Translating the rich lore of a tabletop setting into the constrained limitations of a video game can be a brutal balancing act. How do you make the leap from one audience to the next without alienating anyone? It's a question that Shadowrun has struggled with in its two decades of history. It started out as something that Jordan Weisman and his team at FASA thought would be cool: merging magic with Gibsonesque cyberpunk.
The convoluted history of FASA's Shadowrun and Mechwarrior would eventually drop into Microsoft's lap. Although its iteration of Shadowrun was a multiplayer FPS in 2007, a lot of fans wished it had been an RPG, much like what its predecessors.
Eventually, Weisman managed to license the game rights for Shadowrun from Microsoft and launched a successful Kickstarter that would let his team at Harebraned Schemes build Shadowrun Returns.
Returns comes off as something of a "lite" version of X-Com adapted for Shadowrun's world with a heavily linear campaign. You can develop your character with a diverse set of specializations and a range of skill upgrades and stats. The game might not turn you into a walking god, but focusing on a group of skills can make your character the very best at what he or she does. It delivers enough of a challenge laced with tabletop lore as a team-based tactical RPG. With the Dragonfall campaign add-on, it really feels like Shadowrun has returned to its roots.
It doesn't dramatically change the core mechanics, and you don't need to play Returns, even though the content is required. The tutorial in the Dead Man's Switch campaign can help. Experience isn't earned by how many notches you score in combat — and there's a lot of it. Instead, it mirrors Shadowrun's concept of awarding karma points, which are used for upgrades, for specific acts, such as optionally talking your way past an NPC without killing everyone. You may even be rewarded for showing a little compassion or using a key etiquette skill at a particular moment. As violent as Shadowrun's world of 2054 is, it doesn't often make it a point to reward shooting first and looting later, unless it's part of the job.
Beyond that, a lot has changed for the better. Unlike the first game, where you were relatively forced to go from one mission to the next, Dragonfall gives you a "hub" and more of a choice about which missions to tackle.
The world has had decades to digest what the Awakening has changed since 2012. Everyone's gotten used to the new status quo: elves dressed in the latest styles, dwarves bouncing drunks from nightclubs, and dragons in the boardroom. Shadowrunners are the troubleshooters that the rich hire to handle things that require more finesse: assassinations, breaking and entering, data theft, personnel extraction, etc. The maze of legal twists and turns has made 'running something of a cottage industry.
Dragonfall starts off with a run gone wrong that ultimately kills your best buddy and team leader, Monica. She put you in charge of watching her meat body and her team while she ran through cyberspace, but something fries her mind and everyone hastily retreats. In the tutorial, you're thrown into the deep end and tasked with finding your way back to home base, the Kreuzbasar suburb of Berlin.
The team decides that it needs to find out what happened, but not everyone is onboard with you as the acting leader. Harebraned has dramatically expanded NPC interactions over those in Returns. Players who thought the first campaign was too soft on lore and NPCs are going to get a full smorgasbord of both. A few choices have consequences and repercussions down the line, and it plants a lot of seeds that modders can expand upon with the free campaign-building tools that are included with the full game.
There's no character import by default, so Returns veterans may be disappointed unless they mod their way past it. The game, like the original campaign, is balanced from the outset and allows a player to customize a tough toon and distribute some karma points to bring them up to speed.
Dragonfall's isometric world has also been given more material now that the tale is set in Berlin. New tile sets, gear, and merchants are found in the Kreuzbasar, along with some side-missions that can be done for a little extra karma or cash. Ultimately, the jobs you take will go toward a massive ¥50,000 payoff to an information broker that might have the answers the team seeks. Getting there runs players through a gauntlet of missions, and Harebraned filled in all of shadowrunning's gray blanks with plenty of character.
Longtime fans will get a kick out of seeing familiar names from the 2054 era of the tabletop series when they hit up the Shadowland BBS in-game. Players who remember the running commentary from the sourcebooks will appreciate the references or cringe at the mention of Aztechnology: all deeply rooted hooks to give new players the high-level view of what the Shadowrun world is about in the 15 hours (or so) that it takes to get through Dragonfall.
The tactical system is turn-based around action points that cover everything from reloading a weapon, moving to position, using a healing pack, or casting magic. Everything costs points, though most actions only need one. The more powerful spells can cost more, so planning ahead is a necessity.
Like in any tactical system worth its salt, functional cover and assembling a competent team are key to Dragonfall. Up to three others can tag along with your main character, whether they're from the team you start with or those temporarily hired at the start of a mission. You must have the funds, but the default members from the start of the game are free, pretty competent, provide a lot of backstory to explore.
As far as the enemy AI is concerned, it's something of a mixed bag. It occasionally allows you to lure them on through a "door of death" or a choke point despite the existence of an alternate route. Later on, magic creatures can be the most dangerous things on the battlefield, along with the mages that summon them. It's one thing to face a guy with an assault rifle, but it's quite another to face one buffed by magic.
The tactical system used in Shadowrun Returns/Dragonfall is pretty simple. There's no default formation that you need to mess with or ammo to consider. Firefights can also get hectic, and reinforcements can flood an area and rush your squad if you're not careful. It's functional without being too complicated but provides just enough challenge to keep players on their toes.
Outside of combat, team management options are mostly nonexistent, which is a little disappointing. My team members ran with some decent firepower, but if you have access to a good upgrade that you want to pass on to your permanent members, there's no way to give it to them. This could be chalked up to each character functioning as an independent entity that's capable of doing his or her own thing, but at the same time, it makes little sense to pass up good hardware. Looting corpses is also still nonexistent because they simply evaporate when killed, so that doesn't change from Returns.
Unlike in Returns, fans can finally save anywhere with Dragonfall — or with the patch that arrived prior to its release. Hitting F5 instantly saves, even during combat in case you move your characters to a spot that gets them slaughtered in the next round. Previously, players had to wait until transitioning to another level or area to save, and those saves only went as far back as the previous checkpoint, which could have been at the start of a level.
In something of a long-delayed homecoming, Dragonfall's campaign easily feels like it was lifted from Shadowrun's pen-and-paper world. Its tactical, team-based battles, character development system, and gray morality make it not only a fitting addition to the Shadowrun universe, but also a decent tactical RPG in its own right.
For players who may never had heard of Shadowrun, Dragonfall is a firm introduction to what the world is all about. In many ways, it finally fulfills the promise of a real sequel. It won't brutalize players who are new to tactical gaming, and it won't stop veterans cold, but Dragonfall does an awesome job of translating Shadowrun's world into a digital battlefield fraught with shady choices.
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