Shadownrun Returns: Dragonfall
By Nathaniel Liles
I loved the original campaign for Shadowrun Returns, Dead Man’s Switch, and being a fan of the series since the SNES installment, I was excited as all hell when I heard that an expansion was also planned and nearing release, but most of all, I was excited to get back into the world of Shadowrun. My Decker, Dewtreader, finished the first campaign with a well-rounded skill set, but the game’s Karma system left me wishing I could’ve made my character stronger. “Yes!” I thought to myself, “I can finally max out my decking and go on to get super-badass rifles! Maybe I’ll even start using drones or learn a few spells! Oh, the possibilities are going to be limitless, it’ll be like dual-classing in D&D all over again!” I guess Harebrained Schemes heard my cries of joy and made sure I would be disappointed, because when I fired up Shadowrun: Dragonfall for the first time, I was greeted by the cold and empty glow of a character creation screen. I was pissed.
Shadowrun Returns had an interesting character development system to begin with. Killing enemies yields no reward whatsoever, and the only way to strengthen your character was through archaic and non-specific “events” that reward you Karma, the series’ equivalent of skill points. This, right away, put a bad taste in my mouth, but I was so deeply immersed in the game’s phenomenal atmosphere and writing that I was able to easily overlook it. At this point, I was still discovering how the game worked, and testing out all the new skills I was getting was great, but when the game stopped far short of my character feeling “max level”, I set my sights on the horizon, waiting for the upcoming expansion to further my character and allow me to explore the higher-tier skills and maybe even branch out into an area that my class wouldn’t normally mess with. That’s the entire point of allowing all classes’ access to all different skill trees. Not allowing you to continue progressing my character was a huge, huge killjoy, and already knowing what class worked best for my play style, I had no desire to play as another class. That meant learning the same skills and experiencing the exact same progression over again, and while that may not be as detrimental to some people, it was to me.
I have to say, though, that that one massive shortcoming didn’t even come close to actually ruining the experience for me. The game is still gorgeous, the dialogue is still well written and well voice acted with a great musical score to set the mood and the expansion that Dragonfall adds to the game is massive. This is less of a “DLC pack” and more of a sequel, because Dragonfall’s main campaign is every bit as long as Dead Man’s Switch, the original campaign, but with a skillfully executed story and more solid design, it improves upon the original in several big ways. The first of these big ways is story and plot connectivity. The story told in Dead Man’s Switch was a good one, and I enjoyed every second of it, but it definitely jumps the shark as soon as alien ghost spiders come right the hell out of nowhere and immediately become the entire plot. That was jarring, it took adjustment, and when everything came to a head, the story just… stopped. Dragonfall makes none of these missteps, with a well-paced story that never loses its damn mind. I don’t want to ruin anything, because there are quite a few ruin-able moments in the game, but suffice it to say that the story told in Dragonfall is marginally more interesting than the one told in Dead Man’s Switch from beginning to end, and it hits the ground running (although it would’ve been completely reasonable to bridge the two stories to allow character importing, grumble grumble).
The game still looks and plays the way it did in the past instalment, with everything locked cleanly to a grid to allow the tactical turn-based combat to flourish. There are very few moments that became annoyingly difficult, and the wider selection of equipment actually added to the experience quite a bit, even if the limited and confined character progression is still an ever-present burden. The tactical situations you’re faced with have much more open-ended solutions, and the decking in the game is kept to a minimum; which isn’t really a good thing or a bad thing. The small amount of decking in the game more or less made my role of Decker in the team pointless, especially considering that the team has another skilled Decker, but outside of combat, your etiquettes and past decisions make all the difference in the world.
In summary, definitely play Dragonfall. It’s more of the same fantastic Shadowrun gameplay, but with a thorough narrative overhaul that serves the game very well, and a more open-ended approach that makes the game feel more like an adventure and less like an exercise in tactics. The depth still leaves a little to desire, the conversational options are still immersive, and every aesthetic thing about the game is either as good as it ever was, in the game of the visual design, or better than ever, in the case of the sound. There’ll be a good amount of reading as well, but it’s all so well written that it only takes minutes to suck you in, and once you’re in there, the hours will fly by. The ability to save, almost, anywhere was nice too, but it seems that the few times I wasn’t allowed to save were the times that I most wanted to, and the game’s shifted focus on gathering information made the game much more like a point-and-click adventure than it formerly was at times, but at its core, Shadowrun: Dragonfall is still a shining example of a quality, polished, well written game that deserves the attention of anyone with an eye for cyberpunk.
Still would’ve liked to max out a skill or two.
Developer : Harebrained Schemes
Platforms : Win / Mac / Linux