Shadowrun: Dragonfall Review

Developer: Harebrained Schemes
PublisherHarebrained Schemes
Review Platform: PC (Steam)
Review Copy Provided By: Harebrained Schemes
Release Date: February 27, 2014

If I’m being honest, I think my biggest problem with most RPGs is the setting.

I’m speaking for myself, of course, but other than my brief and infrequent dalliances into the Tolkien universe I tend to avoid a lot of high fantasy stuff. Even back in my tabletop-roleplaying days, I would find myself gently nudging whatever group I was in to skip the magic-and-swordfights for something with a little more espionage, lasers, or both. Some time in my late teens or early twenties I was finally introduced to a gaming universe that could satisfy both my desires for robotically-enhanced FUTURISTIC WARFARE and my friends’ need to pretend to be an elf or whatever: Shadowrun!

Hearing the name Shadowrun evokes a lot of memories in players, for a lot of different reasons. There’s the ever-present tabletop RPG system, sure, but many gamers may recall the two very good (and surprisingly different) SNES and Genesis RPGs that surfaced in the 16-bit era. Still others may recall, with some sadness, the ill-fated Xbox 360 multiplayer-only shooter set in the Shadowrun universe. Perhaps coasting off the failure of this previous game, a startup studio called Harebrained Schemes acquired the license and created Shadowrun Returns, a gloriously old-fashioned point-and-click turn-based RPG that sprang to life after one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns in memory. Shadowrun Returns was released to pretty favorable reviews, but the developers were quick to acknowledge any perceived shortcomings with the title, and decided to try and address some of them with the new expansion, Shadowrun: Dragonfall.

I was excited enough that this was an RPG with more colors than grey and brown, but look at how rad that greasy orc bouncer is!
I was excited enough that this was an RPG with more colors than grey and brown, but look at how rad that greasy orc bouncer is!

Shadowrun: Dragonfall (from here on out just referred to as Dragonfall) is a full-sized campaign expansion to Shadowrun Returns, nearly equaling the original campaign in length and occurring a short time later. You play as a Shadowrunner of your creation, chosen from any blending of fantasy tropes repurposed to fit Shadowrun’s “fantasy Blade Runner” universe such as dwarves and elves, along with one of the selectable classes, all of them typical fantasy/action game templates given that Shadowrun shine. Upon your arrival in the free state of Berlin, your first ‘run’ goes wrong (as these things always seem to during introductory missions) and you’re left to find your way around town and get to the bottom of just who set you up and why.

How you go about this is up to you. Dragonfall, much like the previous game, manages to blend the best of what modern players expect in an RPG and what point-and-click PC titles such as Fallout and Baldur’s Gate would let you get away with. Your interactions with the world are governed by what options pop up during dialog and what icons appear over what items you can interact with. The dialog trees, in a similar vein to Mass Effect, also include actions you can take during conversations such as “inspect their computer” or “pull a gun,” but the choices seem less limited than RPGs that have to adhere to the shape and size of their dialog wheel. Much like the first two Fallout games, or perhaps Diablo, clicking around the environment leads your party to wherever you’re trying to get, and interactive items are highlighted by the appropriate icons. Some more old-fashioned RPG diehards may bemoan this lack of interactivity, and I will admit I occasionally missed being able to just click around until something happened, but all of Shadowrun‘s various permutations have tended to be a bit faster-paced than their RPG contemporaries. This is completely in keeping with that theme.

Combat functions in a similar fashion and, despite being turn-based, it progresses rather quickly. Most of you will be able to catch on quite quickly (heck, I did and I rarely play RPGs anymore). Everyone on your party has a set number of Action Points which are spent… well, taking actions around the combat field and clicking on targets until either all of them or all of you fall over dead. Your party gets the standard allotment of classes and abilities, and part of the fun is seeing how they all work in concert. An X-COM style cover system forces the player to consider their surroundings a bit more than is often the case in RPGs, and the turn-based pacing allows you to really spend a lot of time planning tactics and watching your efficient team of multi-national runners come together against a common foe. I’d be lying if I said the combat is visionary and groundbreaking, but what’s there works so well you won’t really mind the lack of innovation.

Combat is surprisingly fast and vicious considering it's turn-based - but you may find yourself wishing for Bloody Mess to be activated.
Combat is surprisingly fast and vicious considering it’s turn-based – but you may find yourself wishing for Bloody Mess to be activated.

Future Berlin, free of the same corporate shackles that befall pretty much every other country in the Shadowrun universe, allows gamers to see a side of the William Gibson/Neal Stephenson-influenced world the characters inhabit that they haven’t gotten to see in previous games. Disparate architecture styles meet with a more lo-fi technological bent to present a future a little different from what you might see in something like Deus Ex; imagine a modern-day refugee camp full of cyborgs, or maybe what it would look like if someone threw a weekend-long outdoor music festival just outside of the Martian city in the original Total Recall. The occasional side quests (usually nothing more complicated than ‘find a thing and bring it back here’) give you plenty of excuses to poke around and check out the lovingly hand-rendered cityscapes, and while most of the NPCs aren’t feeling too chatty, the ones that are really help to give the sense of a broader universe. Your party members work in a similar way; each of them with distinct personalities and backstories that don’t come off as ham-fisted or forced the way some modern RPGs tend to, and the small cast size means nobody comes off like they’re written from a template.

Review Overview



This may put some of you off, but hear me out: Shadowrun Returns as a whole is a good RPG for people that aren't super into RPGs but enjoy many of their traditional aspects. Personally, I love crafting a well-balanced party, but I hate being forced to sit through their tragic backstories (but if I have time I'll totally do it). I like turn-based combat so long as it makes me feel involved (which the cover system definitely helps with), and I don't mind if a game's environment isn't comically huge just so long as it feels well-thought-out and there's plenty to keep me interested. All of these are things that Dragonfall excels at and things that many RPG series would do well to try and imitate. Too many role-playing games nowadays mistake size for quality. A big mistake they all seem to make is to design a world far too large to fill with quality content. Dragonfall, almost moreso than its predecessor, focuses itself down to the core of what a good RPG should be and succeeds all the more for it. If you'd like a break from wandering around a non-descript mountain range or flat wasteland for a while, but you're not quite ready to give up being an elf, I can't recommend Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall enough.

Tim Allen

Tim has been a gamer since the very first Goomba in Super Mario 3 killed him one Christmas. He lives outside of Detroit and is very picky about music and beer.

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