Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall review

(Once again, the site is prohibiting me from adding reviews to the game's page, so here it is in blog form until the engineers fix whatever's up. This review's probably one of my more pettier critiques, but then having an indignant tone is what makes reviews fun.)

Though marginally superior to Dead Man's Switch, Dragonfall still feels like squandered potential.

Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall is the new campaign from the original developers of Shadowrun Returns, Harebrained Schemes. The long-awaited "Berlin campaign" is a full expansion, providing a new 15+ hour campaign and various additions to the game's editor assets, and was released on Steam, GOG and the Humble Store for $15. It requires the original game to play.

The campaign itself is a little better put-together than Dead Man's Switch, the campaign that originally came with Shadowrun Returns. Though approximately of an equivalent length, it's far less interested in holding your hand through its early stages and has that self-assured confidence of a Hollywood comic book movie sequel: you know the setting, you know the deal, so let's have fun this time around. Moving the action to Berlin makes for an interesting cultural change from the Seattle-based previous games, and helps to fill in more of Shadowrun's distinctive setting that combines fantasy and technology in a near future where magic has suddenly returned to the world. Dragonfall is specifically focused on dragons and their role in the Shadowrun universe as devious and avaricious corporate kingpins and crimelords eager to seize the human world's resources for themselves.

Dragonfall's strengths include: A homey hub area named the Kreuzbasar, full of colorful NPCs that gradually reveal more about themselves as they get used to your presence and recognize your contributions to their small part of the city of Berlin. You perform odd jobs for the various vendors in the area, and the game hits you hard when the inevitable invasion of your sanctuary occurs by the antagonist's forces. Your team of shadowrunners also have distinctive personalities and, like in Neverwinter Nights, also slowly reveal their backstories as their trust in you grows after missions. Eiger, Glory and Dietrich are fun characters to interact with, and the game also provides a cocky decker (Shadowrun's equivalent of computer hackers) NPC early on in case you need one.

Dragonfall's weaknesses include: Still not enough item variety, still not enough mission variety, dependence on many tropes lifted directly from BioWare's book of tricks, such as "big decisions" which go on to effect the world as seen during the text epilogue, and there's still a heck of a lot of bugs. For instance: I noticed that one the Kreuzbasar NPCs simply restarted her dialogue over from your first meeting, though it caught back up when you next encountered her; darkened "fog of war" areas will sometimes take a few moments before they light up after you walk into them; the icons for interactive hotspots seem to flicker in and out of view, causing no amount of paranoia that you might have missed something important; the HUD would sometimes refuse to pop-up in combat, greatly restricting that character's combat options; and many other minor graphical and mechanical glitches. I didn't see anything too serious, like freezes or anything game-breaking, but the sheer number of them still present was a little dispiriting this many months after the original game's release.

Additionally, there's a few odd decisions being made with the game's use of skill-enabled advantages: those extra dialogue options that occur when you have a specific stat high enough to invoke it. For instance, there's an opportunity to sneak into a well-guarded corporate laboratory for decker builds via a busy maintenance worker outside the side-entrance. Having the requisite amount of decker skill to converse with her ("here's the problem") then generates two secondary skill-checks for moderately high strength and charisma stats respectively; either one of which would then allow you to proceed further with this dialogue tree and, eventually, sneak into the building without a fight. Because deckers don't rely on either strength or charisma, and thus would have no reason to build them up, it seemed very unlikely anyone could get into the building this way without cheating or knowing ahead of time and building a gimped character with stat distributions all over the place. Most skill checks are better utilized, but there's a few consecutive ones like the above that seem a bit uncoordinated.

The game introduces sniper rifles and grenade launchers, but nothing new as far as decker equipment goes. Deckers have always had exactly five options for decks: each one more powerful than the last, and require more money to buy and more decker skill to use. There's no variety. Likewise, even with the new weapon types, there's still very few options per level of skill and it usually comes down to a binary choice (e.g. more accuracy or more damage?) when each tier unlocks. I didn't play as a magic-user, but I imagine they have a similar utilitarian assortment of spells rather than the dizzying variety of your average D&D-derived RPG like Icewind Dale or Neverwinter Nights. It's fair to make the assessment that the game's more focused on its storytelling and mission design than it is on loot and equipment, which ought to be more of a means to an end than the focus anyway, but it wouldn't hurt to have more options in battle all the same. (It would be perhaps fairer still to point out the relatively small size of the development team behind the game, who probably needed to make certain aspects a priority out of a deadline-based necessity.) An RPG without loot just feels a bit barren, especially when there's the capacity to make fungible assets out of computer paydata packets, which the game doesn't do often enough, not to mention the many remnants of the pre-Awakening world that could be of value to somebody. There's a humorous chain of minor fetch quests concerning the acquisition of a DVD player and a monitor that can be hooked up to one, both of which are priceless antiques at this point in time. It recalled that episode of Cowboy Bebop where they spent half the running time trying to track down a working Betamax player.

Though the structure of Dragonfall includes an open-ended middle act in which the player can select between several missions in order on to raise the funds necessary to move onto the final act of the campaign, the whole experience still felt a bit too linear. Most missions are designed with a certain character level in mind - though it's worth pointing out that levels work a little differently in Shadowrun, so perhaps "karma total" (where karma is the game's de facto experience/building point system) is more apropos - so we have a series of missions that can only be taken in a certain order. The openness of this part of the game is therefore somewhat specious in nature. The previous campaign had this issue as well, and I suppose there's no easy workaround for this type of instance: the alternative would be to create several options off the bat that are either wildly imbalanced, causing consternation for any player who accidentally opts for the hardest of the missions presented, or they gradually become less challenging as players earn karma and become stronger the more of them they complete.

Overall, I was disappointed in Dragonfall not because of its content but because how little I felt it improved on the original game. When I originally reviewed Shadowrun Returns, I might have boosted its score slightly because I sensed a great deal of potential in its malleable engine and capacity for developer/user mods. I hoped that a new campaign would bring with it a huge number of important updates and fixes that had been generated in the months since the game's release, but given the relative lack of new assets (beyond some new setting-specific tilesets) and its many persistent bugs it seems neither of those things have transpired. It's not entirely fair to ask an expansion to change the user experience to a meaningful degree, as like most DLC it is simply meant to be more content within the same confines, but the price point - almost equal to the original game - and the amount of potential inherent to the format have shifted my expectations somewhat. It's still a solid strategy RPG with some great writing and character development, and feels truer to the Shadowrun setting than any games prior, but it feels like Dragonfall is perfectly content to rest on the original game's laurels than address any of its shortcomings to a significant extent.