I always had my reservations about Shadowrun. I like things to fit tidily into tropes. I love cyberpunk stuff like Neuromancer and Blade Runner, and I grew up on a healthy diet of wizards, dragons and trolls, like any other well-adjusted young man. But putting the two things together? Why, it’s demented. Simply demented.
But, with time, it sort of grows on you. The corporate mages that show just a glimpse of shirt and tie at the neckline of their wizard’s robes. The well-groomed, straight-edged orcs who play against type and form socially conscious community groups. The sewer-dwelling ghouls who provide civic service by maintaining the sanitation system in return for medical waste for their larders. It allows for some interesting concepts to be explored, as well as some subtle social commentary about prejudice and power...
Shadowrun Returns was released in 2013, and was a case study in storytelling and game design. Even as far back as its initial release, talk of a second campaign built with the same suite of construction tools was doing the rounds, a new story set in the anarchist state of Berlin. True to their word, Shadowrun Returns returns.
Yes, I know. The Shadowrun Returns returns joke returns.
Dragonfall’s Berlin is different from the original campaign’s Seattle in that it’s a ‘Flux State’: a city where the ebb and flow of anarchy prevents anyone from getting a solid grasp on the reins of power. Various factions rise then fall all the time, allowing for a chaotic, confused freedom to reign. That’s not to say there’s no megacorporation influence, or functioning stores, or poverty… In fact, in many ways it’s a big, sprawling cyberpunk city that, from the perspective of those who run the shadows, is maybe not all that different after all. Sure, gang turf changes hands regularly and can impact on your missions, and occasionally you’ll find yourself fighting tooth and claw (if you have claws, that is) to defend your home turf from marauders.
Story-wise, Dragonfall is perhaps even a step up from the excellent writing of the original game. It’s a classic three-act affair that revolves around a botched job, a breadcrumb trail of clues that are fed out slowly and cleverly (in part through a stack of antiquated DVDs that are being recovered by a contact, one at a time) and a suitably dramatic grand finale with a couple of twists. In the second act, raising a large quantity of cash becomes a thing, so you need to take a series of side jobs, each of which are further complicated by a number of other interested parties making requests, some of which directly contradict your main orders, so there are plenty of decisions to make throughout.
But here is the big gameplay development: you can now save the game at any point. The infrequency of save points was a major complaint about the previous game, and since both stories are driven through the same core engine, the new functionality will roll out to the older story too. So it’s really more of a patch than anything else, but still really nice to see the devs listening to the community.
The NPCs are some of Shadowrun Dragonfall's greatest successes and saddest mistakes. The characters you run with in the game are incredibly engaging – Dietrich, the aging punk-rock wizard, a personal favourite of mine, fits into the setting just perfectly. Some of these characters will challenge you, others have secrets, and all of them have their moments to shine. Or, at least, they might. Because you can only take three of them on each job, even though there are four (later five) who form the core of your team. There is no really sensible reason why you’d leave one of them at home while the rest of the team go out on a dangerous mission. Toward the end, when everyone is getting revved up for the final job, and talking about how outnumbered you’re going to be and so on, the fact that you’re telling two of your team to just stay in bed makes no sense to the story. It is also a shame to not see the final dialogue for these characters you’ve got to know and love over the course of the game. Personally I would have been happier with beefed-up challenges and the option to take the whole team along.
Speaking of NPCs, it’s not simple to manage their inventories. Sure, as they progress through the game they’ll acquire new abilities and weapons, but it would be nice to take a more active hand in their management with something more than just medikits and grenades.
Just as in the previous story, Dragonfall consumed my imagination for the whole time I was playing it. When it was done, I missed the characters and wanted it to continue. That is perhaps the ultimate sign of a well-told story. As a game, it’s pretty good – balanced, challenging combat that calls for a variety of tactics to respond to different situations; viable paths for combat fans, mages and even charisma-junkies; plenty of relevant activities to keep the player engaged during non-combat ‘downtime’. But as a story – a piece of interactive fiction that takes a substantial corpus of existing source material and spins an engrossing yarn about power, betrayal, revenge, duty, family and loyalty – it is a supreme work.
I’m looking forward to more.