I’m coming to Dragonfall rather late. Originally a stretch goal for the original Shadowrun Returns Kickstarter campaign, Dragonfall was first released as an expansion back in February 2014. I did play it at the time, and got about halfway through before burning out, something I’ll blame on it coming out a little too hot on the heels of Shadowrun Returns for my tastes. Even then, though, I could see that Dragonfall was a significant cut above the game it was supposed to be expanding on. Partly this was because Harebrained Schemes had had time to fix most of the bugs and technical limitations I complained about in my original review, but mostly it’s because they — gasp! — also took the opportunity to iterate and expand on the structure and mechanics on their second go around. Harebrained obviously knew they had a winner on their hands because they took the additional time to polish Dragonfall up, overhaul the interface and bulk out the weaker areas of the expansion so that they could release it as a standalone game. And the resulting Director’s Cut is very good indeed.
Dragonfall improves on Shadowrun Returns in just about every single area I can think of. SR did a lot right in terms of theme and flavour, but it fell down badly more than once during the execution; it fell back on combat to resolve situations far too often, not to mention suffering from a barely-camouflaged linear nature that was resolved in a decidedly weak fashion by the denouement of the bug spirit plot. Dragonfall solves all of these problems, and while it’s not without issues of its own it comes off as a much more well-rounded experience that makes far better use of the Shadowrun universe as a foundation to build an outstanding RPG upon.
As an example: it’s been a little while since I played Shadowrun Returns, but from what I remember you just sort of blundered from one job to the next, running with a characterless team of generic NPCs and being spoonfed leads by narrative convenience as and when you needed something new to be getting on with. Dragonfall on the other hand hits the ground running by having you be part of an established team of Berlin shadowrunners who stumble upon something far larger than them during the very first mission of the game. It’s painfully obvious that you’re out of your depth, and after the team’s leader gets killed you get promoted to the position and start attempting to untangle Dragonfall’s many plot threads.
The setup that goes on during this tutorial mission is excellent from both a narrative and a mechanical point of view:
- On the narrative side it hooks the player’s attention: they’ve scratched the surface of a far-reaching conspiracy and they want to see where it leads. This isn’t exactly novel – just about every single RPG ever starts with the same sort of plot hook — but it’s a damn sight better than Shadowrun Returns’ random dead guy. I’ve nothing against a slow-burning plotline, but SR waited far too long to make it personal. In Dragonfall, the shadowy paramilitary organisation you’ve uncovered wants to kill you, not your friend, which makes the stakes far more immediate.
- Aside from the threat to themselves, the NPC team members also have the excellent motivation of wanting revenge for their dead teammate as a plausible explanation for why this bunch of otherwise amoral mercenaries would stick together to get to the bottom of the conspiracy. You stick with the same group of companions throughout the game this time around, which gives them far more opportunity to build character and come off as actual people
- Finally, inheriting the team leader position gives you control of what contracts you take to fund the team’s investigation. Each contract is a meaty “side”-mission taking up to an hour that’s unrelated to the main plotline, and even though you end up doing pretty much all of them by the time the game is done (hence the quotation marks) they’re much better at projecting the illusion that you’re a team of shadowrunners working for cold hard cash.
Dragonfall is split into two acts. The first act is basically Baldur’s Gate 2 redux, as you take on those side missions to raise 50,000 nuyen that’ll fund an information broker’s attempts to find out what the hell is going on. You can do them in pretty much any order, as well as missions for your companions and odd jobs for the various inhabitants of the game’s hub area, the Kreuzbasar. Now, as it turns out the amount of money you need to scrape together is curiously identical to the amount of money you get from doing all the side missions so it’s not quite the unstructured dream a Shadowrun game really should be, but I appreciate the thought, and it does give you a bit of leeway by letting you contribute money from your personal account if you want to speed things along a little bit.
Not that you’d want to. Dragonfall’s various contract missions are the best part of the game, written with more confidence than those found in Shadowrun Returns and put together in such a way that you can use your character’s inherent skills (or those of your teammates) to improve your odds and quickly bypass blockers that’d otherwise slow you down. Take the cyberzombie mission, for example, in which you’re tasked with breaking into the R&D facility of a minor corporation to steal their new weapons platform. Once you’ve found it you have to tow it back out with you slaved into Follow mode – that is, unless you happen to have a decent level of Drone Control, in which case you can use the cyberzombie to shoot up the hordes of of Knight Errant security goons that try to block your escape. Dragonfall is full of small, interesting ways to use skills or information, whether it be to use your Decking skill to quickly hack a door panel or your Biotech skill to decipher some lab notes, and there’s enough of them that it feels like you completed a mission in a manner that was tailored to your character. It partially addresses my complaint that Shadowrun Returns was too reliant on combat; you’ll probably still end up shooting your way out of a lot of situations in Dragonfall, but at least here you get a lot of opportunities to even the odds up beforehand by cutting the power, releasing some nerve gas or dropping the roof on somebody’s head.
While they may be comparatively small details, these noncombat flourishes go a long way towards making Dragonfall feel like it has something to offer beyond its XCOM-lite combat system. It helps that — like everything else — the dialogue is a definite step up from the original game, with less purple prose and far more character-building moments for you and your team members. The contract missions also have a lot of range, from the humorous interlude with the insane researcher who has become obsessed with a low-budget fantasy TV series to the horrors lurking in the sublevel of an Aztechnology research facility. Their outcomes are rarely black and white, either; there’s usually a “good” option available to finish them, but since that’s probably not what you’ve been hired to do taking it will usually end up pissing off your employer. You are a team of amoral shadowrunners, after all, and your activities regularly involve things like sabotaging a rival corporation’s research by blowing up the building (and everyone inside). Dragonfall’s pretty good at making you feel that, even though your team members are, on the whole, fairly decent people.
Speaking of the team members, I was very impressed at how Dragonfall refused to conform to the usual stereotypes. I know I just said they were decent people, but they all have murky pasts that you have to work to find out about — and in some cases just getting them to talk to you at all can be a challenge. Take Eiger. Eiger is an ex-special forces ork who is used to a rigid command structure and who resents your taking over the team after the original team leader bites it. She won’t respect you if you try to be nice to her; instead you have to call her out on her attitude and remind her who is in charge. Then there’s Glory, an emotionally distant cyborg with razor hands who won’t open up to you unless you’re pretty direct about it; giving her space just doesn’t work. Everyone’s hiding something, and the resulting companion missions are some of the best in the game. My only complaint about them is that they don’t have particularly satisfying resolutions because they tend to tie into events in the wider Shadowrun universe that you have to have some knowledge of to fully appreciate. Shit, I’ve read a lot of Shadowrun sourcebooks, and even I have no idea why Winternight was important or why the game left that particular plot thread hanging.
Anyway, once you’ve gotten the contract missions out of the way the game moves on to act two, which is a strictly linear romp towards the finale. I felt it lost a little steam here — I was enjoying exploring Dragonfall’s world so much that it almost seemed like a shame to cut it short by actually resolving the plot. At least it’s done so in a far more satisfying fashion than Shadowrun Returns — as the name implies it involves a seemingly-dead dragon, which blows SR’s irritating bug spirits out of the water — and even gives you a nice little coda that implies you and your team carry on working after the final mission. Life doesn’t stop just because you happened to bring down a decades-old conspiracy, after all.
I’ve mentioned combat several times in this review, and the good news is that it’s been significantly streamlined since the original game, with a much-improved interface that makes it clear what your options are and what you have to do to take down a specific bad guy. Dragonfall makes a lot more out of armour- and AP-reducing skills, as well as skills that increase the party’s chance to hit a given target, giving you something to do that’s more than flank-and-shoot. It can still be a little tedious to murder your way through the umpteenth group of security goons, but Dragonfall shows a tad more restraint and at least tries to ensure combat fatigue doesn’t set in that often. Most importantly, manual saving is now in and you’re only in combat when there’s bad guys to fight, rather than it being a default state for the entire mission. The segments that take place in the matrix are still utterly awful, however, and I can only assume Harebrained couldn’t figure out how to fix these without completely redoing that part of the game1.
What else is bad about Dragonfall? Well, aside from the game’s annoying tendency to assume foreshadowing of events in the wider Shadowrun universe counts as a plot resolution there’s a couple of things that niggle. I feel like a lot more could have been made out of the various cybernetic augments you can have implanted rather than having them act as simple stat boosters – at one point you get an option to blind somebody with your cyber-eye (that I didn’t have installed at the time), and after that I was wondering why that sort of option didn’t come up in conversation more often. And while you’re sometimes given the option for your better-equipped teammates to do something like hack a terminal or smash down a wall, there are other times where the player character has to do everything while your party members trail mutely behind you. It’s only because the game is usually so good at employing player skills and attributes that these things jump out at me, but it’s a jarring contrast nonetheless.
(Then there’s the engine, which isn’t any prettier two years on. And interface improvements aside it’s also a little clunky to control.)
These are comparatively minor niggles; after all, if the worst criticism I can make of Dragonfall is that it misses some opportunities to make your adventure feel more organic there can’t really be a lot wrong with it. This Director’s Cut is such a dramatic improvement over both Shadowrun Returns and the first iteration of the Dragonfall expansion that the only way I could see somebody having a problem with it is if they seriously disliked cyberpunk RPGs, or just RPGs in general. It’s better-plotted, better-written, better-structured and just generally better, and I think is a large part of why — unlike most developers who have made a second trip to the well — Harebrained were able to still bring in a significant amount of money when they went back to Kickstarter for Shadowrun Hong Kong. Shadowrun Returns was a decent Shadowrun RPG, but Dragonfall is a great RPG period, one that’s able to go toe to toe with the best of the genre and which arguably comes out on top.
- Which I understand is what they’re doing for Shadowrun Hong Kong. ↩