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Shadowrun Dragonfall Review: Running in Berlin
When Harebrained Schemes reintroduced gamers to the cyberpunk-meets-mysticism world of Shadowrun last year with Shadowrun: Returns (read our review), they proved that the semi-obscure tactical RPG series still had both plenty to offer gamers and plenty to offer storytellers looking to build content through the game’s comprehensive level designer. It’s both a shame and a delight then, that Shadowrun: Dragonfall pushes the boundaries of the game’s engine yet fails to produce anything truly memorable.
One of the biggest things that stuck with me when I played Shadowrun: Returns was the sense of great potential that the game showed off. While the game’s single-player campaign was to many a frustratingly linear affair, this linearity allowed the game to act as a compelling demonstration of the things that Harebrained Schemes engine was capable of. In Dragonfall, Harebrained Schemes have listened to fan complaints about this linearity and more or less abandoned it for a more open approach to level design that allows for multiple ways through levels and a lot of side content in the game that’s there for those who want it but not in the way of those who want to blast their way from the game. However, this new approach to level design pushes the game’s engine to its limits and the cool expansive story of Dragonfall feels constrained as a result. In short, there’s a lot of cool ideas in Dragonfall that are held back by the limits of the engine and there isn’t much evidence that Harebrained Schemes really tried to overcome these limits.
Combat is more or less the same as Returns – which is more than a little disappointing. I felt like Returns got away with being a lighter version of X-COM in it’s combat because it was more focused on proving the viability of the Shadowrun setting than it was providing a deep and meaningful tactical strategy game but going into Dragonfall I got bored of the combat very quickly. There are a handful of new enemy types in the game but they only really show up in closing stretches of the campaign and don’t so much challenge you as they frustrate you. It wouldn’t take all that much to spice up the game’s combat – some new skills or classes would have been great. Even some sort of dual wielding or weapon-mods system could have breathed new life into the game’s combat, unfortunately there’s little innovation to be found here.
That said, the core appeal of the Shadowrun revival has always been the narrative and in a lot of ways Dragonfall builds on the successes of Returns’ story whilst addressing some of its weaknesses. The game opens with the player taking part in a routine robbery of an old manor that goes wrong and ends with someone dead and the rest of your squad tangled up in a conspiracy with a presumed-dead dragon known as The Firewing. In comparison to Returns, Dragonfall is structured around a hub world through which the game’s missions are accessed and it’s clear that the developers learned a lot from the criticisms of the first game’s campaign. Players have a lot more freedom and can choose which missions to go on and in what order. Furthermore, Harebrained Schemes have taken a page from Bioware’s books and allowed you to talk and develop your relationship with your fellow squadmates – it’s a nice addition and I particularly liked Eiger and Glory as characters. As with Returns, the game’s story is pretty heavy in terms of the amount of reading you’ll have to do but it absolutely nails the same style and consistency that Returns showcased. It really captures the vibe of a good pen and paper RPG and that’s something I can definitely appreciate. Where Returns introduced the world of Shadowrun, Dragonfall expands the scope significantly and introduces the kind of fun and memorable cast that the first game lacked.
Once again, the visual style and soundtrack of Shadowrun really help bring the world to life. The crisp detailed visuals work well to convey the unique patchwork of architecture that Berlin is host to and it’s definitely refreshing to have some new environments to explore since the campaign of Returns – ‘Dead Man’s Switch’ – did feature a fair bit of asset re-use. The game runs smoothly and I didn’t encounter any technical issues during my time with the game. Dragonfall also addresses the check point issues that Returns had and while that’s nice, I find it hard to praise them for meeting what’s more-or-less considered the minimum standard of being able to save anywhere.
For a game roughly the same length as its predecessor, Shadowrun: Dragonfall is a little bit disappointing. While they managed to nail the style and atmosphere of the Shadowrun setting a second time round, it’s a shame Harebrained Schemes have brought almost nothing new to the table. Where Returns showed the promise of their engine, the ambitious narrative of Dragonfall is constantly pushing up against the constraints of it.
A copy of the game was provided by the developers for the purposes of this review.
You can check out Leviathyn’s review of Dragonfall’s predecessor here.