Shadowrun: Dragonfall Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Independent
Developer:Harebrained Schemes
Release Date:2014-02-27
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

Shadowrun: Dragonfall is Harebrained Schemes' first and so far only expansion to 2013's Shadowrun Returns, and a definite improvement over the original decent-but-perfunctory campaign. While the character progression, tactical combat, inventory and world interactions still feel a bit lightweight compared to both the slate of upcoming role-playing games and Shadowrun Returns' forebears, the vast improvements made, both in terms of content and utility features, make the campaign worth playing for anyone that enjoyed the original title.

You can find my original take on Shadowrun Returns here.

No Such Thing as a Milk Run

Shadowrun: Dragonfall takes place in Berlin, 2054, in what's called the Flux-State or F-State, a sort of anarchistic playground where corporations and political powers don't hold quite the same position of power as they do in the rest of the world. As yet another shadowrunner escaping from their past, you're tasked with helping with what's supposed to be an easy mission, a "milk run" as your associate and friend Monika Schäfer calls it. Needless to say, things turn out to be much more complicated and quickly spiral out of control, forcing you to protect yourself from a well-armed and mysterious faction with an unsavory but not quite clear objective.

I won't spoil more than what little I had to say for my synopsis, but suffice to say, the title "Dragonfall" is appropriate in more ways than one. Just as with "Dead Man's Switch", Harebrained Schemes' writing team has penned a pulp magazine-like story without a hint of self-importance but with plenty of self-awareness, filled with twists and turns. Differently from the original campaign, though, they've managed to structure the plot in a way that feels far more consistent and engaging. There's simply more space for side characters and plots to breathe, and the finale is just altogether better, a more properly foreshadowed, natural escalation of the themes and hooks set up at the beginning of the game, rather than the abrupt tonal shift of the original title.

Another way Shadowrun: Dragonfall differentiates itself from the original campaign is the emphasis it places on companions. Throughout the entire game you run with a crew of shadowrunners (you can still hire mercenaries for a fee, if you really need to round your team, but there's not a strong incentive to do so), each with a unique personality, look, and background. Exactly like in many other role-playing titles of this ilk, you can decide to help them with their (many) issues and learn a bit of their past in the process by talking to them at your home base between missions. However, I found occasional moments in which they interjected on current events or gave their opinion on a past run more interesting, as they examined otherwise unseen aspects of their personality in a more natural manner. Overall, Harebrained has done a fine job with them: they might be not the most original and complex characters, but they're sufficiently fleshed out and present interesting takes on otherwise well-worn tropes.

There are other aspects of the game's writing that are arguably disappointing. For a large chunk of the story the main antagonist is a forgettable ork who has a unique portrait but not much else going for him. He simply never utters a single memorable line, and doesn't fare much better as a boss fight. The atmosphere of Berlin also doesn't feel quite as accomplished as Seattle's. Perhaps it's down to assets re-use, but the two cities don't look or feel different enough, and in spite of how many times the characters repeat that the Flux-State is unique, that ever shifting anarchist hub that the game promises superficially never quite materializes. Finally, while the game features an extensive playable epilogue, there's no way to know the far-reaching consequences of your choices. Perhaps it was just better for Harebrained to leave things unclear so that they don't interfere with the setting's canon, but it left a bitter taste in my mouth.

The Credstick Conundrum

I have to admit Dragonfall didn't make a great first impression. The start of the game is painfully telegraphed story-wise and fairly threadbare design-wise, especially considering the majority of players will probably already have played Dead Man's Switch and possibly a few mod campaigns by that point, meaning they'll be ready from more complex content right from the start. Once I got past the first few missions though, the moment I was tasked with raising enough money to obtain the services of an information broker, to be precise, the game opened up. Side quest opportunities started to pop up, together with more lucrative and substantial (but still not mandatory) runs, and each and every one of them feels unique and properly fleshed out.

The best part is that each of them feels a lot more open-ended than they did in the original title. Areas are larger, skill checks are more plentiful, combat encounters are more interesting, main objectives are more varied, and side objectives pop up regularly, rewarding thorough exploration with extra karma points, more loot and alternative solutions to problems. More than a few missions also offer multiple routes (extremely savvy players could manage to make an entire building of a megacorp explode without ever being spotted, for example, but most builds won't manage) and moral choices, although, to be fair, not the kind that will keep you awake at night thinking about whether you did the right thing. Having to kill a fellow shadowrunner for botching a run would be a lot more questionable, for example, if the person in question wasn't revealed to be a bloodthirsty madman.

That said, there are still significant design problems that the team hasn't managed to completely overcome. Dialogue checks are still not perfectly balanced. There are more of them, and most now rely on charisma, making characters with poorly selected etiquettes more useful, but this also exacerbates the problem with the etiquette checks that are actually present, which are simply not balanced to reward each choice equally. I'll offer a concrete example: I don't think I've ever seen a check for the Socialite etiquette, but I saw Gang, Corporate and Security options pop up so regularly you'd ask yourself why they even bothered to put other etiquettes in the game.