Wot I Think – Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall

By Alec Meer on February 27th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

Now that’s more like it. Choice! Side-missions! A hub! A strong supporting cast who are up for a bit of a chat! Little-to-no mandatory decking sequences! A mother-lovin’ save (almost) anywhere system! Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall being ‘just’ DLC for last year’s cyberpunk/fantasy mash-up RPG is bittersweet, because it may well be that only existing Shadowrun Returns owners give it a spin. Really, though, this is the point where new players are best off getting involved – a new, superior campaign with no ties to the last one, and quite a few of the major problems dealt with. Now’s the time to play Shadowrun Returns, basically, but please, start with this.

The elevator pitch is the same as last time around: elves, dwarves, trolls and orcs living (slightly uncomfortably) alongside humanity on a near-future Earth, where the lines between technology and magic are blurred, and crime – street, organised and corporate – is rife. Techno-D&D basically. In Dragonfall, the setting switches from Seattle to the Free City of Berlin, which turns out to look a lot like Bladerunner’s Chinatown. But then, that’s basically what we expect of cyberpunk worlds, isn’t it?

You play a character of your own creation (I went for a fight-fighting magic dwarf, a sort of half-height Iron Fist), newly recruited to a team of Shadowrunners led by an old friend. (Shadowrunners are basically the A-Team, only they’ll work for bastards too). Bad Shit promptly goes down, and you find yourself in charge of this small gang of underground ne’er do wells as they attempt to Uncover Secrets! / Defeat Conspiracies! / Protect The Innocent! / Save The World! / Find And Stop A Bloody Great Dragon! / That Sort Of Thing!

Reams of hard-bitten, colourful-but-not-too-colourful dialogue frames all of this, and I found it agreeably, enjoyably pulpy in its take on noir meets fantasy quest. It creates tone rather than distracts from it, and bar a few instances of getting too carried away with itself, the writing seems to understand that it’s essentially working with genre stereotypes. It enjoys them and entertainingly embellishes them rather than tries to hide or overcomplicate them. At least, I hope so.

The rest of your team are a great case in point, and evoke Bioware companions at their best, even if they are realised in far more limited and ultimately brief way. Your tattooed, skinhead, fiercely anti-specist shaman used to be the lead singer in a British punk band. (“So you can sing?” “Of course not – I was in a punk band.”) The team medic is fitted with so much ‘chrome’ (tech augments) that she’s in danger of losing her soul – but perhaps you can reach her? The hulking troll weapons specialist is ex-military and aggressively reluctant to give you her respect or trust – and thus achieving this becomes an even more powerful motivator than stopping the big nasty dragon, or whatever it is.

They’re fun. They’re not there to be taken seriously (again, at least I hope so), they’re there to be enjoyed – genre staples done well, and with affection. Dialogue offers choice aplenty on how to interact with them between missions, and while concrete consequences may be few, knowing that you’ve got through to someone, heard more of their inevitably dark history or royally pissed them off builds a great sense of team dynamic, and who these people are outside their combat abilities. Dragonfall also has a neat line in punishing you for being overly obsequious in the hope of reward – team mates and NPCs often called me out for being mawkish or superficial when I defaulted to the ‘nice’ option, and that only made me respect them more.

A similar philosophy extends to the missions and quests. While the storyline is really only headed in one direction, I was pleased to find that there’s a great deal more meandering and branching than in the original Shadowrun Returns, but it’s there to build tone and character rather than truly drag the plot off to alternative places. Sure, you’ll get a few bonus Karma points (spent on new or improved stats and abilities, basically) if you find and choose the option to save the semi-friendly ghouls in the sewers rather than kill or evict them, but whatever you do that’s the end of it and it’s on to the next thing. What matters is that you’ll either feel you’re a sensitive hero-to-all, or a ruthless utilitarian who doesn’t mind sacrificing a few lives in the pursuit of a job well done and/or filthy lucre.

It’s about swaddling yourself in this surprisingly colourful world of crime and grime in the way that you see fit, rather than trying to pretend you’re able to affect sweeping changes to it. To a limited degree, you’re also able to pick and choose missions – most are mandatory, but there were just enough that were optional that I felt I was playing on my terms rather than the game’s.

The improvement on the parent game in this regard is subtle at first but far more dramatic in the long term. You’re still being railroaded by the plot, but the ability to control the pace makes this a very different animal. The Seattle campaign too often felt like a lightweight point and click adventure interspersed with sporadic, overtly scripted turn-based combat scenes and too much backtracking, whereas this feels much more like a roleplaying game. This extends to in-mission too – most challenges (which invariably means a locked door by any other name, to be honest) have a least of couple of possible solutions that you and your current team may or may not have the right abilities to pull off – e.g. getting your Decker to hack a terminal, getting your bruiser to shoulder open a secret door, using the right, Charisma-derived Etiquette to sweet-talk a corporate drone into letting you by. And if all else fails, there’s always the Kill Everyone approach too.

Again, you are going to get past that door and onto the next plot nugget no matter what, but Dragonfall seems well aware that feeling like it was done in a way particular to your character makes all the difference. Those who found the mandatory ‘Decking’ sequences (VR-world combat) in the parent game galling will be glad to hear that they are now optional, usually available as one possible means of overcoming an obstacle if you have the appropriate character in your party.

Combat is as combat was, a solid if unexceptional take on the turn-based fare of original Fallout and X-COM, with added magic and perhaps not quite enough sense of risk. More choice of who to take with you (filling your three team slots with either favourites from your Shadowrunner chums or hired mercs for variety’s sake) and the between-mission getting to know you stuff means it doesn’t feel like you’re out there with a bunch of disposable ciphers. It’s perhaps a little bit throwaway, but that is in keeping with the pulpy, good times vibe of the whole thing.

For all the improvements, there is a strong sense that Dragonfall is straining against Shadowfall Returns’ inherent limitations. All these choices I’ve mentioned involve simply picking one line of text over some others, usually with no animation pay-off – usually the result is simply described. Outside of combat, the lavish, detailed backdrops are really just that – scenery for a colourfully-written text adventure. You’ve got to allow yourself to live in the text, otherwise I fear you may well bounce off Dragonfall, for all its improvements. At its heart it’s a game about click-click-clicking through a lot of dialogue, but the big difference here is that there’s a much stronger sense you’re affecting that dialogue rather than merely being subjected to it.

The biggest problem for me was a certain inconsistency in how you can use your party members. Levelling up and equipping new items is limited to just the main character, even to the point that you can’t tell someone else in the party to equip a found health kit if you’re out of inventory space. Exciting weapon drops wind up deflatingly pointless because you can’t give them to seemingly-suited characters. The game’s stuck in an odd, frustrating half-way housed between team-based and single character, and while I really enjoyed chatting to my squad mates, I’d almost prefer it had gone fully one way or the other.

Meanwhile, one computer terminal might give you the option to send your Decker team mate in to hack it, but the next might grey out the hacking option because you’re not a Decker yourself. Dragonfall too often feels arbitrary, as though it’s trying hard to always present options then worrying that it’s given the player too much power to resolve anything. Clearer lines are needed.

There’s also a little too much schlepping around the main hub area, which has gone to great lengths to be pretty and relatively rich with world-building optional conversation, but is at the same time a very large plaza to tediously trot back and forth across when you’re trying to visit all the relevant shopkeepers and quest-givers. And it has the same issue that so much of the game’s art does – it’s essentially static, using superficial prettiness as cover for being nothing more than a background. I am OK with that, as I’ve got enough out of the character work and fiction to shrug it off, but whenever I look at Shadowrun Returns (in either campaign) too closely I become naggingly aware of how much it seems like a game assembled from a kit.

The trick, then, is to just go with it. Enjoy the setting, enjoy the characters, enjoy the X-COMy combat, enjoy being a hero or a thug in a world of magic and technology. Dragonfall’s a big improvement on Shadowrun Returns even if it is inescapably the same game, and it pulls off the smart trick of being both a superior starting point and a more satisfying follow-up.

Oh yeah, and the new save system just works. Sure, there’s an element of feeling like a cheat when you can quicksave ahead of a dilemma or challenge, but I’ll take that over replaying long segments in the event of a failure any day.

Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall is out today. It costs $15/£12 and requires a copy of Shadowrun Returns.

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47 Comments »

  1. PopeRatzo says:

    OK, what’s the catch? I see it’s not F2P, but is it co-op? Do I need 3 friends with the game in order to play it? Are there microtransactions?

    Lemme get over to Steam to see what’s what. I thought they didn’t make games like this any more.

    UPDATE: Oh, I see. This is DLC. “Requires the base game “Shadowrun Returns…”

    So, this is basically a $30 purchase price.

    • Keyrock says:

      I actually really liked Shadowrun Returns, but to hear that this is an improvement in almost every way makes me grin ear to ear. I can’t wait to get home and make a new ork (I always play ork) character.

      Edit: Gah, this was not supposed to be a reply to PopeRatzo. I fail at the internet.

      /facepalm

    • CookPassBabtridge says:

      I was going to ask this too. Is this DLC genuinely worth the £24 outlay it will require to buy the base game + plus DLC to play, considering you’re suggesting ignoring the base game itself?

      • ramirezfm says:

        It depends on who you ask. The base game was perfectly fine, nothing breathtaking though. Most people seem to have love/hate relationship with it, but you can safely disregard all the ‘it was amazing’ and ‘it was utter crap’ opinions. For me it was well worth the admission price. There is fun to be had, especially if you like(d) actual pen and paper rpgs. Yes, the game can be a bit bad from time to time (final boss is like final fantasy tactics), but it is pretty nice regardless.

        • derbefrier says:

          Pretty much this. It was a good game just not what a lot of people hoped it would be. Sounds like the xpack really takes care of most of the issues people had with it.

          Even though it was linear I really enjoyed the campaign in the first game and enjoyed the writing and from the sounds of they did an even better job with this. Been waiting for a wit of it now I can go homew and buy it!

        • ulix says:

          “Yes, the game can be a bit bad from time to time (final boss is like final fantasy tactics)”

          How ON EARTH is that a bad thing?

          • ramirezfm says:

            I find final fantasy tactics a bit boring :p And here it is kinda out of place, moving the pieces for 20 minutes without anything story related going on.

      • LVX156 says:

        If you like your RPGs text-heavy and turn-based, it’s a perfectly fine game. Very well-written, interesting classes and races. My only major complaint about the original is that it has no save function, but relies on checkpoints. It’s really annoying, especially when you lose a hard fight and have to spend 15 minutes getting to that fight again, just to lose it again.

        • Diatribe says:

          Supposedly they back-ported a save anywhere function into the original campaign. I haven’t replayed it, so I can’t verify it works correctly, but that’s what the patch notes say.

          • Fumarole says:

            I played some today and the save anywhere feature does indeed work. The game still autosaves each time it loads a level.

        • Sharlie Shaplin says:

          It sounds tempting from your description, i’ll probably get it at some point. Although I reserve the right to feel hurt and disappointed in you, if I don’t like it.

    • The Random One says:

      If Harebrained Schemes have any sense they’ll release it as a standalone. Unfortunately as far as business go they’ve pretty much lived up to their name.

      • Szpil says:

        Why on earth should this be released as a standalone? I really cannot see what is so bad about releasing a massive dlc campagne that improves on the original game in many ways.
        Besides, they do have a contract with microsoft because of the shadow run licence that covers additional dlc and not a second standalone game. So it’s not like it’s just up to harebrained to decide this.

    • P.Funk says:

      Back in the salad days of gaming when pig’s flew they used to call this an Expansion Pack. I don’t recall them being met with much anger.

  2. Dominic White says:

    I think that people got the wrong end of the stick with the original Shadowrun Returns campaign. It was a sequel-of-sorts to the SNES Shadowrun, and also an introductory piece to what was always going to be a modular RPG experience.

    Shadowrun Returns is pretty much the base source-book. Dragonfall is a city-book. It adds a new campaign, but also a lot of new environment pieces, characters, concepts and content to the editing suite. With this, hopefully we’ll see the variety in player-made campaigns going up, too.

    I have a feeling the game is just generally misunderstood, as with the original Neverwinter Nights. When a game is geared heavily towards user-generated content, it always seems unfair to review it based on the starter, example piece included in the box.

    A review may mark things down for feeling like they were built using a toolkit, but I just see huge potential in that statement. If it’s a good campaign, and they used the same tools that are available for players, then this increases the value of it instantly.

    • Cinek says:

      Hope you are right, cause Shadowrun: Returns was a complete crap in every way as a game – made me regret money I spent on it. As an RPG… well…. storyline was crap too, but overall combat mechanics were quite good. Shame that piles of below-averageness of everything else overshadowed it completely.
      They’ll have hard time convincing anyone into buying Dragonfall if they bought Shadowrun just as a cRPG like I did, not some long-gone legend that was supposedly resurrected (and I didn’t feel any taste of legend what so ever. Below-averageness is the first thing that comes into my mind as a description of Shadowrun: Returns).

      • Sven Viking says:

        “Shadowrun: Returns was a complete crap in every way … overall combat mechanics were quite good.”

        Objection!

    • Nenjin says:

      “Built with a mod kit” basically describes the feel of SRR. There is a….formulaic approach to a lot of the game, and you feel the limitations of the design in a lot of places. I don’t know if the Seattle SRR campaign was misunderstood so much as having too many hopes pinned on it.

      Anyways, I can’t really say I’m super excited for this. There are things that are undeniably good about the expansion, save anywhere, better pacing…..but a lot of the stuff that disappointed in the main game sounds like it remains: dialog choices being flavor, not having consequences. Boring combat. Pointless limitations like having no control over the other runner’s development or gear. At least there’s more options that do make you feel like you own your choices, something the original was very guilty of not including. I just don’t know if it’s really enough. I can say I enjoyed the writing in SRR more than anything: more than the visuals, the combat, the mechanics of character building or the act of character building. It’s a great interactive graphic novel but it fell pretty flat as a game.

      I already own the expansion due to being a backer, but it may be a long time before I’m feeling generous and open-minded enough to try it.

    • malkav11 says:

      I really have to disagree with the idea that it’s appropriate to review a game based on the possibility of quality user content for it. Neverwinter Nights ultimately ended up having a huge amount of really excellent modules (allowing for the unfortunate limitations of the engine and base game design) made for it, but out of the box it was awful and there was never any guarantee that it would receive the degree of quality modding it did. The review should certainly mention the availability of modding support, but it shouldn’t excuse a lackluster release.

      In the case of Shadowrun Returns, I thought Dead Man’s Switch was largely solid. My biggest issue was that you couldn’t customize your NPCs meaning they lagged well behind a sensibly built main character by the end. I’ve read, for example, that riggers are the most powerful class in the game, but you’d never know it from the NPC riggers, who are remarkably underwhelming and miss a huge percentage of the time. And from the sound of it, that may be a base engine limitation rather than campaign design. I sure hope not. (Though I suppose it would be possible to compensate by at least making your preset NPCs not suck as badly as the ones in DMS do.)

      But we’re still not at a point where there’s a lot of compelling value proposition just in the UGC. There’s a fair amount of stuff in the works, but whether it’s ever going to be finished or any good is not yet established.

  3. Laketown says:

    At first I thought that said daggerfall and I got really confused

    • Zyx says:

      I thought it said ‘Dogfall’ and was like, ‘whaaaaaa-?’ and then I saw it was ‘Dragonfall’ and was like, ‘whaaaaaa-?’

  4. Stevostin says:

    Combat in the original were basically x-com combat done right: too easy as well but at least, options rather that one long tunnel of “the obvious right move is this one”. The only thing lacking was a fast animations option – a bit tedious to keep buff running on the long run.

  5. MattMk1 says:

    Did they make any changes at all to how cyberware works? I know they didn’t revamp the entire combat system to let us make a real Street Samurai, but did they at least boost the effects of what little they included to make cyber at least somewhat worthwhile / relevant this time around, and give you the option to start off with some cyberware?

    I’m guessing no, but I’d love to be wrong.

    • Hensler says:

      I’m wondering the same thing about magic… The first campaign really felt like it was made to be played with a pure firearms character.

      • Emeraude says:

        Really ? I found both Shaman and Rigger to really be the overpowered Archetypes myself (well, the shotgun was in itself a win button until they thankfully nerfed kneecap, but that’s another matter).

  6. Laurentius says:

    I aboslutly loved Shadowrun Returns that is i would have loved it if not this horrendous save system and as such it was my disappointment of the year, now it is fixed I can’t wait to get back for a new adventure. Yay !

  7. Riaktion says:

    I’m really looking forward to playing this, however monies and time have already been put aside for Age of Wonders 3 which I am also really looking forward to.

    I thought Shadowrun Returns was excellent and can’t wait to get stuck back in, sounds like more of the same with tweaks and improvements. I know many won’t agree with me based on the above comments, but personally I’ll be picking it up as soon as I have the free time to play it.

    This is good news.

  8. Emeraude says:

    Was eagerly waiting for that tonight, had popped some of my best coffee too. But it seems I’m not going to be able to play. Oh well. Still have to optimize that Netrunner deck for Sunday I guess.

    The base game was not great, for sure, but I found it thoroughly enjoyable for what it was and really could have used some more. Would have occupied my night.

  9. Wulfram says:

    Have there been many good mods made for Shadowrun yet? The toolset seems like a selling point, so I’m wondering what added value you get from that?

    • derbefrier says:

      I haven’t checked in a few months but there were some good ones. I suspect with the xpack we will see a lot more involved and open fan made missions though.

      • Alphadrop says:

        Probably, one of the issues modding the game was that the assets for the original campaign were fairly limited especially with creatures. More locales, characters and monsters should hopefully mean more custom campaigns and such.

  10. Archangel says:

    Have any of the new changes been “ported” over to the original campaign, though? I’m sure I’d like to play through the first one if the save-anywhere feature has been implemented across the entire game.

    Edit: At least quicksave appears to be, as of patch 1.2 (which may or may not be still in beta). Yay!

  11. JackMultiple says:

    Does the save system now work in the base game? Or just in the DLC?

    • Cronstintein says:

      The save function was added to the engine itself. So even w/o the dlc, if you have the original, you can save anywhere.

  12. Diatribe says:

    @ Alec Meer
    You wrote “Shadowfall Returns” when you meant to write “Shadowrun Returns.”

  13. ulix says:

    Even though I don’t actually play Shadowrun, nor did I play the videogame version, I’m mainly interested in one thing:

    Did they actually use the German source material to build the world?
    As far as I know it’s not even available in English, or is it?

    I’ve read a couple of short-stories in the German setting (ADL) years ago, and really liked it.

    • Whelp says:

      From what I’ve seen so far, it sticks real close to the old ADL sourcebooks. You got references to the Euro Wars, the Rhine-Ruhr Megaplex, etc.

      I read they worked together with the German publishers of Shadowrun 5th edition to get the setting right.

      • sanddorn says:

        As someone who used to play Shadowrun back in the 90s and lived some years in the Flux … eh, Schöneberg … it’s pretty neat.
        Of course not real Berlin 2010, but really a ‘good’ alternative world. And it makes sense in-world to see things quite like ‘now’
        I can’t compare that to Seattle in the original version or many recent games, but just look at the street signs, the bike lane signs, the Ubahn wagons etc. They definitely spent time on the small things.
        And there are details like “Soykaf ist Menschen” …

    • HamsterExAstris says:

      While popular in Germany, Shadowrun was originally published in English by an American company (FASA, creators of BattleTech/MechWarrior).

  14. stiffkittin says:

    The host of small improvements makes what I’ve played of Dragonfall so far a much better experience. Even without taking into account the superior design of the campaign. The writing is darker and more confident in it’s voice. They know now what sort of game they’ve got, and the tone, and took their time breathing life into it. The addition of persistent teammates benefits the game immeasurably. Adventure stories like these need interesting personalities to flesh them out and having a squad with backstories and character really helps liven up the combat scenarios.

    The save anywhere; the sped up ‘use’ animation; improvements to the slippy movement animations; the UI & dialogue tweaks all look great and add to the depth and flavour of interactions. Additionally, all engine improvements carry over to the original campaign.

    Dead Man’s Switch was a decent game – despite a wobbly launch and the uproar over the save system. Mechanically a little dry and definitely too restrictive for an rpg, but the tale was told at a good pace, with interesting twists and turns and above all served to re-introduce and sell the world of Shadowrun. That was probably its biggest downfall. That the narrative wasn’t independent of the need to relaunch the idea of Shadowrun and showcase the new title they just barely managed to squeak out the door. Taken together with both campaigns I feel like the game is quality and absolutely worth a launch day price of $30.

    Although if HBS are smart, they’ll ditch this idea of it being ‘dlc’ and just ship it with the base game at $20 soonish, as Dragonfall showcases what SR:R is capable of being far better than the noir/world-building vignette it shipped with.

    • karthink says:

      Thank you for the mini-review. The big improvements are highlighted everywhere. While I’m champing at the bit to get home so I can get started, I was hoping to hear that they’ve also sweat the details with their weird little engine.

      • stiffkittin says:

        You’re welcome! If you enjoyed the first campaign then you’ll have a blast. HBS, for all their faults, have shown persistence and commitment to making the improvements that needed to be made for this game. Even though it can’t be said they’ve been universally lauded for the effort — I respect them for that.

  15. revan says:

    Definitely picking this up next month. Pre-ordered the original SRR and enjoyed it, limitations and all. Meant to do the same with SRD but the need to buy a replacement for one of my failing hard drives got in the way – SRR was on it, maybe my Decker character wrecked it with his chronic ineptitude? Oh well! He is an Ork.

  16. Kohlrabi says:

    For all the improvements, there is a strong sense that Dragonfall is straining against Shadowfall Returns’ inherent limitations. All these choices I’ve mentioned involve simply picking one line of text over some others, usually with no animation pay-off – usually the result is simply described. Outside of combat, the lavish, detailed backdrops are really just that – scenery for a colourfully-written text adventure. You’ve got to allow yourself to live in the text, otherwise I fear you may well bounce off Dragonfall, for all its improvements. At its heart it’s a game about click-click-clicking through a lot of dialogue, but the big difference here is that there’s a much stronger sense you’re affecting that dialogue rather than merely being subjected to it.

    I don’t see and think that this is a limitation of SR, but rather a deliberate choice by the designers, since that is basically what Planescape: Torment is all about, and I hope we can agree that PST is no bad company to be in.
    I’m looking forward to giving this a spin.

  17. Foosnark says:

    In the grim dark future of the 26th century there is only Chinatown.

  18. Sven Viking says:

    While there were a lot of things I wished could have been better, I enjoyed Shadowrun Returns more than most games I’d played over the past year or two. I had virtually no prior knowledge of the setting, but its blend of Infinity Engine/turn-based tactics/cyberpunk elements was well suited to my interests. Looking forward to any improvement on that, and hopefully to further advances in the future.

  19. sinister agent says:

    The woman in the first picture looks uncannily like Laurie Penny. That is all.