Review: Shadowrun Dragonfall – Director’s Cut Edition

Part old-school roleplaying game, part turn-based strategy game, Shadowrun: Dragonfall is a well-executed blend of many good things with an excellent fantasy-cyberpunk setting thrown into the concoction.

 

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Released: 2014

It’s truly hard to describe what Harebrained Scheme’s Shadowrun: Dragonfall is all about in a few words. Set in a futuristic world where magic, dragons and ‘metahuman’ orcs, dwarves, trolls, and elves have suddenly re-emerged and exist alongside humans,  you have a setting resembling a meld between Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings with something along the lines of Neil Blomkamps’s Elysium.

And that’s not the only thing: mega corporations now dominate civilized society and possess their own private armies, with rival firms attempting to out-do one another through corporate espionage or direct force, adding a dystopian twist to this complex universe where morality exists in shades of grey.

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Dragonfall is set in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, now part of the anarchic Flux State. Note the city crest’s rifle addition and the strange-looking, meta-human inhabitants dressed in urban wear.

So where do you fit in this interesting mess? You’re a Shadowrunner, a mercenary who thrives precisely on the shady business driving this world. A lucrative but risky trade, Shadowrunners often take up contracts that range from assassinations, cover-ups, to corporate espionage regardless of the nature of the client.

The story of the game begins when a mission goes horribly wrong and ends up frying the brain of your team leader. In her dying moments, she utters a clue which gradually links to a greater conspiracy that threatens the world. And that’s where you – the unlikely savior (or not) from the criminal underworld – step forth to lead your team in a race against time to prevent an impending catastrophe.

An enjoyable story with interesting meanders and significant decision-making, expect to spend over 30+ hours on the game as you delve deeper into this content-rich world.

Also, as the game progresses at a rather relaxed pace, it is recommended that one should take it slow with Dragonfall instead of blazing through the campaign in a single playthrough for the best experience.

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That’s what happens if you play games continuously for 72 hours, kids.

From the adopted graphic style, it is quite evident that Shadowrun: Dragonfall does not possess the luxurious production value enjoyed by its triple-A counterparts. Nevertheless, the game more than makes up for this lack with its strong attention to detail:

While yes, the character models and the overall art style may look slightly cartoonish, the profiles of the characters you interact with are immaculately drawn, with everyone you meet having a very different appearance.

The game’s urban environments are also highly diverse and similar to character design, possess a polished appearance with no two areas reusing the same visual aspects. The game even includes several landmarks of Berlin, such as the iconic Siegessäule (Statue of Victory), actual U-Bahn stations and districts as in-game locations – a nice touch with regards to establishing Dragonfall’s German setting.

Altogether, this game is still a pleasant sight to behold. It may not be a title that gives a cutting-edge graphics card a run for its money, but it has an undeniable visual charm.

Not quite the victorious look I was expecting.
Not quite the victorious look, but the heart put into this is quite commendable.

The user interface is also highly-intuitive and sleekly designed. Translating experience points (karma) earned from combat into attributes and skills is a streamlined experience without the daunting numerical guesswork typical of traditional roleplaying games – an unfortunate flaw blockbuster games like Fallout and Dragon Age: Origins are guilty of.

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The effects of what you choose to level up is clearly indicated in the interface, simply mouse over the buttons. A fuss-free design choice perfect for newcomers.
Barring the ridiculous outfit, “THE NUMBERS…WHAT DO THEY MEAN?!” (Dragon Age: Origins screenshot courtesy of Google Images)

Writing, in particular, is among Shadowrun: Dragonfall’s strongest points. I dare say that the immersion within this game triumphs that of The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim based on stellar writing alone: The text-based narrative style employed in describing actions and locations is vivid and highly imaginative, and conversations between characters feel fluid with many unique responses to choose from.

As such, the character story arcs – while already interesting missions in their own right – are further brought to life with intriguing dialogue, creating a sense of attachment between the player and the main characters.

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“Trust is so 2053.” Pretty hilarious.

There are even times when seemingly-straightforward decisions put forth to the player become really hard to make because of excellent written expression. The fact that a game can create such thought-provoking moments filled with moral dilemmas through text alone proves testament to its developers’ commitment to quality storytelling.

With regards to gameplay, Dragonfall takes its cue from the combat in XCOM. Opting for the turn-based tactical model where taking cover and flanking the enemy are essential for surviving a confrontation, combat is challenging and players must make occasionally risky calls to emerge victorious – a healthy tension that makes for good fun.

Additionally, story missions are highly varied, with several having surprising plot twists and unique mechanics, one even involves the infiltration of a mega-corporation’s headquarters to steal a remote-controlled, chaingun-toting troll that can be hacked by enemies.

From quietly skulking the corridors of a corporate office to all-out gang war in the streets, “dull” is the last thing I’d call this game.

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“Which targets to prioritize? Is it worth going into the open to attempt a winning shot? Should this spell be saved for later? Do I activate my cybernetic abilities now? Melee or range?” – Plenty of tactical decisions, plenty of tension.

The music in Shadowrun: Dragonfall is above average and jives well with the futuristic context of the game. A mixture of synth tunes and electronic beats which changes according to whether one is idling or in a combat, Dragonfall’s audio hits the right notes at the right time.

While yes, great effort has been put into producing quality writing and gameplay, the same level of attention is lacking in the bugs department. Towards the latter end of the game, I kept encountering a game-stalling bug which rendered Dragonfall unable to register any form of action or mouse clicks in-game.

This bug, which happens due to a clash between saved data and the game’s scripted portions, stalled one particularly difficult mission and forced a complete restart of the level.

Luckily, this was successfully resolved by allowing “Steam beta participation” under the game platform’s user settings – a solution suggested by the developers. Thereafter, the bug occurrences were pretty much non-existent, preserving the positive gameplay experience.

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“A few minutes of cursing” is pretty much my reaction having encountered the occasional game-stalling bug. Fortunately, no rivets on my CPU were “popped” out of frustration.

Overall, for someone who has never ventured into the Shadowrun franchise, this has been an interesting journey filled with defining moments: Only in this universe can one roll as a bad@#$ implant-loaded dwarf who peppers enemies with bullets and ordnance through the use of hi-tech drones – and that’s just one out of the many unique ways you can customize your character.

Considering the multiple playstyles and story paths available to the player, Shadowrun: Dragonfall possesses a strong replayability factor that greatly extends its shelf life. I for one am pretty sure that I’ll revisit this game sometime soon.

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One gangsta-looking dwarven punk. Don’t mess with Class-S, ‘nom sayin.

Truly a world of its own and rightfully so, Shadowrun: Dragonfall sets a high benchmark for the indie game industry in creating high quality content on a medium/low-budget.

With this, one can bet with absolute certainty that the upcoming Shadowrun title: Shadowrun: Hong Kong will be watched with great interest and anticipation. (Well, if not by others, than at least by yours truly.)

And now, the final verdict:

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A

Providing a fun, tailor-made experience priced at a reasonable S$15.00, Shadowrun: Dragonfall is a solid, affordable game that earns itself an outstanding A grade.

Definitely worth playing.

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