Shadowrun: Dragonfall

Shadowrun Returns arrived last year to a somewhat lukewarm reception.  While it scratched the itch for an old-school, turn-based RPG adequately, it was badly lacking in volume and basic features (such as being able to save your game in the middle of a map).  Shadowrun: Dragonfall is a much needed follow-up to last year’s debut, which showed loads of potential but was too short and bare to fulfill that potential. Dragonfall lets you save your game whenever you want, and that is the good news.  It also has a fairly large hub area and it conveys a sense of being a little more open.  Unfortunately, many of the issues with the original game persist, like the general emptiness of every area and the feel that the game is a user-made mod.  Dragonfall ultimately isn’t enough of an upgrade over Shadowrun Returns to warrant an unconditional recommendation, but it does have some improvements.  It is longer and somewhat less linear.  Like its predecessor, it also benefits from its writing and art direction, the terrific Shadowrun role playing system, and a lot of satisfying turn-based combat.  So, if Shadowrun Returns satisfied you enough to want more of the same, then Dragonfall hits the mark nicely.

Welcome to the dystopian cyberpunk world of Shadowrun created by the tabletop role playing game from the 1980s.  Fantasy races like elves and dwarves exist alongside humans on a futuristic Earth.  Hackers, known as “Deckers”, get computer hardware implanted into their brains for bypassing security systems and looting bank accounts.  Huge corporations have become more powerful than governments and they now operate outside the law in an extremely cutthroat manner.  Sometimes these corporations and other groups hire shadowy rogues to perform dangerous jobs like stealing data or assassinating an informant, and that is where you come in.

Dragonfall is a completely separate story from Shadowrun Returns.  In it you play as an experienced Shadowrunner who has begun a new life in the free state of Berlin after a previous job went south.  You have a new crew to run with and a new job that starts in the game’s prologue.  SHOCKING SPOILER ALERT:  The job goes poorly, and before long, you are adventuring your way through another sci-fi, film noir mystery, trying to figure out what went wrong.  Along the way you meet a lot of interesting characters from a variety of races to interact with.   Like Shadowrun Returns, Dragonfall’s greatest strengths lie in its dialog, its dialog choices, and how you interact with the various characters that you meet.  Everything is written with the style of a private detective novel, and most of it is written very well.  It comes across as a little bit hammy at times, but the game never suffers for it.  The language is bursting with slang, which gives you the feeling that you inhabit a fully realized world that is different from our own.  Most crucial conversations have one or two dialog options that become available if you have a minimum level of a certain skill.  These extra options might get you a little more money for completing a quest or open up a short cut through a mission.  They don’t drastically change the game, but they are very nice to have.

Unsurprisingly, the missions usually don’t go as planned and at some point, you have to fight your way through some enemies.  At these points, Shadowrun’s turn-based combat takes over.  It is not the most robust system in the world, but it works very well and it offers adequate choice and depth.  There are basic gun attacks, spells, throwable objects like grenades, and one-time use items like health kits and drugs.  There is also a basic cover system that reduces your chances of getting hit if you are stationed behind on object like a desk or a door.  It is a good system that gets a little repetitive by the end, but Is still an asset to the game.  Given the dearth of turn-based, party-based RPGs on the market, the combat is a refreshing change.

Despite its low budget, the stylish graphics in Shadowrun: Dragonfall are impressive.  The game uses the Unity engine, so it is not particularly impressive in the technology department, but it makes up for it with its art direction.  The visuals convey a dirty, unpleasant future like that seen in movies like Johnny Mnemonic and Blade Runner.    The environments have lots of little details to them and the character portraits are very well done.  The early 80s style synthesized soundtrack fits the setting perfectly.

Shadowrun Returns was a strictly linear affair where you would go out on a job, come back to the bar to gear up, and then go right back out on the next job.  There was very little to do otherwise.  Dragonfall is an upgrade in a couple of ways.  First, jobs can be accepted in a nonlinear fashion.  There are the main quest jobs but there are also side jobs availalbe.  An e-mail account is used to accept or refuse jobs and track those currently engaged which gives you a better feeling of being a professional Shadowrunner than the first game did.  Second, Dragonfall has a lot more optional dialog in the hub area where you can learn about the backgrounds of NPCs and fellow Shadowrunners.  It is a little bit like a Bioware game in that your allies will gradually reveal their backstory as you complete missions, and you have dialog options for either reassuring them or scolding them.

Despite this beefier hub area, the game lacks an intangible quality that brings other great RPGs to life.  Its world doesn’t feel like a living, breathing place that cannot exist without you.  Instead, it feels like a narrow, stagnant world where everything only exists because of you.  NPCs stand rooted in place all the time as if their only role in life is to provide dialog trees.  There is exactly one vendor who sells every type of item in the hub area.  If you compare the activity in this area to that of towns in classic games like Fallout or Baldur's Gate, you will see a stark contrast in how alive they feel.  In Baldur's Gate, the taverns are crowded and noisy.  In Fallout, you can barter with just about anyone that you can talk to.  In the Shadowrun games, a bar feels like a wax museum.  I am generally not one to call for quantity over quality, but this is one case where the game would have benefitted adding a lot of NPCs, even if it meant copying and pasting a bunch and giving them generic dialog.

Dragonfall still lacks common RPG features that have existed for over 15 years such as right mouse button functionality and the ability to control your party's individual inventories.  The interface is still very barebones, and you have almost no control over what your allies wear or carry with them.  Instead, they get minor equipment upgrades on their own after each mission.  You cannot control their allocation of karma points (Shadowrun’s skill points) nor can their inventory be rearranged during a mission.  The only thing that you can do is give them items out of your stash at the beginning of a mission (but not vice versa).  These are the types of features that add depth to other role playing games and are missed in Shadowrun.  Shortcomings like these give Shadowrun Returns and Shadowrun: Dragonfall the feel of a user-made mod rather than something fully realized.

For the most part, the Shadowrun reboot has been a success, but not a resounding one.  If you played the old SNES or Genesis game and wanting that same experience, you will be pleased by what Shadowrun: Dragonfall has to offer.  If you never heard of those games, but you still like RPGs or just turn-based combat, then you may still get some enjoyment out of the experience.  It is unlikely to blow you away, however.  The series is still a long ways away from being excellent.  Its world needs to be richer, larger, and more fleshed out, and it needs more traditional RPG functionality to reach that level.  The final verdict is that Dragonfall is small step forward for the series and DLC worth owning.  Hopefully, we will see more games in this universe, along with more improvements.