I backed the Shadowrun Returns Kickstarter a couple of years ago, and I confess that I was a disappointed in the game that arrived back then. With a linear story on rails, simplistic combat, an etremely limited save game feature, and a general lack of polish, Shadowrun Returns never did the Shadowrun setting justice. But the team kept working, releasing a better campaign set in Berlin, and then overhauling the Berlin campaign to be a richer, deeper standalone game. It’s the awkwardly-titled Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Directors Cut, and with it they’ve finally delivered the game I was hoping for. It was worth the wait.
For those unfamiliar with Shadowrun, it’s a tabletop RPG that presents a dark vision of a cyberpunk future with familiar fantasy elements layered over it. When magic reentered the world (a cataclysmic event known as the Awakening), metahumans such as Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and Trolls came with it. So did dragons, who quickly became the true powers behind the major corporations that took over much of the world. Those corporations wage war against each other, often by employing specialized mercenaries called Shadowrunners to sabotage, hack, rob, or otherwise disrupt each other. The setting has stood the test of time; Shadowrun been around since the late 80’s (back when everyone thought the Japanese economy was unstoppable — Shadowrun’s global currency, Nuyen, is based on the yen).
In Dragonfall, as in every other Shadowrun game, you play as a Shadowrunner. You have a wide array of customization options for your character – I made a shamanistic Dwarven decker (think hacker) who was also a good shot with a rifle. The game gives you total freedom to create any character by investing the Karma points you earn however you choose, which is a blessing and a curse. I loved the idea of my spirit-summoning computer whiz, but towards the end of the game I found the few Karma points I invested in shamanistic abilities were not only mostly useless outside of roleplaying, they’d actually prevented me from accessing the top tier rifle because I was just shy of the marksmanship rank I needed to use it. Your character can probably only do one or two things very well; choose what they are carefully.
Unless you’re looking for a really frustrating experience, I’d recommend that one of those things be combat of some sort. You’ll be fighting a lot. Fortunately, Dragonfall has much better AI than Shadowrun Returns, and on the Hard difficulty (second to hardest) I found the game to provide a satisfying challenge without having me pull my hair out. Other than that, you can pick whatever you want to be — the game gives you a team of four crack Shadowrunners to work with. Since you can only take three companions on any run, you’ll likely be leaving the teammate who you have the most in common with behind; e.g. my Dwarf was a great decker, so Blitz the decker spent most of my game on the sidelines, and the rest of the team made up for my magical, healing, and strong arm deficiencies.
The plot of Dragonfall is solid and engaging. You start out as the fifth man in the aforementioned team on an easy routine job. Of course, routine jobs never happen in modern storytelling; the stuff hits the fan pretty quickly, leaving the team leader dead and you in charge for some admittedly thin reasons. You start working to avenge your former leader’s death, but quickly finds yourself in the middle of a larger plot that is both exciting and told in a wonderfully non-linear fashion. For the most part, you choose which missions to run, and who to bring with you.
Between runs, you’ll hang out in the Kreuzbasar — a small neighborhood representing your team’s turf, where you can buy gear, weapons, combat drugs, and even bionic implants. Much of the story centers on protecting the Kreuzbasar, and so in addition the contracts you accept you’re often given side missions to help the neighborhood, such as investigating a disappearance ion the sewers or taking on a hate group for a local Metahuman shelter.
A lot of the story also focuses on your team, including a militant Troll, a punk-rock shaman, and a mysterious woman with so many implants she’s practically a cyborg. While you can’t directly control their advancement, you can unlock unique perks for each character when your character reaches certain levels. Each team member also has a special mission that you (usually) run as a duo, and completing it unlocks new abilities for them.
The game lets you make a lot of decisions, and your choices affect the story, character abilities and enhancements, and which one of several endings you’ll see. I’m curious about several of the paths I didn’t take on the way to my story’s own satisfying conclusion, and I think it speaks the quality of the game that I’m seriously considering a replay as a character with a more malevolent ethos (something I almost never do).
Dragonfall is not without its faults. Combat has been much improved with the addition of bleed and stun effects, but it’s still fairly basic as it doesn’t have multiple damage types, resistances, or vulnerabilities. You can now save anywhere, but for some reason you can’t if anyone on your team was moving when you opened the options menu (it took me hours to nail down why I could save in some places and not others — for a while I assumed there were no-save zones.) The story is told with text; a lot of text. I love classic RPGs and don’t mind a fair bit of reading, but Dragonfall can get so verbose that it sometimes feels more like a book than a game at times. And balance doesn’t always seem great – conjuring magic and drone control have consistently struck me as a bit underwhelming.
But these are quibbles. Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut is a fantastic romp that feels like the best RPGs of my childhood. If you like RPGs, especially classic ones, pick it up today. Otherwise, Harebrained Schemes might have to release a new version with an even longer title.