My history with the Shadowrun franchise began with the 2007 first-person shooter which has little to do with the actual Shadowrun universe. Still, 13-ish year old me loved the idea of sci-fi meets magic.
Originally released as DLC for the game Shadowrun Returns, the so-called director’s cut of Dragonfall was released by Harebrained Schemes as a standalone game in 2014. This review will be covering this director’s cut. A lot of what I say in this review could also apply to both the previous game Shadowrun Returns and it’s sequel Shadowrun: Hong Kong. I also have little concern how this game’s rules line up with the original tabletop game as I have not played said tabletop game.
It’s All About the Atmosphere
Dragonfall takes place in Berlin in a future where magic has returned to the world. You play as a Shadowrunner (mercenary) who joins a team headed by Monika. During your first mission, things go sideways, Monika ends up dead and your team is forced to deal with a conspiracy involving an event that happened years ago known as the Dragonfall.
I find the best element of Dragonfall is the worldbuilding. The game allows you to build just about any character you want, picking from five races and multiple skill trees. Wanna be a ten-foot troll cyborg who wields assault rifles and a katana for close quarters? What about a hotshot Dwarf drone rigger? Or maybe you want to sling spells as an Elf? The only thing you have to remember is that this is a game that focuses on specialists, so trying to create a jack of all trades will end in tears. The only real problem I’d say is that once you make your character you’re stuck with it. This means you won’t really be able to experiment with what playstyle you like unless you start over again.
On top of your character, you also have your team of colorful Shadowrunners. There’s Dietrich, the middle-aged punk rocker turned shaman, Eiger, the former special forces soldier who has series trust issues when it comes to the player and Glory, the withdrawn, stoic combat medic sporting old cybernetic body parts. There’s also the potential to recruit Blitz, a cocky decker (hacker). Blitz is the only character I don’t find particularly interesting. He feels like more of an afterthought added so the player had a decker always available. That being said Dietrich, Eiger and Glory are all very compelling characters.
There are also many characters you encounter during the game. Even the various merchants and side characters are interesting with their own backgrounds, fleshed out personalities and conflicts. Everything is brought to life via the vivid descriptions given. Writer Andrew McIntosh deserves serious props as his writing easily propels this game into being something special. There is a lot of reading to do in this game, but it’s all for the best.
The music is appropriate, but at the same time isn’t exactly amazing. I don’t feel you’d lose much listening to your own choice of music rather than that in game. Combat sound effects also lack a sense of impact, and everything useful is communicated via text anyway.
Visually this game is a mixed bag. Sure the backgrounds and character portraits look beautiful, but unfortunately, some of the worst character models have been jammed on top of said backgrounds. To be fair there are a lot of various assets for different armours, weapons, drones, computer decks etc, but the models just look so jarring compared to the rest of the visuals.
But Then There’s the Combat…
I’d best describe this game as Mass Effect meets X-COM. There’s a focus on building and socializing with your team as you work towards an objective. Gameplay wise this plays very much like the X-COM reboot, with turned based combat.
There is a ton of combat in this game, and unfortunately, it has its fair share of issues. First of all, I’m not a big fan of the turn-based system. Like X-COM you have 2 (later 3) Action Points. You can move a certain distance (say a max of 10 tiles) for 1 Point. If you want to move 11, you have to use 2. This might not seem like a big deal, but I find the problems start to arrive when you’re trying use melee builds. A character can move and attack, but you can’t choose the exact path that character moves. This can leave characters outside of cover, which is still in the 1 AP movement range, making them vulnerable. I prefer the system seen in Jagged Alliance 2 or Silent Storm, where the player has a lot of AP, where step takes a certain amount of AP.
I’d also say the cover system is a bit basic. Characters can get behind objects of varying strength to protect from incoming attacks. To counter this, you can either use melee or throwing weapons to weed enemies out of cover or attempt to flank enemies. Being on a target’s flank increases hit and critical chances massively. Sometimes I find the logic of this system rather inconsistent. There are plenty of times where I think my character should have an easy line of sight that’d allow for a clear shot.
Another problem I have is how hit chance is calculated. As the game goes on, enemies seem to be able to avoid a lot of damage, even at very close range. This increases when the player sets the difficulty to higher levels. On the highest difficulty I had a shotgun specialist point blank, flanking an enemy and somehow they only had about a 60% chance to hit. I’d recommend the player sticks to Normal/Hard to avoid being put at the mercy of the random number generator
To be fair, the hit chance does probably compensate for the weak AI. With the said flanking mechanic, the AI seems to get stuck on trying to flank the player, rather than their own safety. This at times leaves them in the open, allowing the player to cut them down.
Finally, although the game in it’s current state is practically bug-free, I’ve still encountered a game-breaking bug when decking. At random the game has locked my ability to perform a move or end the turn whilst decking. Granted this has only happened twice, both during separate playthroughs but I feel it’s worth mentioning.
With all that said, the combat isn’t too difficult, and I’m a sucker for turned based games like this. Building up a team and using their abilities to turn the tables on a superior number of enemies is always a lot of fun and considering the variety of builds the player can go for, every playthrough ends up being different combat wise.
Play Your Way
The missions themselves are also quite engaging. Again the writing team deserves a lot of praise here for the effort they’ve put into it all. Not every mission the player participates is necessarily morally acceptable. How you execute a mission is also up to you and your team. Having a Decker on hand can be handy to hack computers, having a strong character can allow for you to break down walls or move heavy objects, and a charismatic main character can talk their way out of many situations.
A single playthrough would take about 20 hours. Considering the multiple options you have for building your character and paths that are available during missions plus multiple endings, there’s a lot of replay value when it comes to Dragonfall. Considering the low price of $15 US it’s certainly good value for money.
Dragonfall leads the player through an engaging world where characters and choices matter. The writing and world building are about as good as it gets. The combat might be a bit basic compared to other turned based games, but otherwise, this is a very strong outing. I’d highly recommend Shadowrun: Dragonfall, and also Shadowrun Returns and Shadowrun: Hong Kong.