the dead to solve crimes. Samurai carry assault rifles and it's still raining in Seattle. It's a world in which any story might be told, but that open quality puts pressure on the storyteller to stick to one story at a time.
The story here starts as a murder mystery. You make a career out of running errands of dubious legality (precisely what “legal” means in such a world is murky at best) and your ever shortening list of contacts gets even shorter with the news of a recent murder. This one is different though. Your now deceased contact left a message for you in case of just such an emergency, indicating that you can have a big payday if you can track down his murderer.
Everything moves along at a satisfying pace for the first half of the game. You meet a hodgepodge of characters including a pair of twins that seem like they could be from different worlds, a bartender who crusades against drug dens, and a cameo from a man who only manages to get some shuteye by sleeping in a morgue. More importantly, you uncover a steady flow of clues to bring you closer to solving the murder case.
The problem is that you do actually solve the mystery halfway through but you don't get any closure until the very end of the game. The space in between is a stock “save the world” story that seems to last forever (Does that mean Shadowrun has more value?). Developer Harebrained Schemes built up momentum with one storyline, but then went off on a tangent right before the payoff. When the conclusion does come, the moment when it would have meant something has already passed.
This derailing of the story exposes weaknesses in other parts of the investigation. Before the game decides that saving the world from bugs would be a more interesting path than wrapping up the impetus for the first half, the player spends an even amount of time snooping through computer terminals for clues and resorting to violence. The puzzles use a certain degree of logic but, in a nod the dingy environments, ultimately come down to brute force hacks.
The second half of the game sees a lot more combat that it just can't support. The fighting closely resembles the recent XCOM: Enemy Unknown but is nowhere near as tightly balanced. This looseness isn't too much of a burden until it seems that every mission contains a large dungeon to fight your way through. Balanced party selection feels like it is punished. Deckers are necessary to hack into the Matrix but become more and more like dead weight outside it in meatspace and the level design so rarely intertwines both environments. Combat-focused classes like mages and adepts pale in comparison to a street samurai with a good gun. Success seems most tied to how many street samurai you can jam into your lineup.
I can understand the pressure developer Harebrained Schemes was under while working on one of the first big Kickstarter games. However, their game's greatest strength early on was its focus on driving the murder mystery forward. Side content was almost nonexistent and this only gave the mystery more momentum. Making half the game a tangent right before providing any closure undermines their progress. Shadowrun Returns is a slog at around fourteen hours, but it would have been a much better game clocking in closer to seven hours.