by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
On paper, the world of Shadowrun seems perfect for a video game. It’s full of crazy creatures, big guns, magic, and enough lore to fill tomes. Unfortunately, up until recently, it’s not really had much digital success. Then, in early 2012, Harebrained Studios opened a kickstarter to bring the IP back in the form of an isometric, narrative-heavy rpg which came out to generally positive reviews. While the game’s first campaign, titled Dead Man’s Switch, left something to be desired for some, the promise of more campaigns to come kept people eagerly awaiting the next instalment in a solid base. That next instalment was to be titled Dragonfall, and it improved upon Dead Man’s Switch in almost every way; deeper characters, a more open campaign clocking in between 10 and 15 hours, and a new setting brought the game closer to the Shadowrun that fans knew and loved. Now that expansion has been re-released as a stand-alone experience with some new missions and tweaked presentation, and it’s easily the definitive way to play Shadowrun Returns.
An Immersive World
For those unfamiliar - and since they game doesn’t do an outstanding job of explaining its background - the world of Shadowrun has history and lore as deep and complex as any work of fiction out there. A unique mix of clichés borrowed from the great works of fantasy, noir, and sci-fi, its universe is one largely familiar yet instantly strange. In an event referred to as the Awakening, humans started turning into mythological races thought to have existed only in the pages of fiction. While normal humans are still very much a thing, dwarves, elves, orcs, and trolls also become functioning members of society. Magic becomes real and somewhat common. Great dragons rule with near unparalleled power. Fast forward a number of decades into the future, and tech like bionic limbs and personal weaponized drones are the norm. Mega corporations are more powerful than the government, and much of the world is slums. Some get by slaving for a corp, others work the black markets. As a shadowrunner, you work somewhere in between, taking jobs to steal, protect, or kill for whoever’s got the funds to make it worth your while.
On a run with his new team of shadowrunners, things don’t go to plan for our protagonist. What’s supposed to be an easy job quickly dumps the runners in over their heads, and one of them meets a fatal end. The runner uses her dying words to mention the name Feuerschwinge, a great dragon that killed thousands in Germany shortly after the awakening and was defeated in a months-long battle known as - you guessed it - the Dragonfall. A simple mission to figure out who set the team up to die eventually evolves into a grand plot full of twists, turns, and mass destruction.
Unfortunately that’s all you’re going to get on the plot, because even more so than combat it’s the writing and story that is Dragonfall’s strong suit. While the game isn’t voiced (in fact characters don’t really even move during conversations), the quality with the script is up there with just about any other game’s narrative, and it’s made even better by the additional endings and five new missions the director’s cut brings that further flesh out some of the characters. Sure it’s campy much of the time, but when you’re dealing with trolls and giant dragons and cybernetic super limbs that’s just part of the charm. There’s a lot of reading in the game, some of it side-story that’s largely inconsequential, but it all builds up Berlin and its inhabitants as an engrossing, deep local. This is aided by the addition of a bigger, more functional hub than in the initial Dead Man’s Switch campaign.
While the later had one bar that you could walk around a bit in between missions, Dragonfall gives you a much more sizable chunk of city filled with all sorts of “people”. Another narrative improvement this expansion brings is some actual control over the flow of the campaign. What was a completely linear narrative experience before is now more branching, letting you pick runs that suit your team, choosing how to balance potential danger with the reward.
For how much I enjoyed the narrative, the audio and visuals are a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand there are things I love. When I plug in my headphones crank the volume up the music really is quite nice. It’s not overly intruding or fancy, but it’s some great electronic music that really fits and adds to the rundown cyberpunk setting. The landscapes are nice looking as well. They retain unchanged from the game’s previous instalment and iteration, and have a pleasant (though suitably grungy) hand-painted look to them. Unfortunately there’s a flip side both aurally and visually. The combat sounds leave something to be desired; both gunshots and magic effects seem weak and underwhelming and character graphics and animations leave a lot to be desired. Character portraits that pop up during conversations are nicely done paintings that show character and personality, but they seldom resemble the character models very well. The visual element of character creation only gives you the ability to select your race, a few skin shades, a few hair styles, and horns if it fits your race. Where are the tattoos? Where are the scars? What about body type or, once you buy them, more visible body augmentations?
It’s a shame that a game so much about letting you delve and become ingrained into the world doesn’t let you make the character more your own. Graphic woes also extend to battle animations, which are very wooden. Running and swinging melee weapons look strange, and there isn’t a dodge animation at all. I know this isn’t a giant, AAA, full price release, but these would have been awesome things to see improvement on.
Balanced classes, better sense of “team”, top notch writing, and a more narratively open campaign.
Some visual and aural elements fall short.