Review – Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut

I’m absolutely in love with Shadowrun. Admittedly, I’ve never played the tabletop RPG due to my social incompetencies, but I still love everything about it. It’s a ‘90s kitsch amalgamation of Tolkien-esque fantasy and Bladerunner-esque cyberpunk. Magic and megacorporations, dragons and robots: it’s a nerd’s dream setting.

I’ve played the games, I own a collection of the pulp fiction novels, and I’ve delved into many of the sourcebooks. I’m hooked! Which is why it’s weird that after two attempts, I’ve failed to actually complete Shadowrun: Dragonfall. I can’t account for that; it’s not that I didn’t enjoy playing that game, I’d just always get near the end and then get distracted. Or maybe I just get tired of wading through the text.

I can finally stick a fork in this sixth world tale, though. I’ve finally pushed through to the ending and am ready to dump my thoughts into the matrix.

It maybe looks a little less ’90s than I would have hoped.

BACK INTO THE SHADOWS

Dragonfall opens with your created character on their first job on a team of Shadowrunners. Shadowrunners, if you’re unfamiliar, are mercenaries who work for typically anonymous contacts on a variety of jobs. Everything from wetwork to employee extractions. Things go sideways and your team leader is killed, leaving behind a void in the team and her haunting last words of “Fueurschwinge,” the name of a dragon that once terrorized Germany. You’re left to fill the spot of team leader while also trying to figure out why a supposedly dead dragon is trying to have you killed.

Dragonfall is technically the sequel to Shadowrun Returns, sharing the same engine, gameplay, and art style, but having completely different settings and unrelated storylines. Yet, while the previous game was a largely linear affair with few side jobs and deviation, Dragonfall feels a bit more freeform. You’re tasked early on with accumulating a large sum of money to pay for some information, but what jobs you take is up to you. Sort of. You don’t have to do them all, but are you going to be able to resist? I wasn’t.

HERR SCHMITT HAS A JOB FOR YOU

This time around, we’ve left behind the rainy streets of Seattle for the anarchic state of Berlin. You spend a lot of time in the hub world of the Kreuzbasar, a small enclave within the flux state. Here, you buy gear, pick up jobs, and talk to your squadmates and other locals.

It simply feels like you have more choice this time around. While the stats you picked would dictate the options you were given for each mission in Shadowrun Returns, it feels like how you focused your character has a greater impact here.

Charismatic players can schmooze their way into most situations, but chances are they’re going to have to have something to back up their words if they truly want to get through without conflict. That can be muscle, magic, or some hardcore hacks. It’s unfortunate that there aren’t more encounters that you can just talk your way past, but the fact that there are even a couple is appreciated.

There’s also a lot more moral ambiguity this time around, as well, and you’re often made to make difficult choices. A lot of these don’t have any real impact on the game as a whole, there’s no good/bad system like you’d find in something like Mass Effect but they work as a delicious spice to the narrative. There are times where a job might conflict with your moral compass, and you’re often able to make choices that directly impact the results of the mission. Perhaps you’re willing to sacrifice a payday if it means being able to sleep at night. Or maybe you’re the more pragmatic type and realize that saving your skin comes first and everyone else can get fragged.

In the back of my mind, I always knew that there wasn’t going to be any major repercussions after the credits rolled, but I still gave the choices a lot of thought. After all, you’re cast as a deniable asset, and at the end of the day, it’s all about survival.

The runs are a lot more varied and allow you to play off your character’s strengths a lot better.

DENIABLE ASSETS

The combat is largely carried over from Shadowrun Returns. It’s a grid-based strategy RPG that can easily be compared to XCOM with the caveat, “not as good as.”

It’s perhaps Dragonfall’s greatest downfall. It’s the slice of the game that really betrays the limited resources of the game (hugely successful Kickstarter aside). The narrative is on point and interesting, the graphics are low detail but well done, and the interface is okay, but the combat just sort of falls short.

Not that it’s bad, but it doesn’t do well in comparison to its contemporaries. Like XCOM, it places a lot of emphasis on moving your pawns behind cover and then blasting at everything circled in red. It has two big issues that drag down this portion of its gameplay. The first is that it’s a 2D game, and it can be hard to tell whether you have line-of-sight and what constitutes heavy, light, and medium cover. It doesn’t communicate very well visually, is what I’m saying.

The second issue is that the AI is dumb as buckets of dirt. It really feels like they’re being controlled by random chance, as they constantly and needlessly fidget behind cover or fail to get behind it in the first place. They don’t react well to what you’re doing, and it sometimes feels like each of their turns strictly follow the pattern of “move and then attack.” It doesn’t invite strategy, it doesn’t feel reactive, and it’s just a bit of a letdown.

THE PLOT THICKENS

The best part of it is the storyline, which is easily as good as any of the pulp fiction novels you might pick up from the series, if not better. The stakes are made high directly from the beginning, and the twists and turns that you go through as you try to get to the bottom of the mystery are all very compelling.

It does, however, get bogged down in the middle. After each main run, you’re given the opportunity to chat with your crew, but while they’re all very interesting characters, it feels very impersonal and inorganic. You finish your run, then stop at each of them to get the next part of their story. It slows down the pacing substantially, causing everything to crawl. Again, it’s not that these characters have boring backgrounds, but it’s predictable to have them constantly give you small tidbits followed by, “Talk to me later to hear about my next exciting adventure.”

The plot’s stakes are set deliciously high.

THE FIREWING

If I’m being perfectly honest, Hairbrained Schemes’ new run of Shadowrun games aren’t necessarily what I consider to be the most ideal approach to the license, but it’s definitely nice to have an enjoyable new entry in the franchise to play. It’s nice to see Shadowrun in video game format again after laying dormant for so long. While Shadowrun Returns was a decent little tale in its own right, Dragonfall nails the landing and comes across as a much better game. The plot, the characters, and the structure are much better realized.

Of course, it’s not perfect, but even still, the story is an engrossing one that can easily drive its hooks into you. Whether those hooks are able to get you through the mid-narrative bloat is going to depend on your tolerance for hearing the life stories of your squadmates, but it’s generally well done all the same. And when a run goes right, it feels satisfying, as it should. As a fan of the franchise, I’m still searching for my perfect Shadowrun game, but I do feel like these are shadows well worth visiting.

7/10

This review was conducted on a digital version of the game purchased through Steam. The game was paid for by the author who did not back the original crowdfunding campaign despite her professed love for the franchise.

About Adzuken 160 Articles
Adzuken has been gaming for as far back as they can remember. Their eclectic tastes have led them across a vast assortment of consoles and both the best and worst games they have to offer.

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