Last summer, Harebrained Schemes released Shadowrun Returns, an RPG set within the dark, gritty cyberpunk world that tabletop gamers have been enjoying for decades. While many video game adaptations of Shadowrun have come and gone over the years, Returns was the first since the early-90s Super Nintendo adaptation to really nail the franchise’s style, feel, and atmosphere. So here we are, some seven months later, and the game is getting its first DLC entitled Dragonfall. Since we raved about Returns upon its launch, our hopes were extremely high going into this expansion. But with great optimism can sometimes come great disappointment. Thus, we’re left with a simple question: how does Dragonfall ultimately stack up when compared to its predecessor?
Shadowrun Returns took place in a futuristic Seattle where cloak and dagger were but truth and matter. Pulling on the granular atmosphere that epitomizes Shadowrun as a whole, the Seattle setting was no doubt a fun one. Dragonfall, however, takes things east; far east actually, to Berlin. Berlin is much like the Emerald City in that it’s moody and, for all intents and purposes, a rundown hellhole of a city. So, basically, it’s the ideal setting for a Shadowrun game. In fact, it’s Dragonfall’s ability to create this kind of entrancing backdrop that is chief among its most commendable accolades.
From the opening mission right on through the very end, DF never stops drawing players in with the promise of shady dealings and capital crime. Best still is its capacity to deliver on those promises in spades, giving players a narrative that is every bit as compelling as Returns’, effectively enveloping them in a world that is pungent with important choices to make and baddies to trounce. In essence, the game builds a world that feels slimy and unpredictable and does so scrupulously, translating to an experience that will keep players on their toes and immersed in its 15-hour campaign. Certainly, if we’re keeping a tally… Harebrained is two-for-two when it comes to forging interesting worlds filled with daring-do and the like.
There seem to be more choices overall to be made too, many of which feel morally ambiguous in nature. Dialogue trees, in general, can easily fall into the trinity system of “morally sound, grey-area neutral, and chaotically evil,” yet the options here never feel that cut and dry. Actually, we rarely only get three scenarios from which to choose which is a breath of fresh air not just for the aforementioned reason but also because of the nature of Shadowrun’s world. After all, in this low-fi dystopian universe, staunch morals often lead to swift and untimely deaths.
Sadly, however, some of the story is given away through these dialogue trees, as when the box of options is presented to players, choices that aren’t open to them, based on their character archetype and skills, are shown nevertheless. Occasionally, these unavailable alternatives indicate what will happen next in the interaction, which can clearly spoil some of the unfolding events and subsequent entertainment. We would have enjoyed it more had those options only been visible to the player if they indeed possessed the necessary skills to utilize that particular conversation selection.
Outside of the story, not much has changed since Shadowrun Returns. We say that wearing a mirror-shattering grin seeing as Returns‘ gameplay was rock-solid. Taking that into consideration, then, Dragonfall is a combination of free-form exploration and team-oriented, turn-based tactical-RPG combat. So what that is tantamount to is more of the small skirmished-based battling of last year’s game only this time with even better balancing. Although the combat encounters are not on par with the depth found in the latest XCOM games, they still offer just enough tactical diversity to keep encounters from ever falling into a slog of a rhythm. The truth is: What made Returns so successful was the accessibility of the gameplay by and large, and that accessibility hasn’t been lost in this expansion.
For specifics, battles go down by way of grid-less maps on which players and enemies take turns positioning characters. Spending action points grants movement opportunities as well as attack options, with the bulk of the core strategy existing in how to use the limited number of points in order to maximize combat effectiveness. The battling is fairly straightforward, but rewarding all the same, and is less focused on nuanced components by emphasizing overall tactics as well as how to maneuver cleverly. Knowing when to stay low in cover, when to spend a point to reload in the place of attacking, and when to perform an all-out blitzkrieg is of the highest importance. This macro-management lends itself to exciting battles that don’t get bogged down in numbers and systems. Certainly, those who thrive off micro-organization will be turned off by this approach, but for the rest of us, the streamlined nature of combat will be a welcome change of pace from the usual affairs of the genre, enabling us to simply enjoy the game rather than making the whole ordeal feel like a chore to play.
It’s worth mentioning that, while the core gameplay remains unmodified, there is new content to be seen in Dragonfall; the new additions include weapons, items, enemies, characters, and over 60 avatar portraits. But when delving further, we see that we now have access to long-range sniper rifles, grenade launchers, and stun-inducing tasers, new cyberware, and fresh enemies such as gargoyles and fire drakes. Considering the brand-new setting and story, this added content is easily enough to make the purchase well feel worth its price tag. Folks can now save anywhere as well, something that wasn’t available in Returns upon its launch. Also new is the soundtrack, from composer Sam Powell, who just so happened to create the SNES game’s OST, along with SRR‘s. In terms of what hasn’t changed… For starters, the graphics are fairly similar to the last installment. While the engine is the same—and hardly capable of producing mouth-watering visuals—the environments really do look great. Character models still leave something to be desired, but at least the color palette overall is yet again bombastically neon and sure to please the eye.
Where we have to penalize Dragonfall most, however, is in the technical department. There were times when we would encounter bugs that were, at best, an inconvenience and, at worst, maddeningly confusing. Maps and quest-trackers not updating appropriately in addition to side-quest completion issues due to key events not triggering at all are just a few to name. There were some other hitches here and there as well, though, none were profoundly game-breaking. Still, the encountering of one of these hiccups was frustrating nevertheless.
In the end, Dragonfall is a more complete and sophisticated version of last year’s Shadowrun Returns. The new campaign setting is utterly compelling, the writing is some of the industry’s finest with astounding prose and character development, and the added content simply equates to an experience that is only rivaled by the genre’s best. The fundamental gameplay is still the same, though, that should be viewed as a glowing endorsement of the already-refined mechanics presented in the game’s predecessor. Having said that, this isn’t a flawless experience; the various bugs and glitches, in addition to the limited graphics engine, means there are some hiccups along the way. In truth, however, these hitches are somewhat marginal when juxtaposed with everything else the game does right. Harebrained Schemes have proven here that they are far more than a one-hit wonder, clearly demonstrating that the success of Returns was anything but mere happenstance. This is a development team who understand and love their source material. Consequently, Shadowrun: Dragonfall is another home run for the up-and-coming studio.